(Second in a Series)
By KEVIN NEVERS
One can almost imagine—as the Board of Directors of the Chesterton Chamber
of Commerce would meet at the Humpty-Dumpty restaurant—how the idea first
floated to the surface: two great peoples, separated by only by a few sets
of railroad tracks, stubbornly and unreasonably pursuing independent
The solution seemed to be obvious: the merger of the towns of Chesterton and
And so, at the Chamber luncheon on April 14, 1958, Paul Miller of Community
Planning Consultants of Valparaiso was tapped, almost as a sacrificial lamb
is tapped, to pitch the idea in public. As the Chesterton Tribune reported,
“The two towns can work out common problems better than if they operate
singly, he said. . . . If Porter and Chesterton combine they will form a
nucleus for solid growth here which is much needed.”
One month later, on May 12, 1958, in a showing of big-tentedness, the
membership voted unanimously to change the name of the body from the
Chesterton to the Westchester Chamber of Commerce.
Then, on June 9, 1958, the Chamber played its trump card: a merger report
prepared by Community Planning Consultants and making the fiduciary case for
the combination of Chesterton and Porter, on the grounds that property-tax
payers would be better served by a rationalization of municipal services.
“It is estimated that approximately $18,000 or 10 percent could have been
saved if the two towns had been operated as one during 1958,” as the Tribune
summarized the findings of the report. “This saving could have been made
without sacrifice of services . . . . On the contrary, services would
probably have been better for the total community due to greater
coordination of effort and more efficient use of available equipment.”
The argument made sense then and it makes sense now. Still, while no one
should question the legitimacy of the Chamber Board’s concerns about
governmental waste and redundancy, something else may have contributed to
its eagerness to see the two towns marry. For four years the Chamber had
been inviting to its luncheons guest speakers whose single breathless theme
was the explosiveness of growth in Northwest Indiana. In May 1956 a senior
planner of the Chicago Regional Commission projected “the doubling of
population by 1980 and progressively greater industrialization,” the Tribune
reported. In December 1956 a Gary “insurance man and authority on community
planning” made this dire if vague prediction: “something is going to happen
to the growth of the Calumet area and we don’t know what but we are going to
have a lot of growth.”
The Chamber may be forgiven for thinking that, as the rising tide of growth
swept through the region, tiny Chesterton would be unable to ride the wave
and would be left with scraps if it didn’t join forces with the tinier
Porter. Oh, and there was also that other thing: the Chamber’s 1959 agenda
included, as the Tribune reported, “working with Porter to get new industry
there, as Chesterton does not have the room whereas Porter does.”
Whatever its rationale, the Chamber had started the ball rolling and on Aug.
12, 1958, President Fred Lochbihler appeared before the Porter Town Board to
keep it rolling. Oddly enough, exactly two weeks later he appeared before
the Porter Town Board again, this time to announce the Chamber’s formal
withdrawal of its support for a merger. Lochbihler gave this reason: the
Chamber was unable to answer technical questions about the conversion of the
municipal combination into a fifth-class city.
But perhaps Lochbihler felt a cold wind blowing. The Chamber’s members “are
staying up late at night plotting ways they can get Porter,” as the Tribune
quoted one Porter resident. Or as it quoted another, “It looks to me as
though new people moving into the area are trying to take us over.”
Yet—without taking a position on the merger—the Chamber continued to
circulate petitions to put the question to a vote. On Dec. 6, 1958, a
referendum was held. In Chesterton 806 cast no ballots to 302 yes in Porter,
541 cast no to 135 yes.
An ignominious defeat but one which the Chamber refused to take to heart.
Over the next 12 years it would push twice more for merger and be
disappointed both times. But now the gloves were off and no pretense at all
was made of easing the property-tax payer’s burden by amalgamating municipal
services. Merger had become purely a defensive measure, and in this case the
best defense was a good offense.
In July 1965 Chamber President George Lowery had ominous news for members.
The Town of Portage was making overtures to merge all three towns into a
single city, he said at a meeting. The “utter incongruity of such a union is
obvious, the chamber was reminded,” as the Tribune reported, and Portage,
already seeking city status, could “reach out and annex Westchester, two
miles at a time, once city status has been achieved.”
In January 1966, the Tribune reported, the Chamber began to lobby for merger
a second time, “with the idea of eventually through annexation having a city
of the entire township” of Westchester.
And in August 1966—with a merger referendum only a month away—William
Staehle, director of planning for the City of Gary, warned the Chamber that
the “rural aspect” of the Chesterton and Porter “is bound to change, for
better or worse,” with the appearance of Bethlehem Steel and Midwest Steel
and the emergence of ancillary businesses in search of “sites near these
giants and the new harbor.” Brass tacks: “New industries, new jobs, new
people are in the future for the entire region,” Staehle said, “Michigan
City and Chesterton are best located to be the center of business
development, the shopping center of the area,” and the “failure to merge
would leave two small towns caught between giants.”
On this occasion the Chamber lost by a hair. On Sept. 12, 1966, Chesterton
voters cast 1,209 yes ballots to 265 no; Porter voters, 464 no to 441 yes.
“Porter volunteer firemen jubilant that it was defeated drove the fire truck
around town with the siren going to celebrate last night,” the Tribune
(In a strange coda to the referendum, a judge ordered a second referendum
held, on the strength of a petition and a 1921 law. Nothing changed. On Dec.
27, 1966, Chesterton voters cast 785 yes ballots to 170 no; Porter voters,
472 no to 409 yes.)
A third time was not the charm. In January 1970 a majority of the membership
voted in favor of a merger and the Chamber formed a committee to study the
question. “Merger was important to give this area a powerful voice,” the
Tribune reported. “A single larger unit will have more force than a handful
of smaller communities.” No dice, though. On May 5, 1970, Chesterton voters
cast 789 yes ballots to 289 no; Porter voters, 327 no to 264 yes.
In September 1977 yet another committee formed by the Chamber urged not only
merger—of Chesterton, Porter, and Burns Harbor—but also the annexation of
the rest of Westchester Township, to create a sort of super-corporation.
Such a move, according to the committee’s report, “is absolutely necessary
for the orderly growth of the community.” But the Indiana General Assembly
failed in its 1978 session to enact a statute which would have provided for
a three-town merger and the question never came to a referendum.
Meanwhile, as the Chamber was going about the business of new business,
long-established merchants in Downtown Chesterton were tending their own.
And they had some muscle too.
In 1940 the Chesterton Retail Merchants Association (CRMA) had been founded
for the purpose of representing and promoting the interests of local
shopkeepers. By the time the Chamber arrived on the scene, 15 years later,
the CRMA was a thriving body with an active membership and its own
traditions and projects, including the sponsorship since 1953 of a jubilee
in Railroad Park and, as part of the jubilee, the inauguration in 1955 of an
arts and crafts fair, the forerunner of the Chesterton Art Fair. The CRMA
was enterprising, committed, and—possibly—suspicious of the Chamber: what
could the Chamber bring to the table that the CRMA did not? was another
business organization even needed? and—not to put too fine a point on
it—would the Chamber in its enthusiasm to grow Chesterton recruit a gang of
cut-rate and cutthroat competitors to the Downtown?
In the early days of the Chamber, at least, the two bodies appear to have
reached an uneasy détente. In November 1955, with good will to all men, the
Chamber made a donation to the CRMA’s Christmas Decoration Fund. In January
1957, on the other hand, in a speech at the CRMA’s annual employees’
banquet, outgoing president David Parry counseled his fellow merchants to
work with the Chamber on the “questions of fringe zoning and improving roads
going in and out of town.”
To work with the Chamber, but not too closely.
When, in April 1957, the Chamber invited the CRMA to join it in endorsing
the creation of a Porter County plan commission, the CRMA opted “not to go
on record either for or against county planning,” as the Tribune reported.
“The CRMA wants the Chesterton residents to know that they are an
independent organization and are not connected with the Chesterton Chamber
Some years passed. Maybe the CRMA was too belligerently autonomous. Perhaps
the Chamber cherry-picked its members. Or it may just have grown tired. In
any case, at some point the CRMA went quietly defunct. (The archives of the
Tribune do not indicate when exactly, but in July 1961 20 merchants held a
sidewalk sale in the Downtown. Neither the CRMA nor the Chamber was anywhere
to be seen. Instead, 37 other “civic-minded businesses added their support
to this community promotion by joining to help advertise and publicize the
day,” the Tribune reported).
Not to worry, though. In April 1962 a dinner was held at Vawters Tropical
Lounge in The Pines to celebrate the formation of the Chamber’s Retail
Merchants Bureau. In a nod to continuity, Albert Diness, former president of
the CRMA, was elected president of the Chamber later that year.
That should have been the end of the story.
But seven years later the merchants were chafing, evidently unimpressed by
the dues-to-benefits ratio. In August 1969 another dinner was held, this one
at The Sandpiper, to celebrate the reincarnation of the CRMA. “It was
explained that the need has been felt for an organization of merchants only
to cooperate on store hours, joint promotions, parking, credit and bad check
policies, to mention some of their mutual problems,” the Tribune reported.
“After considerable debate, it was decided to defer the question of
affiliation with the Westchester Chamber of Commerce,” the Tribune added.
That question was deferred for two years. In the meantime, the Chamber and
the CRMA co-existed. At Christmas the CRMA got dibs on the Santa Parade. The
Chamber got stuck with a home-decorating contest. (In 1970 the Chamber
replaced cash prizes for the winners with gold, silver, and red stars
suitable for hanging: “Which is better than a small cash prize,” an ad in
the Tribune read, “in view of the horrid habit small money has of melting
away almost instantly.”)
Then, in August 1971, rapprochement. The CRMA voted unanimously to merge
with the Chamber and to become a division within that body.
That should have been the end of the story.
But four years later the merchants bolted again. In April 1975 they dusted
off and gussied up the CRMA one more time, with the goal of bringing
“customers the services and products they want right here, without leaving
town.” And so matters stood for the rest of the decade.
In the summer of 1979 the two groups were co-sponsoring free movies in
Thomas Centennial Park.