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."
There's lots of history in the minutes — how members toasted the Duke of Cumberland for quashing the Jacobite rebellion (1746), delayed a meeting due to "the alarming situation … occasioned by an invasion of the British Fleet" (1777) and quarreled over slavery (1855) and secession (1861).
On a recent Thursday morning, history comes to life.
At the clubhouse, two flags — the British Royal Standard and the Maryland ensign — are crossed at the hearth, evoking the days when members hailed only the queen. An American flag recalls how members helped win the war for independence.
The day's steward, Sandy Clark of Easton, greets all members and guests, offering up conversation laced with history. A retired naval officer, he was commissioned aboard the USS Constitution, the frigate that club member and Navy hero Commodore Isaac Mayo commanded during the 1850s.
"It's an honor to have this duty," says Clark, 64, who has spent three days working with his wife to prepare the day's meal.
The clubhouse, which still lacks electricity or running water, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and it looks as it has for generations. A long table runs down the center. Mayo's sea chest stands in a corner. A framed, handwritten member log hangs on one wall.
Wilson, a retired printing executive, shows off the Chinese punch bowl acquired in 1799 — used to serve the club's secret drink, a blend of bourbon, rum, brandy and champagne so potent it must be diluted 2:1 with water.
"Have a taste, my boy," he says.
It's an hour or two until lunch, and everyone flocks outside for cocktails and conversation.
Half the members are politically liberal, half conservative, Wilson says, one reason they avoid discussing politics. But topics abound, from boat trips to boyhood larks.
Wilson spots the Rev. Bill Ticknor, longtime rector of St. James Episcopal Church in Lothian.
"The parson!" Wilson cries, and Ticknor, whose parish was founded as part of the Act of Establishment in 1695, unfurls a few tales of growing up in the Mount Royal section of Baltimore.
Ticknor approaches a member whose wife died just days before. He bows in sympathy.
"She was sick for a long time," the man says. "It was as though her batteries ran down." Another friend salutes his courage in coming.
And Geordie French of Monkton, 56, an Iglehart on his mother's side and a seventh-generation member, tells a visitor of his late grandfather, Joseph Iglehart, a financier who helped bring the Orioles to Baltimore in 1954 and soon became their largest shareholder.
"Ask the average fan who the [original] owner was, and they'll probably say Jerry Hoffberger," the team's majority owner from 1965 to 1979, he says, shrugging as he puffs a cigar. "But I won't bore you with that story."
Instead he flashes an iPhone photo — a group picture from a meeting in the 1990s. It's hard to miss one guest leaning against the clubhouse wall: Brooks Robinson, a family friend.
"Finest gentleman I've ever known," he says.
The earliest minutes were lost in the fire, but independent historical accounts suggest the Old South River Club predates England's oldest current social organization, White's, which was founded in 1698, and America's next-oldest, the State in Schuylkill Club of Philadelphia (1732).
Membership has waxed and waned over the years — it dropped to two at one point after the Civil War — but it has long held steady at 25. Openings occur when members die and are filled from a long waiting list.
When weighing an aspirant, the club considers family ties first, then such other factors as affability and achievement. There have been no female or nonwhite members, though no rules prohibit either.
"You pretty much have to show you can stand on your feet and tell a good story and be pleasant to everybody," says Wilson, whose father, John, was a member and whose mother, Emily, was the county's first female doctor.
Punch keeps flowing
The club rarely opens its doors to the press. This year, members took months to decide to admit a reporter for a meeting day, and even then he was asked not to bring a photographer and excluded from the meal. But everything unfolded per tradition.
First, members toasted the queen, the president and the host's wife for helping make a delicious meal. Second, servers brought in shrimp cocktails and turtle soup, then smoked Southern Maryland ham and other regional delicacies. Members kept one another's punch glasses full, a practice that fueled two hours of uproarious banter, with each member standing to tell a tale or two.
"Some might even [have been] accurate," Wilson says.
The five guests were then introduced and asked to speak or otherwise entertain. After dismissing them, members conducted a business meeting, voting on how to spend the $125 dues per year each member contributes. Recent upgrades include an electric pump for the well, a new outhouse and a wider gate.
Then, as the glow of "lucky liquor" blended with that of a setting sun, they hit the side yard for a few rounds of quoits.
The ancient English game calls for players to toss small rings toward a series of stakes. The club's solid brass set dates to 1742.
Some members take it quite seriously, but it matters less who wins, Wilson says, than that everyone gets another chance in two months, as members have done regularly for 270 years.
He rattles the ice in his glass and smiles.
"We're proud of our traditions," he says.