Originally known as Cow Hill (because herds of cattle ranged along the ridge between the Middle and South Sulphur rivers), Commerce owes its beginning to J. H. “Si” Jackson who opened a store in 1864 just north of the current city limits. Jackson’s store, a few houses, and a post office established in 1870 attracted other settlers, and by 1872 a public school was opened. In 1873 William Jernigin and his sons built a store on his farm, which was near the present center of business. After 100 families were established here, Mr. Jernigin gave a section of his land to the community to build a town square. In 1874 the first Masonic Lodge was organized, and by 1875 the community could also boast a cotton gin, a flour mill and a blacksmith shop.
Incorporated on September 25, 1885, with a population of about 145, Commerce was governed by Mayor W. W. Rutland and four aldermen. A new school was built in 1884 at the site of the former A. L. Day Elementary School and about 100 pupils attended. The first jail was built in 1885; before this, prisoners were tied to a horse rack in the middle of town where they remained until someone paid their bond.
In 1887 the St. Louis Southwestern Railroad spurred a period of continuous growth with the completion of rail lines into Commerce. This provided connections with Texarkana, Sherman and Fort Worth. The first brick buildings in Commerce were built that year on the north and west sides of the square. And, in 1888, two more rooms were added to the schoolhouse and a newspaper, the Jury, began publication. The First National Bank was established in 1889; and, in 1890, the first edition of the Commerce Journal was published. Commerce is also the birthplace of General Claire Lee Chennault of Flying Tigers fame.
In 1894, after a fire destroyed the school he had established in Cooper, W. L. Mayo moved East Texas Normal College to Commerce as a result of an offer by the city of a $10,000 building and 10 acres of land. On September 3, 1894, Professor Mayo and 35 students attended their first class in Commerce in a brick business building downtown. A fire in 1897 destroyed the buildings along one side of Main Street. When they were rebuilt 40 feet were added to the street width, making it 80 feet wide.
In the early 1900’s educational and commercial growth continued: East Texas Normal College had 702 students and 15 teachers by 1906; the public school system under Superintendent A. L. Day employed 10 teachers for Commerce’s 711 pupils; the Commerce Board of Trade was organized in 1909 by Commerce Journal publisher Sterling Hart; a sewage system with five miles of pipe was installed in 1910; the public well in the square was filled in and the hitching rack around it removed. The square was paved between 1918 and 1920.
Beginning from a small store on a ridge between two rivers, Commerce grew and prospered, emerging as a community which owes its beginnings to the railroad and shops. Its current economic health is due to a major state university, over 400 business establishments and steadily expanding industries.