An Idyllwild Chamber of Commerce with 700 members? Dream on! And yet.....

Our Chamber’s recent demise piqued my curiosity about its origin. I found evidence that it existed as early as 1931, when Idyllwild was beginning to outgrow its identity as more or less a “company town,” benevolently directed by C. L. Emerson’s Idyllwild Inc., whose Idyllwild Inn resort gave the village its commercial and social focus. But until October 1946, when the local newspaper was launched, records are scant.

To interpret subsequent history, I should note at this point that local Chambers of Commerce exist to represent and serve the business community. They are neither agencies of government nor better business bureaus. Any involvement they have in promoting tourism serves primarily to enhance local businesses.

From this perspective, the early Idyllwild Chamber appears to have been an odd creation, designed primarily to occupy a vacuum resulting from lack of a local government.

Its first lasting achievement was creation of Town Hall, which made tangible the Chamber’s role as a vehicle for addressing any and all community issues. A laundry list of such issues from the early postwar years would include a sanitation district, a zoning plan, regulating logging and sale of public land, hunting in game refuges, winter sports in primitive areas, watershed protection and flood control, among many others.

During that era the Chamber sponsored a Boy Scout troop, petitioned for crossing guards to protect school children from logging trucks, and endorsed reforestation with sequoia trees.

Its Wildlife a nd Conservation Committee spun off as the Izaak Walton League chapter that would channel environmental protection efforts in the San Jacinto Mountains for decades to come.

It’s hard to argue with success. By the time the organization was formally incorporated in 1946, it had amassed 465 members, making it the largest Chamber of Commerce in Riverside County, bar none. The majority, however, were individual members with no connection to a business or profession. A provision for proxy voting even encouraged off-Hill residents to join.

Although the Chamber of the early 1950s did sponsor tourist-attracting festivals, assess feasibility of downtown curbs and sidewalks, and publicize Idyllwild with highway signs, brochures and fair booths, it seemed increasingly preoccupied with operating and expanding Town Hall. But after membership topped 700 in 1954 (in a community with a resident population of less than a thousand), its popularity began to erode.

While Chamber leaders were touting the organization as the “practical government of the Idyllwild area,” the business community was growing disenchanted with the concept. Division in the ranks erupted in 1956, when many of the village’s business leaders bolted to form a rival “Chamber of Commerce of the San Jacinto Mountains.”

Although 555 members remained with the Idyllwild Chamber of Commerce, the new group quickly demonstrated that it was a force to contend with. Its first project was launching the long-running Idyllwild Bear Festival.

Two years of public confusion over competing Chambers of Commerce finally brought the groups to their senses. In 1958 representatives of both came together to explore reunification.

The result was a mutually proposed set of bylaw changes that would discourage nonresident membership and return the business community to a dominant role within a single Chamber. Feelings were intense. In one public debate Betty Maxwell argued against the reunification proposal, while Ernie Maxwell supported it — and the outcome was in doubt until the final vote.

The episode offers a lesson to the next group to emerge, as one inevitably will, to revive a Chamber of Commerce here on the Hill.