Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Monday Evening Club: A history

Presented to the Club by Rabbi Harold I. Salzmann on May 10, 1999

Note: This paper was presented just prior to the Club’s 130th anniversary in 1999. In the fall of 2009, the Club plans a celebration of its 140th anniversary. Throughout the following text, bracketed information updates the 1999 facts and figures to their 2009 status.

As some of you may recall from a program I gave here a number of years back, Francis Joseph (Franz Josef) I, some 130 [140] years ago, was the first reigning monarch of Europe to visit the Holy Land since the Crusades of the 13th century. That very special visit allowed the Hapsburg ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to participate in another momentous happening that same year — the opening of the Suez Canal on November 17, and the premier performance of “Aida,” composed by Verdi, who had been commissioned by Ismail Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt, to write an opera in honor of this historic occasion. Here in America, those 13 [14] decades back, Ulysses Simpson Grant had been inaugurated President of the United States and two months later the nation’s first transcontinental railroad had been completed with the driving in of the golden spike that united the railroad ties connecting the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads at Promontory Point, Utah. [Rev. John Todd, a member of the Club, delivered the prayer of invocation at that event.]

Indeed, 1869 was a year of signal happenings, not the least of which were, with all due modesty, two transpiring right here in the Berkshires, of which the first we are noting here in this paper — the founding of the Monday Evening Club on November 11, and the second, three days later: the founding of the first Jewish religious congregation in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts west of Boston, Society Anshe Amunim. [The author of this paper, Rabbi Salzmann, served this congregation for many years.] In the latter case, 17 heads of households were invited to the home of Charles Wolff on Jubilee Hill on Sunday, November 14, and in the former instance, on Thursday evening, November 11, 16 men were in attendance at the Plunkett home to discuss the formation of what is now the Monday Evening Club. The initial invitation for this last was dated November 1, 1869 and was sent by Thomas F. Plunkett to a select group of the leading men of the central Berkshire community for an evening meeting on November 3. For some reason the meeting had to be postponed until Thursday, November 11.

Those present for that original meeting, 130 [140] years ago come this November, were, of course, Thomas F. Plunkett, great-grandfather of our current member by the same name, as well as Edward Strong, John M. Taylor, William G. Harding, Thomas Colt, J. F. A. Adams, William B. Rice, Charles V. Spear, John Tatlock, Jacob L. Greene, William F. Bartlett, William C. Richards, John Todd, Frank K. Paddock, Henry L. Dawes and Henry S. Briggs. Shortly afterwards, five others agreed to join the new organization — Ensign H. Kellogg, William R. Plunkett, Thomas P. Pingree, Benjamin Chickering and George P. Briggs — and they, too, should be considered among the founders. All in all, the 1869 founding group totaled 21 members.

It is difficult for us to really imagine just what life was like during the winters here in the Berkshires 130 [140] years ago. The winters unquestionably were far more severe than they have been during our own lifetimes. Undoubtedly, in recent decades we’ve experienced climatic changes which have had a moderating effect upon our Berkshire winters. But 130 [140] years ago the winters must have been far more debilitating than they are now. There was very little in the way of entertainment diversions — no theaters, no movies, no radio, no television — the long nights allowed very little in the way of pleasurable enjoyments. These conditions, of course, prevailed almost everywhere in the northern climes. Elsewhere, perhaps because of similar seasonal conditions, social innovations of an intellectual kind were becoming more and more popular, particularly in the larger metropolitan areas. These big city happenings, plus the dreary winter conditions here in the Berkshires, possibly were the stimuli that may have provided the motivation for Thomas Plunkett’s original invitation of November 1, 1869. Boston already had a number of such social-cultural groups which were meeting on a regular weekly or fortnightly basis. From the Club’s own minutes, we read that Haverhill, Massachusetts had formed, ten years earlier in 1859, a “Monday Evening Club.” The plan originally adopted by the original founding members of our Club was quite simple. The goal was to assemble not more than 30 men (remember, homes of the better-off were generally much larger than they are today) — 30 men of the kind who would appreciate intellectual stimulation, who would like writing an original essay, who would enjoy listening to it and then, adding by way of comment, criticism, information or ideas, further enhancement to the subject or theme of the program presentation.

This form of cerebral entertainment was to be preceded by a dinner provided by the host who also determined the venue for the dinner gathering. For the overwhelming majority of members that venue was their homes. Over the years, however, having such large numbers at one’s home for a dinner meeting proved difficult for even those many who may have had the space and support facilities required to host the membership and before too long alternate sites for showing one’s hospitality became more and more common. The early minutes begin to make mention of such places as the American House, the White Tree Inn, the Maplewood Music School, the Pittsfield Country Club, the Park Club, the Board Room of the Berkshire Life Insurance Co., the South Street Inn, and one of the most frequently mentioned, the Wendell Hotel, which was still quite popular in my early years of membership in the Club. And, from what is stated in the initial set of by-laws, the dinner meetings were to be scheduled every other Monday evening, November through March. With some 20 to 30 members, in the 19th century the Club featured some 10 to 15 dinner meetings a year in contrast to our present schedule of approximately seven or eight. Incidentally, the by-laws, since the original 1869 version, have been revised four subsequent times. Whatever the case, it is of interest to note that the Club has never been too strict about making its members abide by its rules; flexibility and sympathetic understanding having always been an unwritten aspect of the by-laws. As James Rosenthal, himself an outstanding lawyer of a generation back and a longtime member of the Club, more than a half century ago observed, “whatever may be said about the government which governs best when it governs least, it is certainly true of our Club….its by-laws, like certain necessary household appliances, have always been kept in decent obscurity, and referred to, if at all, with something less than reverential respect.”

Originally, it was deemed by the founders to be prudent to caution members against treating with subjects which might be politically or religiously controversial. Thomas Plunkett observed in a paper he wrote for the Club’s 30th anniversary, 100 [110] years ago, that one of its most rancorous meetings once took place at the home of Judge Thomas Colt in 1880. It seems that at this particular meeting, George P. Briggs read a paper on Marcus Aurelius during the course of which he ascribed to that Roman emperor such “Christian” virtues and attributes as would assure him eternal life, i.e. a place in heaven. Plunkett observes in his paper that “subsequently the heavy pastoral guns of the church” (there were three clergymen in the Club at the time) “were brought into action greatly to the irritation of the reader, Briggs, who defended himself with ability and considerable heat.” And Plunkett (our own T. F. Plunkett Jr.’s ancestor) goes on to state, “those of us who were wise, kept out of the conflict, or attempted to be peacemakers. It was abundantly proven that the founders of the Club were wise in excluding partisan and sectarian subjects from papers to be read.” Whatever the case, since 1916 the Club’s by-laws have made no provisions against papers dealing with controversial subjects. In clerical terms, readers have what the clergy would call a “free pulpit.” The only requirements pertaining to papers to be read by members is that they be no more than 40 minutes long and the reading or program together with the discussion to follow ought not extend beyond two hours. As for the subject, it can be based on any scientific, literary or general interest matter so chosen by the person who is scheduled to prepare the program for the meeting.

Good attendance was a by-law mandate. However, early in the Club’s history, rathe than exercise the by-law provision for dropping members for frequent absences, fines of 25 cents per absence (and tardiness, too) were levied at the end of the year and collected. The minutes record the names of those penalized and in view of the totals collected the Club’s treasury must have been considerably enhanced because it was not unusual for anywhere between four to thirteen absences to be recorded for a meeting.

As for the governance of the Club, that has always been quite simple. From the start there was the need for one member to arrange the schedule of meetings and designate the readers and hosts, and therefore, a Club secretary was a necessity from the start and the by-laws so indicate this need. At first there were two secretaries chosen by lot every year. But this obviously proved unsatisfactory and before the first year had ended it was decided to elect a permanent secretary. From 1879 to 1909 George H. Tucker served in that capacity — a period of some 30 years. My own tenure as Club secretary began in 1972 and I, obviously, am in the midst of my 27th [37th] year of service in this capacity. The Club also has an interim chairman — whoever may be the host for the dinner meeting — and an executive committee of three members, who are, according to the by-laws, supposed to be elected at the start of each year but in current practice are now the seniors in terms of length of Club membership. Our current [1999] executive committee consists of Robert G. Newman, Roger B. Linscott, and Thomas F. Plunkett Jr. [Currently in 2009: Kelton M. Burbank, William A. Selke, and Albert E. Eastman]

Some 181 [188] men have been elected to membership in the Club in the past 130 [140] years. I would estimate that approximately 2100 [1300*] papers or programs have been presented for the membership’s edification and enjoyment over the now almost 13 [14] decades of the Club’s existence. At some future anniversary occasion we might read a selective list of titles of some of the programs and papers give in the earlier history of the Club — titles which we clergy would call “transparent” appellations. The custom during the last half-century, however, has been otherwise, rather to make the titles conundrums — guessing games — with the obvious purpose of keeping hidden the content or the subject of the presentation. Not so was the practice for the first half century or more of the Club’s history. Papers with titles such “The history of the Gypsy race” by John Todd, one of Rick Floyd’s predecessors; “Bible in the schools” by Edward Strong; “The Sabbath: What is the proper observance of it?” by H. S. Briggs; “Fur seals of Alaska” by Henry L. Dawes [1816-1903; U.S. representative from Massachusetts 1857-1875; U.S. Senator from Massachusetts 1875-1893]; and Walter Kellogg’s “Beginnings of Pittsfield” and his “Goethe and the religious philosophy of Faust” left it very clear, very “transparent” as to what the subject was to be. Not so, however, in my almost 45 [55] years of Club membership. With such titles as “Opus 20,” “Replication is the test,” “Top shelf,” “Sugar and spice and everything nice,” and “Towery city and branchy between towers” it is nigh impossible to anticipate or guess the night’s topic and prepare in advance some commentary for it. I could go on and on — but I best leave off at this point and promise, as mentioned earlier, that I shall try to compile a more extensive listing of past titles of delivered Monday Evening Club papers and programs for some future meeting or — God willing — some future anniversary occasion.

But before concluding this particular presentation, let me make mention of some past practices of the Club which have long since been abandoned but are surely worthy of possible revival. The first is the custom, at one time in our Club’s history, of reading short biographies and/or memoirs about deceased members. These were accustomed to be given, in addition to the regular paper, by another member of the Club or else at a special memorial meeting of the Club scheduled for that specific purpose. The minutes record, in this last connection, that on February 20, 1882 written eulogies were delivered for eight deceased members of the Club. I understand that these were kept with the Club records at one time but I have not seen them.

A more happy custom was that of holding an annual summer meeting of some kind. Some of these happenings were illustrated by material I distributed at our 125th anniversary celebration at the Rockwell Museum, some of you may recall. The old records indicate, for example, that the first such happening took place on June 10, 1876 at the Stockbridge House, now known as the Red Lion Inn. Two years after that, the Club on June 26, 1878 took the train to Adams and then journeyed up Mount Greylock for a summer picnic. In July 1879, the following year, the Club hired carriages to Lee and stopped at the Lenox Club on its way home to Pittsfield. Evidently there was a similar kind of Club to ours in Lee at the time, for in June, 1880 the records state the Club met on the lawn of George P. Briggs with the Lee Club and then were driven by carriage after lunch to Potter Mountain. In June, 1881 the Club took the train to Great Barrington and then, by horse-drawn carriages, visited [the town of] Mount Washington. Again in 1882 another summer excursion to Great Barrington and from there on to Bash Bish Falls (a site, incidentally, I have yet to visit despite my own 45 [55] years of residency here in the Berkshires). In 1883 the Club drove by carriage to Pontoosuc Lake where the members enjoyed a summer picnic lunch in what was then called Hodecker’s Grove (anyone know exactly where this was?). In the summers of 1884, 1885, 1886, 1887, 1888 and 1889 the Club was entertained by its member Byron Weston [Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts 1880-1883] at his “Great Hearth Lodge” on Windsor Mountain.

Without question, one of the most ambitious summer trips was the arduous excursion the Club took to journey to Cummington in August, 1894 in order to participate in the centennial birthday celebration of William Cullen Bryant, who was a native of that Berkshire town. Another long-distance summer adventure took place on Saturday, August 6, 1898 when 20 members of the Club and guests took the train to Springfield to visit Mount Tom for dinner and sightseeing. The all-inclusive cost per member for that summer excursion was four dollars per person, according to the minutes. Such summer get-togethers during the Club’s, as it were, “off-season” continued on into the early 1900s. A number of them took place at Mount Pleasant, the Windsor summer residence of Winthrop Murray Crane [1853-1920; Lt. Gov. of Massachusetts, 1897-1900; Governor 1900-1903; U. S. Senator from Massachusetts 1904-1913] , who had become a member of the Club in 1914. Even before he became an official member of the Club, Crane had been in the habit of inviting the Club to his summer home for an August or early September outing. And frequently these invitations were combined with an invitation also to the wives of the Club members from his father, Zenas Crane, for a late afternoon tea at the senior Crane’s residence back in Dalton. These summer outings apparently were abandoned sometime during the 1920s. Many years ago I remember talking to our late friend and member, Bob Bardwell, about reviving the custom and he thought the Lenox Club might be an ideal site for such an event. However, he was unable to get agreement on such an arrangement and the two of us abandoned the proposed project. A more successful attempt to bring off a summer happening, some of you will recall, took place when we arranged an outing at the summer home of our member, Dr. Harry Judson, in Canaan, N. Y. in 1981. That venture of 18 [28] years ago was the last summer meeting the Club has experienced. From the records and recollections of these long-ago summer ventures, they were most enjoyable experiences. Hopefully, the Club may choose some time in the future to re-institute these annual summer get-togethers. [At Rabbi Salzmann’s prodding, the Club has had several such outings in the last few years, including a return to the William Cullen Bryant homestead 110 years after the our visit.]

As we meet together here tonight for the last session of our 129th year, let me conclude this brief history of our Club by quoting the words of William R. Plunkett (the brother of Thomas F. Plunkett) at the 30th anniversary of our venerable association in November 1899. Observed this charter member of the Monday Evening Club on that occasion now almost 100 [110] years ago:

Under a simple organization, this Club has maintained its existence for 30 years. None of us is certainly any the worse in mind or heart on account of it. How many of us have been lifted up to higher planes or thought by the associations with this Club, none of us can tell. It is a success to have kept up the Club and interest in it for nearly a generation. Part of this is due to the fact we have not tried to do too much, but have been content in being, in the language of Dr. Johnson in defining a club, “an assembly of good fellows under certain conditions.” The conditions have been a limited intellectual entertainment and an unlimited supper.
As we bring our 129th [139th] year to a close this evening, and look forward later this year to the official celebration of our 130th [140th] anniversary, let us express the hope that this Monday Evening Club of ours will continue to go from strength to strength to ever increasing strength as, and again in Dr. Johnson’s words, “an assembly of good fellows under certain conditions” — yes those very special and wonderful conditions, whatever they may be and have been — that have nurtured and sustain our club all these now almost 130 [140] years.

*Note: while Rabbi Salzmann estimated 2100 papers had been presented as of 1999, closer review of the frequency of meetings over the years suggests that the actual count is between 1400 and 1500. In the first season, 1869-1870, 18 of the 21 original members presented papers. But the following season, with three more members added for a total of 25, there were 12 papers. So after what was probably deemed too strenuous a regimen (hosting and presenting in the same season), the Club appears to have settled very quickly on the pattern of having about half the members read papers each season. An 1899 account states that in the first 30 years, there were 342 papers presented, or about 11 per year. We estimate that this rate continued during the next 70 years, while in the past 40 years the pace dropped to between 8 and 9 papers annually, for a cumulative total of about 1450 papers. Research continues. — Editor

Photo by designwallah, used under Creative Commons License.

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