By Jan Siegel
The citizens of San Juan Capistrano have always come together for the common good of the community. That is how the Chamber of Commerce first appeared in our town in 1923 for the purpose of supporting worthwhile projects. The first work undertaken by the Chamber was the building of the Ortega Highway. To help keep business in town during the construction, the Chamber staged weekend events to keep the downtown viable.
The first president of the Chamber was R.W. Whitaker, who was a banker in town. The original board of directors read like a who’s who of San Juan Capistrano history: J. S. Malcolm, C. L. Congdon, Walt Congdon, Dr. Paul Esslinger, C.A .Hankey, O.J. Guilbert, F.A. Stoffel and Father St. John O’Sullivan. Unfortunately, at the height of the Depression, the bank failed and many local businesses followed. As a result, after the completion of the Ortega Highway, the Chamber of Commerce disappeared.
In 1948, a few San Juan Capistrano businessmen formed a luncheon group and it became the San Juan Business Association. Paul Phelps, Bart Conners and Harold Smith were among the leaders of the group and Phelps was the first president. Art Morria, Fred Newhart, Eugene Streit , William Steele and Charles Ruerup followed as presidents. One of the first accomplishments of this group was to bring street lights to town in 1950.
It was from this membership that the Chamber was reestablished in San Juan Capistrano. Stan Geach was the first president followed by Larry Hernandez, who was instrumental in getting the downtown area rezoned with the help of the county planning commission.
Bill Webb’s term as president aimed at beautification and a demonstration of civic pride. In 1959, the Chamber hired Mrs. Otheto Weston, an artist, to make the buildings in town maintain an early California appearance. According to Pam Gibson in Two Hundred Years in San Juan Capistrano, the idea was “backed by a petition drive to encourage the Board of Supervisors to create an architectural control committee to advise them on San Juan Capistrano projects.” The Chamber formed a promotion plan to attract tourists, which was, at that time, our number one industry.
C. Fulton Shaw’s year saw the first of the annual Swallows Day fiestas. Jose Rosan was head of the Chamber at the time of the town’s incorporation in 1961. It was the Chamber that had started a full-scale study in May 1960 that eventually led to the incorporation of San Juan Capistrano.
In 1963, one of Chamber President Gerald Gaffney’s goals was to encourage an independent Historical Society. There was a Historical Committee within the Chamber, but it was Gaffney who felt that a larger group would be beneficial to the town’s history. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society.
For the past 90 years, the Chamber has played an important role in every important aspect of our community’s growth. For the past 65 years that role has been continuous. Today, the Chamber is involved in the I-5/Ortega project, just as the founders were involved in the Ortega Project in 1923, and the redevelopment of the downtown, much as it was in 1948. You can spend a Moment in Time and visit the Chamber’s office at 31421 La Matanza and discover how they see our community now and in the future.
A 26-year resident of San Juan Capistrano, Jan Siegel has served on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission for 11 years and has been a volunteer guide for the Historical Society’s Architectural Walking Tour for 15 years. She was named Woman of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce in 2005, Volunteer of the Year in 2011 and was inducted into the city’s Wall of Recognition in 2007.