Chamber long a driving force in Lode's success

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Tuolumne County's "easy gold" had been cleaned from its rivers and creeks by the time a group of Sonora-area businessmen gathered at the courthouse a century ago to found a new Chamber of Commerce dedicated to the community's economic health.

Many of those charter members had survived lean years that followed the bustling, heady days of the Gold Rush.

Although churches, schools, families, businesses and other trappings of civilization came on the heels of the Gold Rush, prosperity did not follow. When the placer gold gave out, miners by the thousands scurried from the hills. Tuolumne County"s population dropped from close to 20,000 to 6,000 in 1890 and economy slowed to an almost imperceptible crawl.

But those who stayed had a commitment to this community and realized that only a strong economy could bring the stability it needed. More than a few of the founders' names Hardin, Segerstrom, Symons, West still resonate today.

Although a quartz mining boom was already under way when the chamber's founders gathered on May 2, 1908, they knew from painful experience that gold alone would not carry the community. The organization's first "mission statement," a set of goals adopted at that 1908 meeting, both evidence a desire for diversity and growth, and are remarkably similar to the objectives of today's chamber:

"To encourage enterprise, to promote trade and industry, to develop resources, to seek and extend markets, to exert constant influence in favor of better public highways, to improve our homes, to adorn our city and to unite the people for the promotion of Tuolumne County."

Dues a century ago were $1 a month, officers included 11 vice presidents, and a key focus was the health of local mines. Banker C.A. Belli offered to kick off chamber efforts by taking a display of "$40,000 in jewelery rock" extracted from the O'Hara Mine north of Sonora, to San Francisco for Fleet Week.

Today, dues begin at $195 a year for the smallest businesses, committee chairs have replaced the VPs, and the focus of the 475-member chamber has broadened to include a wide range of business fields, infrastructure improvements and government issues.

In 10 decades, of course, periods of intense chamber activity alternated with those of near dormancy. The organization's 50th anniversary in 1958, for instance, came and went without acknowledgement. But in the 1960s, a new "revitalized" chamber emerged.

The organization remained active through the 1970s and '80s. Chamber members led the successful campaign for construction of the Sonora Bypass and helped assure that the road's East Sonora extension included a Hess Avenue interchange.

A Roll of Honor was unveiled in 1974, at a meeting whose guest speaker was banker C.A. Belli's son, San Francisco lawyer Melvin Belli. Today, the honor roll numbers 143.

George Segarini, first executive vice president and a part-time administrator then a president and full-time administrator, came, went and came. Now, after more than 20 years working for, and with, the chamber, he is something of an unofficial historian for the organization.

"I can't remember the chamber being more active or healthy," said Segarini.

Its membership and influence are on the rise. It sponsors numerous fundraising, promotional and educational events, is active in governmental affairs and has committees that deal with issues ranging from cell phone reception to affordable housing.

With their 1908 forebearers, today's chamber leaders share a commitment to community that has served the organization well.

Its current strength is fortuitous, as more and more county businesses may look to the chamber for guidance during these hard economic times. Looking generations down the line, it also launches the chamber with assurance as its second century begins.

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The Union Democrat
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