The Backman Years, 1930-1965

Mr. Utah

Gus Backman took the helm of The Chamber of Commerce and Commercial Club of Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1930, and during the next thirty-four years made it and himself a major influence within the city and the state. Although he purposely tried to avoid the spotlight, by the time he was finished he had earned the title of “Mr. Utah” and was feted throughout its borders and beyond. Few people wielded as much clout for as long as he did.

The Veterans Hospital: Backman’s First Assignment

The Chamber has been a leader in tapping the federal government’s largesse for building projects and other improvements.

In October 1930, the Chamber of Commerce and Commercial Club leaders hired Gus Backman as its top staff member and gave him his first assignment to lobby the government for just such a project.

Hard Times

The Great Depression struck Utah harshly, and long. Utah was one of the hardest hit states in the union.

By almost any measurement, Utah was hurting. In 1933, the state’s unemployment rate was a staggering 35.8 percent, fourth highest in the nation. Wages plummeted by 45 percent for those who had not lost their jobs. Almost a third of the population in 1933 received at least some food, clothing, shelter, or other necessities from government funds.

How the City got Hogle Zoo

Salt Lake City got a first-rate zoo in the middle of the Great Depression because of the passionate interest of several deeply committed people, an enthusiastic public and a Chamber of Commerce that helped bring them together.

As early as the 1890s Salt Lake City had a small display of animals that it kept at Liberty Park. It was a ragtag collection of wild animals that had come to visit the city and were now kept in an old barnyard.

Watering the Desert

In Utah, the second driest state in the nation, water is everything. With it, we can settle valleys, grow crops, raise children and support industries. Without it, no growth is possible.

So it’s little surprise that from the beginning the Salt Lake Chamber was involved in water issues. The earlier Chamber called for a multi-state irrigation conference in 1891. The Commercial Club fought to protect the watersheds in the early 1920s, and the Chamber tried to find new sources of water throughout the last century.

Flat, Fast, and Salty

The Bonneville Salt Flats are among the world’s natural wonders, and the Salt Lake Chamber helped make them famous, thanks to the persistence of a local hero.

The Salt Flats cover hundreds of square miles of some of the most desolate land on earth, home to no growing thing, hostile to travelers. It’s a dazzling expanse of salt left over from ancient Lake Bonneville, land so flat that you can actually see the curvature of the earth.

Alta: Going to the Mountain

Alta today is known throughout the sports world as a premiere resort destination for serious skiers, with its high altitude and fine, paper-dry powder that drifts down over the Wasatch. But in the 1930s, it was just an idea. Bringing that transformation about took the vision and dedication of a large number of people. The Chamber of Commerce and Commercial Club played its own role in this, and in helping Utah skiing become world famous.

Covered Wagon Days Becomes an Institution

Most Salt Lake City residents take it for granted that the city’s July 24 celebration, marking the 1847 entry of the Mormon pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley, always seems to come off like clockwork each year. In fact, it was not until a committee of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce organized the celebration in the 1930s that it became an annual affair.

Did Rhumba Lessons Help Change Utah History?

The story of Utah’s World War II-era economic boom may have been written differently, if it were not for the kindness of a man who became the larger-than-life secretary of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce.

That kindness came when Gus and Nancy Backman “adopted” a homesick young pilot named Hank Arnold, who whiled the lonely hours between airmail flights in Salt Lake City. Mrs. Backman had young Arnold out to dinner frequently at their home, taught him to rhumba, and listened to his problems.

The Home Front

In addition to its considerable work luring wartime industries and military bases to Utah, the Chamber of Commerce and Commercial Club found itself once again in the center of the state’s efforts to organize itself. This time the subject was civil defense.

Love at First Flight

The long-time head of the Chamber, Gus Backman, always said the “first love” of the Chamber was the city’s airport.

During Backman’s watch the airport made significant strides, building on its role as a leading aviation hub in the West. In 1930, Woodward Field became Salt Lake Municipal Airport, expanding to four hundred acres with eleven hangars and two gravel runways.

The First Centennial

As the 1930s were stumbling to a close, Utah looked ahead to what it hoped would be a happier event–the 100th anniversary of its founding. The Depression was still draining resources and in Europe chilling events filled the news, but the decision makers decided that Utah should throw an outstanding party in 1947.

Landing New Industry Jobs for Utah

For many years before the state formally organized economic development efforts, it was often the Chamber that served as a key promoter of Utah business.

Gus P. Backman, the Chamber of Commerce of Salt Lake City’s executive secretary, played a pivotal role, particularly during the industrial boom surrounding World War II in the 1940s.

Tug of War in Sugar House

Sugar House Park is an island of greenery with acres of grass, a canyon stream, and a pond shaded by decades-old trees. It’s a place for joggers, picnickers, company parties, and family reunions, and is vast enough to host fireworks on the Fourth of July. Little today recalls its unhappy past as the site of the territorial and later state prison, or the long period in the 1950s when the land sat neglected and weedy while officials argued over how to use it.

The 50th Jubilee: An Evening to Remember

When the Chamber of Commerce of Salt Lake City celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 1952, tracing its beginnings to the formation of the Commercial Club in 1902, it was an evening to remember.

The black-tie “Jubilee” drew many national business leaders to the gathering of five hundred in the Lafayette Ballroom at the Hotel Utah.