Chamber of Commerce festival brings alive Malden’s business and commerce past

By Sky Malerba

On July 24, Malden residents, many dressed in top hats and long dresses, moseyed outside the Converse Memorial Library for a special summer festival. On the shimmering front lawn, a trio of singers sang hymns from their open songbooks. Ginger beer was sold, old friends and strangers alike greeted each other. The scene may have resembled something from 1891 but this particular festival took place in the year 2021 from 3 to 6 in the afternoon, as part of the larger Malden Summer Festival series.

The “1891 Night”  festival, in which participants dressed up in period Victorian costumes, marked the 130th anniversary of the Malden Chamber of Commerce. Founded on March 31, 1891, the chamber now has over 300 members.

Asked about the event’s theme, Chamber of Commerce President Donna Denoncourt, dressed in an off-the-shoulder white gold dress, said, “We wanted… to recognize the history… and all the chamber does in connecting people.” The Malden resident, who began her career as a financial advisor with Waddell & Reed in 2013, has been chamber president for three years.

When asked if she’d seen any changes in how commerce is run in the last few years, Denoncourt said, “No doubt. It’s less brick and mortar and more out of homes, or solo; entrepreneurial— it’s so different. We still see some brick-and-mortar-type businesses but fewer of those types of businesses. You’re not seeing the industrial [businesses] so much anymore. We still have some of that but now obviously it’s more biotech, pharmaceutical, research.”

“Just in this little area, there are 28 restaurants between Pleasant and Exchange [streets]. It’s amazing,” she added.

Lisa O’Loughlin, a former board member and now advisor to the Chamber, said that “It’s like comparing apples and oranges” between 1891 and today.  But the chamber’s mission is the same: support local businesses. “We wouldn’t still be in business if we didn’t do a good job,” she said.

The best part of the annual festival, O’Loughlin said, is “The costumes! The period music… but (also) the history; the commerce! If you really get into it, it’s really something, what they did for this city. It’s a deep, deep history.” 

Malden has a rich business history, which O’Loughlin remembers fondly. “I grew up just over the line in Melrose and I took the five-cent trolley from ‘the end of the line’ as they called it. So I spent my childhood growing up in downtown Malden with Jordan Marsh [a now-defunct department store chain] and all the flagship stores, theaters, five-and-tens, and the bowling alleys. It was a great time then and now it’s a food destination so it’s still a great place!”

Urban Media Arts President Ron Cox, outfitted in a vest, tie, top hat, and makeshift handlebar mustache that won the festival’s Victorian costume contest, said he has seen Malden go through a lot of changes. “I think we are better off today than we were way back then,” he said.

The city has been home to impressive figures such as the likes of Alvan T. Fuller, once one of the wealthiest men in the state as well as one of the biggest names in the business’ of his generation. Fuller, grew up in Malden and went on to repair hundreds of bicycles from his own garage.  When the death of his father required him to quit school at the age of 15, he was already working 11-hour shifts at the Boston Rubber Shoe Company.

He opened one of the first automobile dealerships in Massachusetts, which in 1920 was recognized as “the world’s most successful auto dealership.” While  Fuller by no means invented the motorcar, he brought home two in 1899 after a visit to France, the first two foreign motorcars on Boston shores.

William H. Shiloh, whose lifetime eclipsed the shift in American life, erected the business of Shiloh & Co., a community barbershop. According to information provided by Malden Commerce, a former slave, Shiloh’s business was listed in city directories eight years before the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery was passed in 1865. To this day, barbershops are a recognized hub for community-primarily among black men and are a valuable cornerstone of social life. In the years ahead, Malden hopes to continue traditions such as these that welcome new and old friends together.

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