The year 1918 was among the most tumultuous in world history, yet that terrible year saw the coming together of 20 Aiken business owners at the luxurious, but now long-lost Highland Park Hotel to form the Aiken Business League. That organization became the Aiken Chamber of Commerce, and for the past 100 years the bond those business people formed still thrives today on the Chamber’s 100th anniversary.
It was in 1918 that the American soldiers, affectionately called the “doughboys,” first went “over the top” in the gruesome trench warfare of World War I, which ended about six months later on November 11, 1918. The same year saw death and fear grip the globe as 50 million to 100 million people worldwide died of the Spanish Flu (although it didn’t come from Spain).
It was in a patriotic spirit that the score of Aiken businessmen began looking ahead to how their community could be helped to prosper.
South Carolina was certainly not new to the idea of a chamber of commerce in urban areas. Charleston’s is the oldest chamber of commerce in the United States, founded in 1773. The Augusta chamber was founded in 1898, the year The Willcox first opened for guests. In North Carolina, Fayetteville’s chamber is 125 years old, and Greensboro’s has been serving its community for 140 years.
Now, in 2018, The Aiken Chamber of Commerce is celebrating its Centennial – 100 years of service to Aiken businesses and the entire community’s quality of life. Today, those 20 visionaries have grown to more than 1,000 members! On Friday, January 19, the Aiken Chamber celebrated that dramatic anniversary at its annual Awards Banquet with a sold-out audience of 520 friends at the USC Aiken Convocation Center.
Looking to the Future
Earlier in his career, Aiken’s Chamber President and CEO, J. David Jameson, worked in Fayetteville and Greensboro during landmark date celebrations of both cities. “When I helped Fayetteville and Greensboro celebrate their milestone anniversaries our focus was on looking back in time to dwell on their past accomplishments,” Jameson said in his modest new office at the Chamber headquarters building on Richland Avenue in downtown Aiken. “That was fine and we will do some of that. But all of us here in this office and our amazing membership are asking ourselves, “How do we use this moment to imagine what the next decade and the next century will be like, and what can we do now to build Aiken’s future.
A tangible symbol of that attitude is the tremendous remodeling done to the headquarters building, he explained. It was considered a model of the times 20 years ago, but business and technology have moved so fast in that time that it is already dated. “As we tell our members that it is crucial that they invest in their own businesses, we here at the Chamber have to lead and follow our own advice. We have to lead by example: examples of new design, better working space, better use of technologies that benefit all our members and their chamber. We are using this celebration of our first century of service to Aiken businesses to set us all up to take advantages of the possibilities in our shared future,” he said, clearly a man with a vision and certain that, working together, Aiken and its Chamber of Commerce can realize that dream and exceed it.
Annual Awards Ceremony
At January’s Annual Chamber Dinner in the USCA Convocation Center, the highlights of the evening were the celebration of the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce’s 100-year history and presentation of the awards for Small and Large Business of the Year and the recognition of the 2017 Woman of the Year and Man of the Year.
Small Business of the Year: Nandina Home and Design and owners Susan Victor and Sue Shannon
For a decade the owners and associates of Nandina Home and Design have brought a higher, more sophisticated level of furnishing and design to homeowners in and around Aiken. At the annual Chamber dinner, Nandina Home and Design was named the Aiken Small Business of the Year. Owners Susan Victor and Sue Shannon were honored with vigorous applause. Their citation reads in part: “Making themselves available to their customers, turning challenges into opportunities, Sue and Susan have served the community,” with style.
The business weathered its earliest years of the economic downturn of 2008 and the ensuing time brought growth with their professionalism and fresh ideas. As proof of its success, Nandina has expanded its Aiken showrooms at the corner of Laurens Street and Park Avenue and opened a second location in Atlanta in the Sandy Springs area.
As written by one of several Chamber members who nominated Nandina for the award, “They provide inspiration for all of us to go beyond business as usual in our lives. They truly listen to their customers and creatively configure ways to make a customer’s dreams become a reality – and all within a budget too.”
The same nomination reads, “Both named Susan [but called Susan and Sue, respectively], the partners don’t inch when clients confuse their names. They simply answer, smile and continue serving the needs of their clients from the early design to the beauty of the finished work. They believe in real life and real style.”
Large Business of the Year: ASCO Valve Manufacturing
ASCO Valve Manufacturing has been a part of the Aiken community since 1978. Its products serve both businesses and consumers locally, nationally and globally. You have almost certainly used their products but didn’t know it by the company’s name. Their valves and other products are used in countless ways and in many industries.
For four decades ASCO has provided jobs for people in Aiken and procured many of their supplies from local businesses. The company recently built an $8 million expansion that brought 86 new jobs to Aiken. The expansion brought 47 new families to Aiken and the remainder of the new positions were local hires. ASCO now employs 470 and has a $20 million annual payroll.
Workforce development is key to ASCO and the company’s willingness to produce the skilled workers of the future is demonstrated through its partnership with Aiken County Public Schools and its Aiken Works initiative. Through Aiken Works, ASCO has provided cooperative learning opportunities for students at its facility, mentors for students, and is sponsoring a campaign to promote careers in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM).
Providing a civic-minded and family-oriented culture in the workplace is a priority for this company’s leadership. In 2017, the company donated more than $20,000 to local charitable causes.
ASCO is part of the Emerson technology and engineering company based in St. Louis. From U. S. Navy submarines to quick shop gas pumps, ASCO serves the world and has served Aiken for four decades.
Woman of the Year: Betsy Simons
After a couple of successful careers, Betsy Simons opened Betsy’s on the Corner, a soda fountain and diner, in 2012. Taking over a blighted building on a busy downtown corner, Betsy helped revitalize the northern end of the Laurens Street retail and restaurant area.
One of her nominators for the prestigious award wrote, “The key to her success is that she isn’t just the idea person in her business, she is one of the workers too. From the quality of the delicious food she provides, to the décor of her business and the efficiency of its operations, Betsy is involved in bringing meals to happy customers, many of them sitting under colorful umbrellas in the sunshine.”
One vision accomplished, Betsy recently revealed that she is remodeling a new location for a new Betsy’s, around the corner on Park Avenue in the lovely space that formerly housed The Curiosity Shop and The Old Aiken Market.
Simons is a constant booster of downtown Aiken and reveals a charitable heart with her many civic involvements. She has served on the board for Aiken Downtown Development Association, the Aiken Chamber of Commerce, the Aiken Board of Realtors and has held numerous roles at her church, St. John’s United Methodist.
A self-proclaimed “foodie” from a young age, she learned to cook fried chicken while standing on a footstool in her mother’s kitchen. You can enjoy this same recipe today on her corner, or later this year, down the street and around the corner.
Man of the Year: Dr. Walt Joseph
The Man of the Year can best be described as intelligent, tenacious and full of energy. He has an easygoing style, jovial disposition and a distinct chuckle.
He is a filmmaker, trail blazer and like many of the thousands of scientists and engineers who came to the Savannah River Plant in the early 1950s, he never intended to stay – that was about 65 years ago. Due to the absolute secrecy required at the site, his wife knew where he worked, but not what he did there, and his small son thought he was a barber.
The scientists and engineers who worked at the Site (called the Plant until Westinghouse took over operations from DuPont in 1988) did their work because it was a good job, but more out of patriotic duty. Many of them had worked in the super-secret Manhattan Project as part of the war effort during World War II. As the Cold War followed, American scientists and engineers lived under similar secrecy at SRS and other sites around the country under the direction of the Atomic Energy Commission, which was later folded into the Department of Energy. They, along with many other Americans who served in the armed forces and political leadership that held rm during Democratic and Republican administrations alike, finally won the Cold War when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990.
Our Man of the Year was part of a national race to solve the unknown and build a defense that no one has dared to test since. These Cold War warriors were armed only with their brains, their laboratories and slide rules on which they made their calculations before computers came of age. Keeping technologically ahead in the scientific race was every employee’s duty in those times of atomic bomb shelters and “duck and cover” safety drills in every school.
But who is to tell their story and keep the memories of the sacrifices, scientific breakthroughs and final victory alive?
Dr. Walt Joseph stood up to take on that challenge. He spent more than a decade assembling artifacts, cajoling executives and politicians and making presentations to any group that would listen. Dr. Joseph was well trained in xing on a seemingly impossible goal and seeing it through until it became a success. The Savannah River Site Museum opened in 2014 in the former Dibble Memorial Library building on Laurens Street. Dr. Joseph was also instrumental in forming the SRS Heritage Foundation.
It is fitting for Aiken to have a museum dedicated to the largest and most important industry ever to come to Aiken County. The community and the Aiken Chamber are better for the vision and the dedication of the man most responsible for making it happen, the 2017 Aiken Chamber of Commerce Man of the Year, Dr. Walt Joseph.
Stephen Delaney Hale is a freelance writer in Aiken and a regular contributor to Bella Magazine.
Photos by Allen Riddick