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Feature on Commercial Club. Topic: INDUSTRY & ORGANIZATION
Written by Rich Wallace in March, 1998


At the annual banquet of the Sidney-Shelby Chamber of Commerce, equal measures of accolades for past accomplishments and predictions of a rosy economic future were handed out. The work of several chamber committees was recognized. The night was highlighted by the presentation of the Zenith award for community service to Patrick Milligan. He was honored for decades of volunteer work, much of it in the area of business development. Milligan's record of service brings back memories of an era in Sidney history when the top business leaders in the community considered it a sacred responsibility to work collectively for the common good of the community. This is the story of their efforts and the organization they founded.

Six years after the founding of the Sidney Commercial Club, Sidney attorney Hugh Doorley addressed those attending its annual banquet concerning the genesis of the club. "Each and every community, whether great or small, has a few, and only a few, original, independent and constructive thinkers," he said. It was decided to gather Sidney's "leading citizens...representing its industrial, commercial and professional life to be utilized as a potent factor in promoting the future welfare of Sidney."

The first meeting of the Sidney Commercial Club was held on February 20, 1903. (The club was a successor organization of the Board of Improvement, which was formed in 1891, and had been responsible for bringing several new businesses to Sidney). The leaders who gathered to set up the club read like a ‘who's who’ of business leaders in Sidney at the time: James Anderson, president of Anderson Body Company, B. M. Donaldson, the owner of the Bryant and Donaldson Broom factory, William Haslup of the Haslup foundry, William Piper, the proprietor of Piper's Dry Goods, and E. J. Griffis, the owner of Griffis Brothers grain merchants and general 'deal maker' in the business community.

The first president of this august group was none other that I. H. Thedieck, the owner of Thedieck's Department Store and future founder of Monarch Machine Tool Company. James Anderson was the vice-president, and Ben Wagner (Wagner Manufacturing), Judge J. D. Barnes, and William Haslup were among the directors.

From the power of these assembled business leaders came a vision for the community that had never been created before. These men were serious about making an impact in the community. They decided to sell stock in the club, and promptly raised $5,000. Eighty-eight members enlisted at the first meeting. Each paid an initiation fee of $25 and annual dues of $10 per year. At that meeting, the members voted to lease space for the club in the Harry G. Wagner post office building for not one, but five years to serve as club headquarters. A long range plan was developed that called for the creation of fifteen committees.

One year after the founding of the Commercial Club, another election of officers was held. The power of the club was consolidated with the installation of E. J. Griffis, James Anderson, William Piper, William Carothers of Buckeye Churn, J. B. Tucker, president of Tucker Woodworking and Charles Benjamin, president of Benjamin 'D' Handle factory as officers and directors.

The succeeding years saw a continuation of successful and powerful business and professional leaders take turns as officers and committee chairmen of the Commercial Club. William Wagner, president of Wagner Manufacturing and the First National Bank, John Given of the Given and Sons Tannery, local corporate attorney A. J. Hess, Judge H. T. Mathers, Dr. H E. Beebe, W. H. C. Goode, retailer Web Sterline, insurance man H. E. Bennet, and financier and Peoples Savings and Loan founder L. M. Studevant were all integrally involved.

Hugh Doorley, during his remarks at the banquet in 1909, talked about the type of irresistible force that could be created by such a cadre of community leaders: "And of this, let me assure you: when a hundred or more of leading citizens of any community...with the unanimity of purpose and concerted action, determine to do, or oppose a particular thing, a living force is thus put in motion, that becomes unstoppable."

From the beginning, the scope of the Commercial Club's activities was unprecedented. Club members were in charge of the downtown Memorial Day observances for years, and orchestrated the welcoming home celebration for First World War troops. Proper care of the courthouse grounds was handled by the club. Literary and debate events were scheduled in the community. Railroad improvements in town by the Big Four and the C. H. and D. lines were demanded and then carefully supervised by Commercial Club members.

It seemed no detail was too small to escape the ambit of the club's actions. When the topic of whether or not the Poplar Street bridge over the canal should be 63 or 99 feet, a City Council committee meeting was held in March of 1907. Attending and speaking in support of the wider bridge were Commercial Club members and industrial heavyweights I. H. Thedieck, W. H. Wagner, C. F. Hickok, president of Hickok Candy Company, and Civil War hero Capt. E. E. Nutt. The wider bridge was built.

The names of the committees reveals the scope of the activities of the club and the interests of its members. The New Ideas committee developed new and innovative plans for the town. The Safety committee investigated the issue of fire protection for the houses on the hills in Sidney. The committee on Shade Trees, chaired by attorney S. L. Wicoff, oversaw the planting of shade trees in Sidney that we enjoy to this day.

The committees on Streets and New Taxation worked on recommendations to improve the condition of the town streets with funds raised by the Commercial Club. The idea of adopting daylight savings time in Sidney was also proposed by a committee of the club. Ideas ebbed and flowed from the committees on sanitation, civic improvement, public safety, municipal affairs, advertising, public playgrounds, labor, legislation, industrial, and many others.

Involvement with the Commercial Club for most of its members meant a commitment of a decade or more. Even though men like I. H. Thedieck, W. H. Wagner, James Anderson L. M. Studevant and A. J. Hess served as president of the Commercial Club and had daily responsibilities running their own businesses, they stayed involved in club activities. These men served as members of various committees years after the presidency of the Commercial Club had ended.

Club members focused on social issues as well. The Commercial Club funded the hiring of a community nurse. In a report to the club's membership in 1917, nurse Williams explained that her job was not so much to care for the sick, but " show the people how to live and care for themselves to keep from getting sick." Concern for the high cost of living during the First World War prompted the club to fund the distribution of free seed for family gardens in the city.

Entertainment and education were on the agenda of the Commercial Club as well. The members maintained social rooms in their rented space, where their wives were occasionally welcomed. With some regularity, club members participated in excursions to area industries, such as the National Cash Register Company of Dayton trip in 1904.

As was the case with the Board of Improvement, much of the club's efforts were geared towards creating a climate that would attract and foster the growth of businesses. Between these two groups, attractive financing packages were assembled that resulted in such companies as the Bimel Buggy Company and Mutual Manufacturing Company moving to Sidney. Loans to the companies were arranged directly through the Commercial Club.

Another outstanding accomplishment of the club was the successful recruitment of the Sidney Tool Company. Within a short time, the company was doing an immense business in manufacturing and shipping a line of woodworking tools. Commercial Club members carefully investigated companies prior to their recruitment. However, all of the acquisitions were not successes. After about seven years in Sidney, the Bimel business went under.

New businesses meant more workers, which in turn created a need for housing. The Commercial Club members saw this need developing and addressed it. L. M. Studevant was the chairman of the Workman's Home Building committee. His committee made investigated ways to construct 300 new homes in 1916 that were needed to house the new workers who would be coming to Sidney.

The Commercial Club members were proactive in their efforts to retain local industry as well. A court-appointed receiver took over the operation of the Given Tannery in 1917. Commercial Club members Judge Barnes, A. J. Hess, and C. F. Hickok organized a community effort, forming a new company to take over the tannery business. The editor of the Shelby County Democrat warned in a March 15, 1918, article that "Unless such a company is immediately formed, the business will be closed down and discontinued." Sidney citizens bought stock in the new venture, and the tannery survived.

The impact of the Commercial Club on Sidney and its residents was positive and noticeable. An editorial appeared in the Bellefontaine newspaper in the spring of 1909, praising the work of the club in Sidney, and encouraging the Bellefontaine community leaders to emulate Sidney's success. At the 1909 annual banquet in Sidney, leaders from Bellefontaine and Troy were invited to attend and learn about the concept of engaging top local corporate and professional leadership to tackle community problems.

It was in all respects a night for the residents of Sidney to be proud. The leaders of the other towns listened to the accomplishments of the Sidney club, and then rose to praise the spirit of volunteerism among Sidney's leaders. Roy Blessing of Bellefontaine stated that "Bellefontaine people are glad of Sidney's rapid growth and continued progress in business and manufacturing lines and our wish is that good fortune may never forsake you..."As a comic aside he added: "May you never have a more bitter pill to swallow than to adapt yourselves to circumstances brought about by the extension of Bellefontaine's western limits to gather in Sidney and her excellent citizenry!"

Many more significant accomplishments lay ahead for the members of the Commercial Club. Ultimately, other organizations were developed to take the club's place, but none matched the record of commitment by Commercial Club members to the daily community issues of their time.

There is a history lesson here. The key to community betterment then was the personal, long-term commitment of top business and professional leaders. The same is true today. Pat Milligan is the most recent in a long line of leaders, without whom Sidney would not be the same today.


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