Old South River

The Old South River Club, which dates back before 1700, claims to bethe oldest social club in America. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun / September 21, 2012)

It's a sun-splashed morning in rolling southern Anne Arundel County, and a cluster of old oaks and maples make a fine canopy for the 25 gentlemen gathered at the cottage they see as a shrine.

Some wear seersucker blazers and boating shoes. Many sport neckties with their club's logo — a British flag and an American flag, their staffs crossed. Their laughter echoes off the clubhouse, a bungalow built 34 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

"We have an ancient tradition — it never rains on meeting day at the Old South River Club," says Chris Wilson, a longtime member of the tiny Harwood society that calls itself "the oldest continuously operating social club in the English-speaking world."

Wilson, 74, lives a mile or so down Solomons Island Road, where he owns Obligation Farm, a property King Charles II of England first granted to a family of supporters, the Stocketts, in 1666. A few decades later, a Stockett grandson helped found the Old South River Club to promote "fellowship and fulsome discussion" among the area's English settlers.

Today, the inheritors of that tradition, many of them descended from charter members, still meet half a dozen times a year to feast on Southern Maryland delicacies, fill an ancient punch bowl and entertain each other with ribbing, stories and song.

Like the old churches and plantation homes that dot the landscape, the Old South River Club is a remnant of a time long past. But it's still thriving, members say, because it cultivates an element of life as basic today as it was to the pioneers: a need to connect with like-minded others amiably, regularly and face to face.

Meetings are "a time and place to turn off our cell phones, leave the world behind, forget about how the crops are doing or how someone's trying to sue you," says Wilson, who recently completed a two-year stint as club president. "It's a delightful, enjoyable day. That is still a powerful draw."

'Oldest social club'

Head eight miles south of Annapolis on Route 2 past the fast-food joints and gas stations, then east at 343-year-old All Hallows Episcopal Church, and you'll enter the South River Hundred, what settlers called the wooded area between the South, Rhode and Patuxent rivers near then-bustling London Town. (The term "hundred" dates to 11th-century England, where the Norman conquerors split the nation into units that could provide 100 soldiers apiece if needed.)

You'll see it after a mile or so, a half-acre of ground surrounded by a post-and-rail fence. The highway marker out front reads: "ORGANIZED 1700; HOUSE BUILT 1742; THE OLDEST SOCIAL CLUB IN AMERICA." The plain wooden clubhouse stands in the middle.

Old articles in the Maryland Gazette suggest the club was born as early as 1690, which is about when Tom Gassaway, a local landowner's son, leased the property to the society for 80 pounds — for a total of 999 years. "We're about a third of the way through [our term]," Wilson says jokingly. "We'd better start making plans."

The club's history had a kink in 1740, when a fire destroyed the original clubhouse, but members soon got the "new" one up and running. They've kept minutes of every meeting since, and the notes are a sketch of history.

The first settlers, according to the minutes, were mainly planters and merchants, with a few clerics and doctors thrown in — men determined to civilize a rugged land. Living miles apart on farms, they needed a place for sharing information and socializing. About 20 such men used London's social clubs as models when they started the South River Club, eventually known as the Ancient or Old South River Club.

There was no charter, but traditions took root. The group met weekly, caught local game and cooked it in an open fireplace. They drank. (One bylaw forbade mixing liquor after 6 p.m.; 4 p.m. in the winter.) And though subjects differed from today's, everyone talked.

"Crops, cattle and horses were ever present and important topics," according to "The Ancient South River Club: A Brief History," which four members wrote in 1952. So were "the gossip of the neighborhood, books and papers," and "there were … stories to be told and jokes to be made."

By 1800 or so, the group was holding four dinner meetings a year, as it does now. Members alternated as steward, the individual who prepares the dinner and gets it to the site. May's event featured Maryland leg of lamb, July's wild mallard, September's fried chicken and November's wild turkey. The club later added two "hunt breakfasts" per year.

It was exclusive for space reasons: The cottage could accommodate only 25 people, which in time became the limit on club membership. Any local male could apply, though the process heavily favored descendants of previous members. Surnames like Harwood, Stockett, Iglehart and Worthington recurred in the rolls.

Socially connected or not — and about 80 percent of today's members have blood links to prior ones — no one could or can be admitted without visiting on club day, proving himself a good storyteller and surviving not just a wave of pointed barbs but also a secret ballot (unanimous approval required).

Members don't need any special reason to reject an applicant, and everyone gets "balled," or "blackballed," at least once, Wilson says with a laugh.

"It's like getting married," adds member Jonathan Hyde of Gibson Island, whose late father, the architect Bryden Hyde, tried unsuccessfully for years to get him in before he was finally admitted. "You're going to be meeting with these people six times a year for the rest of your life. The last thing you want to do is make a mistake."