William Jernigan and Josiah Jackson opened the first business at what would become 1213 Washington St. in 1872. William and his wife Sarah Newman Jernigan had moved to Hunt County from Arkansas in 1856. The opening of a bridge over the South Sulphur River in 1870 created an economic opportunity in what would become Commerce, Texas. The town incorporated on September 25, 1885.
Growth here, as in so many communities, came with the railroads. The St. Louis Southwestern Railway, otherwise known as the Cotton Belt, connected the town with Texarkana, Sherman, and Fort Worth in 1887. The Texas Midland Railroad added a connection to Paris and Ennis in 1890. The town became a railroad hub in 1907, with the addition of a ten-bay roundhouse east of downtown in 1907. Railroad access transformed the area east of Park St. became a major cotton-processing location, with multiple cotton gins, seed oil mills, cotton presses, and, during the 1960s, a pesticide processing plant. The railroad also helped to convince William Leonidas Mayo to move the East Texas Normal College from Cooper to Commerce, opening its doors in a rented storefront in downtown in 1894.
The downtown grew rapidly until a fire in 1897 struck south Main St., destroying an entire block including a furniture store, a drug store, a general store, and the Odd Fellows hall. When the community rebuilt, they expanded the width of Main St. from 50 feet to 100 feet. This was the first of a number of fires that would ravage downtown storefronts again in 1963, 1982, and 1984.
Downtown Commerce was the center of civic and commercial life in the town, especially on the weekends when families would come in to trade and make their purchases at the numerous general stores, drug stores, and furniture stores. The first automobiles arrived in 1909. Brick paving arrived a decade later in the 1920s.
The city reflected and embraced the larger norms and practices of the cotton South. Rural values and agricultural interests dominated the community. City leaders ensured that public spaces and businesses in downtown were racially segregated. The town joined others in the region in welcoming members of the Second Ku Klux Klan as they marched down Main St. in 1924. The city leadership forced Commerce’s African American community into the industrialized and under-served eastern side of downtown, an area that became known as the Norris Community. Desegregation came to Commerce schools in 1965. The city approved an open housing policy in 1968, but continued to make slow progress towards equal access and equal opportunity.
As with many downtowns across America, the automobile first brought new customers, then created parking problems, and finally allowed people to take their business to more distant stores in larger towns and cities. The railroad’s influence on the town waned in the 1950s, with the roundhouse closing in 1950 and passenger service ending in 1956. Cotton processing operations also began to falter, with the last local gin closing in 1978. Commerce hardware stores, general stores, drug stores, movie theaters, barbers, and banks each continued to thrive into the 1960s. At that point the town’s commercial center began moving to the Commerce Plaza Shopping Center on Culver and shopping centers along Live Oak St. and Highway 50. The arrival of Walmart in 1979 signaled the end of downtown as the center of commercial life.
In response, downtown merchants collaborated with members of the university community to beautify and revitalize downtown. These efforts resulted in the creation of a garden club as well as plans for revitalization that were completed in 1987. These efforts added ADA access ramps, shade trees, distinctive five-orbed street lights, and planter beds. Unfortunately, this beautification effort was ultimately unable to reverse the downtown’s economic decline. This reached a low point with the closing of Drake’s Furniture in 2004 after 83 years of business.
In the 2010s, however, there were signs of new life in downtown. Multiple storefronts were restored to their historical look and the opening of a number of new businesses, including a coffee shop and wine and craft beer restaurant have brought many university students and community members back to downtown. With its historic architecture and rich, if sometimes troubled, history, there are many reasons to hope that Commerce will follow the path blazed by other small towns to bring the life of the entire community back to downtown.