It’s a big year for big birthdays in Lakes Country.

Detroit Lakes and Becker County have both been celebrating their 150th birthdays in 2021, and now there’s another milestone in the mix, with the Detroit Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce turning 100.

The Detroit Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce building at its Summit Avenue location today, in September 2021. (Marie Johnson / Tribune)
The Detroit Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce building at its Summit Avenue location today, in September 2021. (Marie Johnson / Tribune)

The chamber will be marking the occasion with a special centennial celebration this Thursday, Sept. 16 from 4:30-6:30 p.m. at The Meadows on Lind in Detroit Lakes. There’ll be door prizes, free hors d’oeuvres, live music and a cash bar.

“Everybody is welcome to come celebrate with us,” said chamber President Carrie Johnston. “Just call the chamber for tickets.”

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According to historical information provided by Johnston, the official beginnings of the local chamber date back to 1921, though there’s evidence that a more casual group was organized 15 years prior to that, in 1906.

Initially formed as the Commercial Club, the chamber’s first president was John K. West, an influential businessman who brought steamboats to the Pelican Valley chain of lakes, including Detroit Lake, and is now remembered as the “Father of Tourism” in the Detroit Lakes area.

In this photo from October 2, 1992, David Sohl, then-president of the Detroit Lakes Chamber, second from left, poses for a ribbon cutting ceremony with city, county and project leaders of a new Highway 10 bridge. (Submitted Photo)
In this photo from October 2, 1992, David Sohl, then-president of the Detroit Lakes Chamber, second from left, poses for a ribbon cutting ceremony with city, county and project leaders of a new Highway 10 bridge. (Submitted Photo)

The Commercial Club later changed its name to the Businessmen’s Club, and then, in 1935, to the Detroit Lakes Civic and Commerce Association. In those early days, there was no designated building for the group, and members met at different locations around town, including the Graystone Motel, Detroit State Bank, Viking Café and other local establishments.

The group worked closely with resort owners, lakeshore residents and city officials to develop the local tourist trade, advertising the attractions of the area in Twin Cities newspapers as well as in Iowa and Winnipeg.

“Detroit Lakes Chamber History,” a 1972 paper written by Ken Prentice, reveals that the chamber helped come up with the 1929 slogan that’s still used in local tourism promotions today: “412 lakes in a 25-mile radius.”

Chamber members also worked closely with nonprofit community groups, Prentice noted. In 1935, they worked with young men of the city to assist them in forming the Junior Chamber of Commerce, or Jaycees. And for years they contributed to the local Boy Scout, Girl Scout, Red Cross and 4-H programs.

The chamber also had a hand in early-days community projects and developments, such as the Becker County Fair, highway development, golf, Derby Day, fishing derbies, ski tourneys, Itasca Park, and city campsite conventions. Today’s chamber continues this tradition, overseeing the annual Festival of Birds, Art in the Park, Cruise DL Nights, economic development summit, women’s speaker series, and SPLASH Awards.

A newspaper clipping from the Jan. 16, 1941 Detroit Lakes Tribune shows how the Chamber of Commerce was working back then to collaborate with other community groups. (Detroit Lake Tribune Archives)
A newspaper clipping from the Jan. 16, 1941 Detroit Lakes Tribune shows how the Chamber of Commerce was working back then to collaborate with other community groups. (Detroit Lake Tribune Archives)

Over the course of the chamber's history, Johnston reflected, “We have been the springboard for some things that have happened in the community; things like Polar Fest, Dick Beardsley… things that outgrew us -- and that’s a good thing. We like to be involved in lots of different things.”

“The chamber likes to be as collaborative as we can,” she added. “We always look for opportunities to be innovative and to collaborate with the community. If there’s a need, we like to work together.”

As the Detroit Lakes community has grown and changed over the past century, so, too, has the chamber. In the early 1930s, the chamber office was so small -- a closet-sized triangular space inside a building on Pioneer Street -- that the chamber secretary would have to stand up when people came to meet with him, just to give the person enough room to sit down.

It was understandably decided that a larger space was necessary, and in November 1936, the chamber office moved into a new building at 700 Washington Avenue. That highly visible downtown location had enough room for the secretary to comfortably host not just one visitor, but meetings with whole groups.

It was around this era when the name of the club was changed to the Detroit Lakes Civic and Commerce Association. It became the Detroit Lakes Chamber of Commerce in 1953, and in 1959, the women’s division of the chamber was formed. In the early 1980s, the organization merged with the Northwest Resort Association and the name changed again, to the Detroit Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce, the name that still remains today.

“We were already tourism-focused, but even more so after that (merger),” said Johnston. “We then had more of a regional focus.”

Chamber of Commerce committeemen inspect a few of the 100 jackpot prizes that were presented to lucky registrants at participating Detroit Lakes stores during a 1958 holiday business promotion. They are, left to right: Secretary Dorothy Johnson, Richard Blanding, William Dee and Arthur Norum. (From the Nov. 26, 1958 Detroit Lakes Tribune / Tribune Archives)
Chamber of Commerce committeemen inspect a few of the 100 jackpot prizes that were presented to lucky registrants at participating Detroit Lakes stores during a 1958 holiday business promotion. They are, left to right: Secretary Dorothy Johnson, Richard Blanding, William Dee and Arthur Norum. (From the Nov. 26, 1958 Detroit Lakes Tribune / Tribune Archives)

By then, the chamber's Washington Avenue building had undergone an expansion and improvement project that doubled its size (there were talks in the mid-1950s of building a new chamber headquarters in the shape of a giant northern pike, but that plan never materialized). The chamber’s current building, at 700 Summit Avenue, was built in 2005 and opened a year later.

Through all those evolutions, the primary purpose of the chamber -- to promote the Detroit Lakes area -- has never changed.

“Detroit Lakes has changed a lot in the past 100 years, but we’re also still the same,” said Johnston. “Tourism, agriculture, manufacturing and retail remain the main industries. The words may have changed on our (the chamber’s) mission statements over the years...but I think our vision for economic vitality for all, I think that rings true over the past 100 years.”

Today, the chamber is “the welcome center for the community,” as Johnston describes. Its office functions as a visitor information center and community meeting space, as well as a hub for business development, community development and tourism. Chamber Ambassadors welcome new businesses to the area, holding ribbon cuttings and groundbreaking ceremonies.

The chamber is a 501c(6) nonprofit organization run by a board of directors who are elected by the chamber’s 450 members. It employs a full-time staff of four, who have a combined 74 years of experience.

Chamber of Commerce staff members Jean Erickson, Cleone Stewart, Sandy Stilke and Carrie Johnston; each has been with the chamber for several years or longer. (Submitted Photo / 2021)
Chamber of Commerce staff members Jean Erickson, Cleone Stewart, Sandy Stilke and Carrie Johnston; each has been with the chamber for several years or longer. (Submitted Photo / 2021)

IF YOU GO

WHAT: Detroit Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce 100th Year Celebration

WHEN: Thursday, Sept. 16, 4:30-6:30 p.m.

WHERE: The Meadows on Lind, 11463 Highway 59 in Detroit Lakes

TICKETS: $25 each (includes $10 in free Chamber Bucks); available at the chamber office by calling 218-847-9202.

MORE INFO: Live music by Dan Holt; door prizes every 15 minutes with a grand prize giveaway at the end; free hors d’oeuvres from Spanky’s Stone Hearth; cash bar; networking opportunities. Open to everyone, chamber members and non-members alike.