DID YOU KNOW?  LEE CHAMBER OF COMMERCE DATES BACK NEARLY 100 YEARS By Phil Smith  About a year ago at the behest of former Lee Chamber of Commerce president Holly Chaffee I started researching the history of the organization. I was quite surprised to find that the town’s original chamber of commerce was founded nearly 100 years ago when an organization called the Lee Businessmen’s Association voted to change its name to the Lee Chamber of Commerce. That vote took place on January 18, 1924. There is still a lot of research to be done, but it appears that the organization has ebbed and flowed over the years and that the current chamber was formed after a period of inactivity but we are still searching for that date.  Another surprise has been the breadth of responsibilities the original chamber took on.  Their early reports show evidence of helping to develop Sandy Beach at Laurel Lake, concern about industries, keeping Jacob’s Ladder Road open in winter, regulations of billboards and street signage. After a successful first year, the chamber reported on fire protection equipment, new town ordinances, night phone service, rail crossing safety and a new Center Street bridge. Today’s chamber has a good working relationship with town government and sometimes may be concerned about similar issues, but their activity may be less inclined to be “hands on.”  As late as the 1920’s the town still had not named some of its streets, it seems. Some businesses advertised their location as “near the railroad depot,” or “two doors down” from some better known business. Sometimes the chamber strayed into legislative matters; in 1939, they officially opposed Governor Saltonstall’s proposal to place a 2 cent tax on packs of cigarettes to discourage their use due to harmful health effects. At the time, Lee was a big producer of cigarette papers. In a 1936 meeting at the Greenock Inn, a speaker spread alarms about communism and “dope dealers.” But, while maintaining its industrial and agriculture bases, the town was already realizing its potential as a tourist destination in the 1930’s, sending a delegate to the New England Council (on tourism) and another to the Berkshire Hills Conference (later the Berkshire Visitors Bureau and now part of 1Berkshire.) And in 1937 the chamber prepared its first booklet aimed at visitors, printing 5,000 copies and mailing between 500 and 700 out to places as far away as Florida and Oregon.  Today’s chamber, in addition to working with town government, does much to promote the town’s image. It maintains an active web site (leechamber.org), publishes an annual brochure, directs and collaborates on activities such as Gateway Jazz Weekend, operates Founders Weekend, decorates the town with hanging flower baskets in the summer and with seasonal lighting during the holiday season.  The Lee Historical Society exhibit planned for next July will be partly in collaboration with the chamber and will emphasize the extensive history of doing business in the town.

     The keys to Lee’s history can be found in its natural environment. Forests yielded the lumber that built our quaint old frame homes. Those same woods gave us pulp and, for a time, made the town the paper capital of America. Unyielding marble was cut from the ground by tough, hard-working immigrants, then shipped to Eastern cities to construct many of our most famous buildings.

     There is a little bit of Lee in the U. S. Capitol Building, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Lincoln Memorial and the Boston Public Library. Quarrying still goes on in town and thousands of Americans sweeten their lawns with lime from Lee. Specialty paper is still made in the town that has not lost its blue-collar roots. Farms producing dairy products, beef, pork, vegetables and wool also dot the landscape. Most of us here are early risers.

     Lee was never the darling of the Berkshire Cottage set and it remained a mill town well into the mid-twentieth century. Then the Massachusetts Turnpike cut its swath through the state and funneled most Berkshire traffic into our town. We started calling ourselves the “Gateway to the Berkshires.” Gradually we became a visitor stop and a place for vacation homes.

     Even while Lee maintains its somewhat gritty past, it has made a transition. The College Internship Program gives us a little of the feel of a unique prep school village. Spectrum Playhouse brings in cultural events. Berkshire Gateway Jazz Weekend has intensified the beat. At Animagic you can practice with movie special effects. Jacob’s Pillow is in Becket, but its ties to Lee are strong. You can even take a hike with some friendly llamas at Hawkmeadow Farm. Lee remains at its heart a rather quaint industrial village that found a way to accommodate thousands of visitors without losing its soul.

More detail about the history of Lee is available through the very active Lee Historical Society.

Adapted from an article entitled “Authentic Lee in the Authentic Berkshires,” by Phil Smith, published in Our Berkshire Times, August-September, 2013, p. 11.