Savannah: A Chamber Mystery

Back in 1998, a mysterious package containing an anonymous letter arrived at the offices of the Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce.

The package was addressed to Al Kennickle, then chairman of the Chamber’s board, and it held a fragile document dated “13th December, 1806,” which was quickly identified as the constitution creating a chamber of commerce for Savannah.

The accompanying letter placed a value of “$10,000 or $15,000” on the document. There was a suggestion on how best to publicly display the constitution and this final thought: “Even if you think you know who I am, I would like this to be between you and I. And keep it anonymous.” The letter was signed, “Anon.”

The mystery deepened when a copy of a 1964 newspaper story surfaced announcing the purchase of the original 1806 constitution from a Massachusetts man for $50. It appears the original document has been in and out of the hands of the Savannah chamber’s leadership several times in the last two centuries. The mystery surrounding the disappearing, reappearing document is fitting for a city and chamber of commerce that offers up haunted tours and ghost searches for visitors and celebrates the eccentricities of its locals.

“We never attempted to figure out who it was,” says Bill Hubbard, president and CEO of the Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce. “We did look at the document with a kind of awe and shock, and then we put it away for safekeeping.”

The 1806 document imposed what amounted to local tariffs on goods shipped in and out of Savannah, with the proceeds to be collected and deposited for future use by the chamber of commerce. The chamber constitution also allowed for service fees connected with the collection of unpaid bills and the issuance of insurance policies.

It was the kind of arrangement that modern chambers might thirst after, but which most likely would be stymied by current federal law. “It is my understanding of the original document that it set forth a tariff schedule that was not voluntary,” says Hubbard, who adds dryly, “That is not traditionally a role for the chambers of commerce of the United States.”

Hubbard believes the date of the constitution makes Savannah’s chamber of commerce the oldest in Georgia and one of the seven oldest in the nation. The oldest chamber of commerce title is claimed by a state, New York, with a founding date of 1786. The Savannah chamber has commissioned Armstrong Atlantic State University to do further research into history surrounding the chamber of commerce movement in America and to uncover significant milestones in the Savannah trade group’s history.

Regardless of what’s uncovered in that investigation, the celebration of Savannah’s chamber of commerce 200th anniversary will begin this summer and conclude with a black tie dinner and a “high profile speaker,” Hubbard says. Leaders in Savannah have also begun tossing around ideas for celebrating the city’s tricentennial, a mere 27 years away.

Categories: Southeast