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Business & Real Estate

Jack Huston recognized for leadership in Los Altos Chamber's early days

Town Crier Correspondent

The Los Altos Chamber of Commerce is gearing up for its Golden Anniversary Celebration June 1. Former chamber presidents and special guests are invited to participate in recognizing and remembering past accomplishments at a black tie optional dinner.

Many changes have occurred during the last 50 years, and past presidents have been asked to speak about their pride, dedication and initiative that led to the successes of the organization of Los Altos businesses.

One of the stellar presidents who contributed to the growth of Los Altos business is Jack Huston, who along with Billy Russell owned the Russell-Huston's men's clothing store on State Street.

"I was talked into the job," Huston said. "Former chamber president John Meredith, Bill Powell and I met in the Village Coffee Shop, and they asked me to take the job because the chamber was $3,000 in the hole."

The 1960s were a challenging time because it was hard to develop a membership. There were no established meeting locations, and every month retailers would wonder in which vacant store would they have the next chamber meeting.

There were no members from Rancho Shopping Center, Loyola Corners or El Camino Real, so only downtown merchants raised money by selling non-interest bearing bonds to purchase a building.

"The bonds were issued in different values, and we raised $25,000," Huston said. "We drew up plans and specifications for the building, and Goodwin Steinberg charged the chamber $1 for his architectural plans."

The building was dedicated Sept. 20, 1961, with Huston as chamber past president and master of ceremonies.

"We rented out the back room of the chamber building to help pay back the bearer of the bonds," Huston said. "We started to pick up membership, but I think we were still in the hole when the next president took office. At the end of the month we met our expenses by hitting on the merchants for more donations," he said.

Downtown business started to improve. The cornerstones of Los Altos business were Nelson's and Kahn's drugstores, clothing stores and several hardware stores.

"One of the landmarks in town was a dog at Wally Stanley's Hardware Store. His name was 'Moth-Eaten.' On warm days 'Mothy' would go to the middle of Main Street and lie down. Cars would drive all around him, and only when he was ready would he stroll back in the store," Huston recalled. "That would be impossible with today's traffic."

During the early 1960s there were always a few vacant stores. Rent was 15-20 cents a square foot, and the chamber always owed rent to some store. Leases were usually one page long and were agreed with on a handshake.

When the parking plaza was established, all the merchants agreed to increase their rent to pay for land where the current north and south parking plazas are located.

Once the chamber building was completed, the goal was to pull in all seven Los Altos business districts. Executive directors were usually volunteer retailers or wives of businessmen. Huston's wife, Bobbie, worked in the clothing store while he worked for the chamber.

"The chamber always needed money and tried different fund-raisers," Huston recalled. "We put on a circus, which wasn't too successful, but we made money with the kiddy rides and the ferris wheel."

Huston said one Thanksgiving Day they decided to have an old-fashioned Turkey Trot. The local animal rights group didn't like the event and made threatening gestures.

Since it was too late to cancel it, people acted as turkeys by using a broomstick and a cardboard turkey head. The first one down the block won a free turkey.

"That was the last Turkey Trot in California," Huston said.

At the time, Mac's Tea Room was nothing but a bar and a billiard table. Soon, Eve Young opened a youth's clothing store, and Marian Jackston ran it, establishing another longtime downtown landmark business.

Huston and Jackston often had lunch together and schemed up promotions.

"Between the two of us we promoted the Festival of Lights Parade and other promotions like a horse show and the Miss Los Altos beauty contest," Huston said.

The 50th anniversary celebration will be held with no-host cocktails at 7 p.m. and dinner at 8 p.m., at the Crowne Plaza Cabana, 4290 El Camino Real, Palo Alto.

Cost is $75 per person. For more information, call 948-1455.

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