It wasn’t fancy, but official. Fifty years ago on Feb. 9, the Bridge City Chamber of Commerce was born with bare necessities. It was nurtured, however, by enthusiastic and dedicated supporters that have guided it through the years and help sustain it today.

The slogan “Hub of the Triangle” and a drawing of the Rainbow Bridge adorned the first letterhead. The words “Chamber of Commerce” were sketched in block letters across the top. “Bridge City, Texas” was typed beneath with the address P.O. Box 637.

Local businessman Jay Eshbach helped establish the first board of directors and was elected the first president. The first board meeting took place three days after an organizational meeting on Feb. 6 in the then-new Bridge City High School library. In the beginning, meetings were in members’ homes and later, local restaurants – the Wayside Inn and Granger’s Seafood among them.

But in 1985, the Bridge City Chamber of Commerce would get a permanent address, 150 Roundbunch Road. Charlotte Chaisson worked the office from a portable building as secretary, and later, executive vice president beginning in 1987. She kept the position until 2003 when she took a job with Lamar State College-Orange. 

“It’s a job that becomes a passion,” Chaisson said, “I was there during a period when the community experienced a lot of change and growth. It was fun and it gave me the opportunity to serve the community.” Before Chaisson, Ange Hebert served as secretary.

Chaisson was replaced by Julia Myers. In 2006, Janelle Sehon became executive vice president when Myers was hired by the Greater Orange Area Chamber of Commerce. 

In 1995, the chamber acquired the Prairie View Teacherage building as its new home. Built in the 1920s, it was moved from nearby Hatton Elementary to the heart of town. The Bridge City school district donated the building to the chamber. Its functions were to become two fold; house the chamber office and serve as a museum.

“It took a family of people to make it happen,” Chaisson said.
A longtime community volunteer, Beverly Perry was there on moving day. “I’ve never seen a more beautiful sight as that old home coming down Roundbunch,” she said, “ We all stood out in the street and watched it. We were so proud.”

Perry served on nearly every position on the board for 18 years beginning in 1990. She was named Citizen of the Year in 2000 and chamber president in 2001. She has also served on the board of the Orange County American Red Cross for more than a decade. She also was a Bridge City city councilwoman.

Local dentist Fred Zoch is credited with the idea. He was chamber president at the time, and also on the school board. Donations and volunteers rehabilitated the old school house. Later, Chaisson and chamber members planted a mayhaw grove next to the teacherage.

John Harrington donated 100 young plants with the idea of having a Mayhaw Mania festival in a few years. The event never happened, but the mayhaws bear fruit the chamber cans as preserves.

The Bridge City Historical Museum became a collection of local memorabilia and historic objects, featuring a wall devoted to a photographic display of the construction of the Rainbow Bridge 1936-38. Recently, the current chamber board moved to revitalize the museum. In an initiative put forward by board member Claudine Hogan, the directors moved to attain nonprofit status for the museum making it eligible for funding for projects involving historic preservation.

Both Chaisson and Perry recalled two other monumental events in Bridge City chamber history – the 50th anniversary of the Rainbow Bridge in 1988 and the dedication of the Veterans Memorial Bridge in 1991. Both events were planned and coordinated by the Bridge City chamber and attended amid huge fan fare. The occasions became a historic and media success. 

“My years with the chamber gave me a widened knowledge of Bridge City,” said Perry who moved here in 1957. “All of the old-time merchants of the town inspired me. We always were able to draw from those that came before us. The friendships I made will last my lifetime.”

Tom Perry and Bill Smith remain the longest active serving Bridge City chamber members. Smith originally sold the portable building to the chamber, but when the Prairie View Teacherage was attained he bought it back and moved it. Both serve as chamber ambassadors. Tom Perry, no relation to Beverly Perry, also served as a Bridge City city councilman and was chamber president in 1983.

The first Citizen of the Year was C.W. “Bubba” Hubbard in 1971.

The “C.W. Hubbard and others” lawsuit launched by a citizens committee led to the incorporation of the city that year. H.D. Pate was chamber president and became Bridge City’s first city attorney.

Bridge City Mayor Kirk Roccaforte was recently named 2009 Citizen of the Year.

Former Bridge City City Manager C.R. Nash was president twice in 1984 and ‘85. Christie Scales Gonzales also served twice 1992 and ‘95. Gonzales would become one of the chamber’s most effective leaders and advocates for a decade in the 1990s.