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Lansing’s Early Years

It was in the middle of the 1835-1836 winter that two brothers arrived and plotted the area now known as REO Town, just south of what is today downtown Lansing. The brothers called it Biddle City, although the area consisted of nothing but trees and low flood plain land. The brothers then went home to Lansing, New York and essentially conned 16 men into buying plots in the new, non-existent city. When these 16 men arrived to find the new city did not exist, a few left, but most stayed, moved north, and named the area Lansing Township after their hometown. When the state constitution of 1847 required the state capital be moved out of Detroit to a more central location, the Michigan House of Representatives chose the Township of Lansing. Two months later, Governor Greenly signed into law the act making Township of Lansing the state capital.

By 1859, three settlements had essentially formed in Lansing Township, having a combined population of about 3,000 people. The settlements were commonly known as Lower Town, where Old Town stands today; Upper Town, where REO Town now stands; and Middle Town, where downtown Lansing now stands. These three "towns” were officially named Lansing in 1848.

Lansing’s Early Businesses

In the 1850s, businesses really started to blossom in Lansing. One of those businesses was the Thoman Milling Company. By the late 1860s, the Bement family, with C.E. Bement as manager and in their newly erected foundry at the corner of Grant and Ionia Streets, began the manufacture of heating and cooking stoves under the firm name of E. Bement & Sons. As railroads and plank roads were built, Lansing grew even faster and in 1878, the current capital building was completed.

Lansing Improvement Association

In the early 1870s, the leading businessmen in Lansing recognized that for Lansing to grow, it still needed to attract additional businesses and industry. One of those businessmen was John J. Bush, president of Lansing National Bank and later, founder of Central Michigan Savings Bank. He had many joint ventures with Edward W. Sparrow, also a leading businessman in Lansing at the time. With the leadership of Bush as president and Sparrow as secretary/treasurer, the Lansing Improvement Association (LIA) was formed. They published a forty-page book extolling Lansing as the capital of Michigan and as a center of trade and manufacturing. The association primarily focused on developing the Butler section of town, located northwest of the capitol. However, the association soon became inactive and went out of business.

With the construction of the capital, industry recognized that Lansing was not only the seat of government, but also a prime location for manufacturing. This resulted in the population of Lansing growing to almost 8,000. In 1881, E.W. Sparrow and C.B. Stebbins created the Lansing Wheelbarrow Company, and in less than 10 years, the plant grew to 6 acres in size and was producing 80,000 wheelbarrows a year. That same year, Frederick Thoman created Lansing Wagon Works, and within 10 years, was manufacturing 5,000 wagons and carriages annually. By 1887, the Michigan Condensed Milk Co. was producing a million cans of condensed milk in its Lansing factory. In 1891, Michigan Millers Insurance Company was founded and the W.K. Prudden-led Michigan Wheel Company would eventually grow into the largest wheel manufacturer in the world. It was 1897 when Ransom E. Olds founded Olds Motor Vehicle Company and drove his first car on Lansing streets, cementing the relationship between Lansing and auto manufacturing.

The Second Lansing Improvement Association

Despite the growth of many businesses and the success of Ransom E. Olds and other entrepreneurs, the business community recognized the need to continue to attract businesses to Lansing. In 1892, Sparrow called a meeting of businessmen, including E.F. Cooley, H.H. Larned, Fred Thoman, and J. E. Roe, to discuss how to promote Lansing as a center of commerce. By May of that year, twenty businessmen agreed to buy 20 shares of stock for twenty-five dollars per share in an association, raising $10,000 and launching the Second Lansing Improvement Association. The stated purpose of the association was "...for the promotion of Lansing’s general good and to assist in the honorable ways to increase her industries and to aid in procuring the funds necessary for same...” Sparrow was elected president, a position he would hold until 1906, when all of the assets of the association, including 102 residential lots, were transferred to the Lansing Business Men’s Association, which eventually became the Lansing Chamber in 1912.

The Lansing Business Men’s Association

By 1900, Lansing’s population was booming and had reached over 16,000 people. But, the business leaders in Lansing knew the city had not recognized its full potential and that the Second Lansing Improvement Association needed help. On January 4, 1901, 65 men met at the Grand River Boat Club to form a new group to further grow the business base in Lansing. E. S. Porter, President of the Grand River Boat Club, called the meeting to order. H.H. Larned was asked to chair the first meeting of the Lansing Business Men’s Association (LBMA). The men in attendance agreed to pay an "entrance fee" of $1.00 a piece and the first board of directors was elected consisting of: Frederick Thoman, president; Lawrence Price; Harris E. Thomas, vice president; A.A. Piatt; J. Edward Roe, treasurer; and Clarence E. Bement. The job of secretary was offered to and accepted by O.A. Jenison at the salary of $20.00/month. The primary reason for the association’s founding was to lure R.E. Olds back to Lansing when Olds had taken in financial backers who ended up taking control and moving Olds’ company.

Over the next 11 years, the LBMA was the engine that catapulted Lansing into one of the leading industrial and manufacturing centers in the United States. The LBMA was single handedly responsible for bringing countless businesses to Lansing. Most notably, at the July 1901 meeting, it was decided that the LBMA would purchase the fairground property in Lansing for $5,000.00 for the purposes of luring Olds Motor Works back to Lansing from Detroit. Two years later, Olds Motor Works purchased the land and the LBMA agreed to construct the first building on the site - Plant #1 stood until 2007. In the years that followed, the LBMA made similar deals to lure companies to Lansing such as Keokuk Canning Company, the Pere Marquette Railroad and Peninsular Manufacturing Company. In 1905, the LBMA accepted bids for the construction of the first hard surface road between Lansing and the Michigan State Agricultural College. In 1906, the LBMA purchased 102 vacant lots from the Second Lansing Improvement Association to continue to use land to lure other businesses to town. In 1908, the LMBA agreed to donate land to the Reliance Motor Car Company of Detroit in exchange for the company locating in Lansing near St. Joseph Street. In April 1908, the LBMA announced the merger between Thoman’s Lansing Wagon Works and E.S. Porter’s Lansing Spoke Company and Ionia Wagon Works.

The Chamber’s Formation

In late 1911, the businessmen of Lansing recognized the need to once again update its association and thought the chamber of commerce model showed the most promise. On January 15, 1912, businessmen such as J.H. Moores, R.E. Olds, J. Edward Roe and O.A. Jenison, called a meeting and decided to officially change the name of the Lansing Business Men’s Association to the Lansing Chamber of Commerce. J.H. Moores was elected president; W.K. Prudden, vice president; Fred Hopkins treasurer; and O.A. Jenison as secretary.

R.E. Olds, the outgoing 1911 president of the Lansing Business Men’s Association, who was the premier businessman of Lansing at the time, paid for the dinner. Olds is credited as being the primary moving force behind the formation of countless businesses and the construction of many buildings in Lansing, including the Capital National Bank (later called Lansing National Bank and Michigan National Bank), Michigan Screw Company, Atlas Drop Forge Company, the Olds Tower (now Boji Tower), and Hotel Olds, located at 111 South Capitol Avenue. Today, this building is known as the George W. Romney Building, where the office of the Governor of Michigan is located.

The Chamber’s First 50 Years

Over the decades that followed, the Lansing Chamber was always in the forefront of business advocacy and creation. In the 1920s, the Chamber is credited with creating the airport and its first hanger, at what is today the Capital Region International Airport. The Chamber hired the first Traffic Commissioner for Lansing to act as the City’s representative in all rate hearings and similar matters before the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Michigan Public Utilities Commission and other similar bodies. The Chamber managed the Prudden Auditorium, a gift to the City from past Chamber president W.H. Prudden. In the 1930s, the Chamber took the lead in gaining approval for the construction of the Federal Building in downtown Lansing. During the years of the Second World War, the Chamber was busy encouraging and assisting businesses in the conversion to war-time production. In addition, the Chamber’s own secretary-manager C.W. Otto, served as chair of the war plant area rationing board, which employed over 100 people. The committee structure of the Chamber was particularly strong during the war years with substantial activity in its committees, including public affairs, industrial, national affairs, state capitol, vocational school and aviation. The Chamber headquarters also served as the office for the Lansing Safety Council.

In the fall of 1955, the Chamber moved its office from the 200 block of S. Walnut to the Veterans Office Building portion of the new Civic Center and also changed its name to the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Lansing. The 1950s and 1960s were still growth years for the auto industry in Lansing and the Chamber, but Lansing also saw substantial diversity in its business profile with major increases in the healthcare, higher education and insurance industries. In 1968, the Chamber absorbed the Downtown Business Association and the DBA officers were carried over as heads of newly created divisions of the Chamber. The officers were Donald Price of Lieberman’s; Robert Seaman of The Style Shop; and Robert Clark of Capitol Savings and Loan.

The Chamber’s Second 50 Years

In 1975, the Chamber again changed its name one final time to the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce. While the 1980s saw the closing of Knapp’s, Smalls, and the Michigan Theatre, the Chamber focused intently on increasing economic development. In 1980, the Lansing Metropolitan Development Authority, originally formed in 1962, was merged into the Chamber as a new department. The purpose of the new department was to pursue well-managed and well-financed economic development in the Lansing region. The Chamber elected its first female president, Nan Martin, in 1978 and Ernie Brown of Michigan National Bank became the first African American president of the Chamber in 1982.

In 1983, the Chamber, through the leadership of Martha Mertz, created the ATHENA Award and the ATHENA Foundation, which is the only international program in the world created by a City’s Chamber of Commerce. Since its inception, ATHENA has presented more than 6,000 awards in over 500 communities throughout the world. In 1992, the Chamber was instrumental in bringing the LPGA to Lansing with the Oldsmobile Classic. The Chamber’s annual budget grew to $3.4 million dollars and membership stood at 1,900.

In the late 1990's, Lansing faced the prospect of losing its General Motors operations. The Chamber joined forces with local business leaders and then-Mayor David Hollister, to create the Keep GM Task Force, which successfully convinced GM to invest in two new state-of-the-art auto production facilities in the Lansing region.

Chamber of the Future

Now, in the 21st century, the Chamber is still a vibrant part of the business community and is still recognized as the "voice of business” after more than 100 years of existence. Like all businesses, the Chamber has had to learn to be nimble and evolve. Social media has grown into a vital line of communication with our members and the greater Lansing community. Our Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn pages serve as everyday communication and relationship-building tools.

The Chamber was so proud to celebrate our 100th Annual Dinner in February 2012. Over 800 members of the Greater Lansing business community turned out to celebrate a century of business growth and support. We expect another century of leadership from the Chamber.

Looking ahead, I believe that the future success of our Chamber of Commerce will be determined by its strategic development into a major, respected, dynamic center of community influence focusing not just on traditional business issues but on the overall financial health and well-being of the community. 

It simply means that, in addition to its advocacy role, a progressive Chamber of Commerce will increase the size and scope of its membership umbrella by soliciting a more diverse membership and will understand and better energize the economic pulse of its community. 

In short, tomorrow’s Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce will have reinvented itself and repositioned itself to [a] more effectively serve the needs of its community and, most importantly, [b] take advantage of the profitable business opportunities this transition will provide.
*A substantial portion of these biographies were prepared by Patrick Hanes (Pres. 1988) from the files and records of the Lansing Regional Chamber as well as other public and private sources. Also providing significant assistance were Charles Blockett, Jr. (Pres. 2008), Jim Anderton (Pres. 1977), and Barbara Lezotte (Pres. 2003). The staff of the Lansing branch of the Capital Area District Library and the Chamber also assisted in the gathering of information. Great effort was made to provide accurate information, but if the reader finds any errors that should be corrected, please contact the Lansing Regional Chamber at (517) 487-6340. Without the financial support of Auto Owners Insurance and the R.E. Olds Foundation, these biographies would not have been published in the 100th anniversary Annual Dinner program.

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