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The (Anti-)Country Club



“I wouldn’t want to be a member of a club that would have me.”—Groucho Marx

Living in a small town like Agincourt, the very idea of a country club seems odd, especially during the 19th century when everyone was within walking distance of what would generally have been accepted as “country”. Indeed, it calls into question the very definition of that and similar words like rural and rustic and their opposites like urban and city. Howard has some ruminations on Agincourt’s version.

Oh, by the way, don’t you know there’s a story behind the very Prairie School clubhouse in Waco, Texas. And don’t you know that drinks there would have been interesting. Wish I knew more.

“A few figs from thistles…

by Howard A. Tabor

“…a club that would have me.”

The whereabouts of the original country club is not a hotly contested question. Might be Boston; might be Philadelphia. But it was certainly in the 1880s or early 90s.As upper middle class enclaves for families without the substantial acreage of a country retreat, such clubs afforded their membership recreational opportunities unavailable in crowded cities—golf, tennis, swimming in a place more genteel than McElligot’s Hole.

But, as social institutions, they also held out the potential for exclusion: socialization without “others” who might differ by race, religion, ethnicity, even gender. Think of the Masters Tournament that still excludes women golfers. Which makes the hundred-year history of our own take on countrified clubbery all the more interesting.

A Peoples’ Palace

Toqueville wrote about Americans’ tendency toward association. We group and regroup at the drop of a pin and happily belong to multiple groups at once. So it wasn’t surprising when a group of Archers* chose in the Winter of 2013-2014 to underwrite a clubhouse for recreation, with courts for tennis, nine holes for golf and rooms for cards and mahjongg.

The seeds for such a scheme had been laid twenty-four year before by half-term mayor Edmund Fitzgerald Flynn. The Boston-born Flynn’s family had apparently been excluded from a social club there—some anti-Finian prejudice among Boston’s Brahmans—and the time had come for turnabout. A coven of similar exclusionistically-oriented folks met for a few dinners to iron out the details. But the whole affair fell apart with the mayor’s untimely death, face forward in a plate of pasta at the monthly Commercial Club dinner.

Frank Lloyd Wright was once asked for planning advice by a group of powerful Bostonians. His suggestion? “What this town needs,” Wright said, “is forty good funerals.” The years between 1896 and 1913 gave us a good measure of those interventions: Ed and his cohorts went to Glory, and the project went on a back burner. Victorian became Edwardian, and with that shift came the smoldering of Progressivism. What had been imagined as an elite (effete?) members-only social club became a People’s Palace of sorts. Larger examples can be found from London to Melbourne and Moscow, so ours barely registers on the social Richter Scale.

Supplementing the YMCA built only five years earlier and the public library collection still housed in the GAR Room at the courthouse, The Town House was built at the city’s east edge on a former farmstead ready for transition. How many children’s birthdays, weddings and anniversaries have enjoyed that modest building? Physiculture has given way to bocce ball and pinochle to tai chi. On the centennial of its founding, I hope Rowan Oakes’ students in “public history” might tell the story.

I’ve got some influence there. So stay tuned.

Not to mention another opportunity to play in the sandbox of history.

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