THE PULASKI CLUB

WILLIAMSBURG, VIRGINIA

(Founded 1779)


Casimir Pulaski belongs to that select group of heroes who oppose tyranny not only in their own homelands, but wherever they find it. We especially honor Pulaski because he paid the ultimate price, having sustained a mortal wound while fighting for American independence at the battle of Savannah in 1779. Today he remains a symbol of the ideal of valiant resistance to oppression everywhere in the world.
In about 1777, a group of Virginians began meeting as a social club at the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg, Virgina. General George Washington mentions the Williamsburg club in some of his letters, and tradition holds that in 1779, the members accepted the General's recommendation to venerate the memory of Casimir Pulaski and name their group in his honor as a tribute to Puaski's valiant service and personal sacrifice in the cause of American freedom.

The club has records that go back over 100 years.

It is probable that any older records were lost or destroyed during the "Late Unpleasantness" of 1861-1865.

Stone Marker set in brick at "the benches" across
from Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, Virginia

PULASKI CLUB TRADITIONS
1. Membership is limited to 34, a number established by tradition sometime during the last century.
2. There are no dues, but there is an initiation fee of a quart of Virginia Bourbon Whisky
3. The Membership Card is written out on an Octagon Soap Wrapper.
4. Two members constitute a quorum.
5. The regular meeting place is "the benches" located in front of the Cole Shop on Duke of Gloucester Street in the Historic Area.
6. An "Annual Sociable" is held once a year usually for the purpose of drinking a toast to any departed members and to bring in any new members needed to bring the roster back up to 31.
7. Tenets: Truth, Honesty, and Sobriety.

Click here to learn more about the life of Count Casimir Pulaski


More about the Pulaski Club, reprinted from "Colonial Williamsburg Magazine"

Club Members On the Benches  -  April 2013

Born of legend, nourished by tradition, this "seething bed of social rest" lives on in Williamsburg

THE PULASKI CLUB
by Wilford Kale

Club members wanted everything as usual. They would treat their newest member like everyone else, except that he was not like everyone else. He was John D. Rockefeller, Jr., of New York and the club was the Pulaski Club of Williamsburg.

The date was 1950, and although he had begun his involvement in the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg in 1926, "Mr. Rockefeller's initiation into the Pulaski Club signaled not only Williamsburg's recognition of him as its great benefactor but he was now one of the 'the good old boys' as well," Ed Spencer, a club member himself, wrote last year just before his death.

There are numerous stories-some factual and others apocryphal-relating to the dinner Rockefeller attended. This is the nature of the club - discussion and talk, stories and tales.

So, it is not unusual that in the Pulaski Club, where history is venerated and the old days of Williamsburg are perpetuated and often embellished, that much of its own history has been lost with the passage of time. There are no club minutes for most meetings, but some club records, mostly in longhand, incomplete, disorganized and uncataloged, at least have been preserved. Details about the club, however, are more a collection of lore than of specifics.

Afternoon at "the Benches"

The late Thomas Moyles, longtime general manager of the Williamsburg Inn and a club member, probably provided the best definition of the Pulaski Club: a loosely knit group of like-minded individuals who like to see things go their way. A newer member, Dr. David Tetrault, likes to describe the group "as a seething bed of social rest."

Three wooden benches, situated in a "U" shape in front of the old Cole Shop and across from Bruton Parish Church on Duke of Gloucester Street, form the club's daily meeting place in the spring, summer, and fall months. For years its winter home was in the rear of the Cole Shop, but now the group gets together in the wintertime in members' homes.

The club was believed to have been founded at the Raleigh Tavern about 1777 by a group of local men as a social organization, and only The Old Colony Club of Boston, another social club that dates from 1769, claims to be older. Nevertheless, the name of Polish Count Casimir Pulaski, who came to the colonies to fight with George Washington, became attached to the club in 1779 after Pulaski's death.

The Virginia Gazette reported Pulaski visited Williamsburg on April 16, 1779, "with his retinue, etc. on their way to the Southward" to join General Benjamin Lincoln in South Carolina. By that time Pulaski had fought with Washington at Brandywine and Germantown and resigned his commission as brigadier after an argument with General Anthony Wayne at Valley Forge. Later, the Continental Congress authorized him to form an independent corps of cavalry and light infantry.

Nothing is known about how the count was received in Williamsburg as he passed through the city. But his name was selected for veneration by the club apparently upon the recommendation of General Washington. There is a mention by Washington in several of his letters about "the club" in Williamsburg, and legend has it that Washington proposed to club members that Pulaski's accomplishments on behalf of the cause should be commemorated.

What happened to the club over the next hundred years is lost. Did they continue to meet at the Raleigh? Who were its members? Was it created as a reaction by men of the town to Phi Beta Kappa, a social organization created a year earlier-also at the Raleigh-by students from the College of William and Mary?

No written account of the organization survives until 1877. The minutes of that year are preserved among the group's memorabilia, and the annual "sociable" that closed the year was the subject of a newspaper article published in the Norfolk Landmark , July 15, 1877.

Herbert L. Ganter, for years archivist at the College of William and Mary, and Dr. Henry E. Davis of Eastern State Hospital, club members, spent hours in the early 1960s researching the club. Based on the information they collected, including published accounts and the club's surviving minutes, it appears that the organization lapsed sometime during or after the "Late Unpleasantness of 1861-1865." It reappeared in the guise of a college club sometime between 1870 and 1875, when Henry Dennison "Den" Cole of Williamsburg was a student.

Wren Building, College of William & Mary, circa 1890

The newspaper account of the 1877 "closing" meeting carried toasts by individuals identified only by initials: Mr. Y.P.B., Mr. W-----n, Mr. G. DeG. Most of those first members apparently were students at William and Mary, because Ganter found members of the college's senior class whose names fit the initials.

Reinforcing Ganter's belief that the Pulaski Club of 1877 consisted of students was the fact that the college session ended in early July, and the newspaper account makes reference to the club president's lament: "We have all gathered, probably for the last time, around this board. Some of you will leave soon for your distant homes….we break the association tonight which has found us together for three successive years." Ganter would say this points to a graduation of its members.

Cole, evidently, carried the club from the college to his family-operated business-the Cole Shop-on Duke of Gloucester Street. Gradually the group comprised businessmen of the town and college professors, many of them prominent citizens. As the years went by, it was not unusual for members to be found at the Cole Shop sitting around a wood stove in the back room.

After meeting at Cole's for so many years, the old two-story wooden building gradually became known as simply the Pulaski Club. Cole had been a member for more than 60 years when he died in 1936. A 1962 newspaper account carried interviews with several members who had known Cole. They recounted how he even supplied the wood for the stove and frequently became exasperated when members refused to get up to rekindle a dying fire.

Former Pulaski Meeting Place at the Cole Shop

Today, it takes an Octagon soap wrapper, a quart of Virginia bourbon, and years of waiting to become a member. The soap wrapper is used as a membership card and certificate, hand written and signed on the back by the club's president. The Virginia bourbon requirement is at least a century old.

There are three types of club members: "First there are the damned interlopers. They just come and sit down, most of the time without invitation," said Willard Gilley, who served as the club's president from 1977-1979. "The benchwarmers are those who sit with us and if they can take it ….well, then they may be asked to join. Some folks here have waited quite a few years as benchwarmers."

The third category is the regular membership, which for decades numbered 20. Then it was changed to 29 members, because it was mistakenly thought Pulaski was 29 years old when he died. But Gilley tried to set the record straight in 1976: "We just settled on 29 one night when we decided not to invite a fellow to join us. We already had 29 members and just froze it there." Now the membership is limited to 34 men, because the age of Count Pulaski at his death was indeed 34.

What does it take to become a member? In the 1920s a member said that "one must be a good loafer and a good storyteller."

Former president W. Roy Allen said the club was a place where men can sit at leisure and discuss "what's important….A man must be sociable and be able to tell the truth carelessly." Another member suggested, "A Pulaski club member must be able to take either side of an issue and defend it vigorously."

Favorite among story topics are those related to "old Williamsburg," which is generally defined as anytime "before the Restoration" or the coming of Colonial Williamsburg. At a club meeting when the photograph that accompanies this article was taken, more members attended than any other time in recent memory and stayed to discuss the last known moonshine stills in James City County.

There are two cardinal rules of the club that no member violates. First, if the discussion becomes too heated, another member will simply say, "all further comments must be submitted in writing." That ends the discussion. The second rule requires that all members leave at the same time to prevent gossip about other club members. "Please understand," one club member explained, "the Pulaski is not a gossip club."

Ed Belvin, a club member, recalled that right beside the Pulaski Club benches in front of the Cole Shop was an old locust tree that served as the town's bulletin board in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Any news of the town or the college was posted on the old tree by Cole. The club met in June 1955 specifically to discuss the tree, which was termite ridden, but members could not decide whether to have it taken down or to let it fall down.

Club member V. Lee Kirby declared: "Pull it down before it falls on someone." He suggested that its only function was to support a bulletin board that had not carried a bulletin in 15 years.

In the winter months, the club would meet daily in the Cole Shop's back room. In 1939, the Restoration, as Colonial Williamsburg was called by the townspeople, purchased the shop, and the back room was torn off, since it was not part of the original 18th-century building. Sometime in the 1930s, Russian emigrant John Zaharov, at one time an architectural employee of the Restoration, painted a watercolor of the Pulaski Club's back room. Apparently, after becoming concerned about the club's loss of the room, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Mr. Rockefeller's wife, purchased the painting and for years it hung in the front room of the restored Cole Shop. It is now part of the collection at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center.

Stories about "Mr. Rockefeller," as he was always known in his adopted town, and his club membership have become legendary. In 1935, when the benches fell into disrepair, he had new ones built, and the club wrote him a rare letter of thanks. The club routinely does not answer correspondence, and traditionally letters are simply tossed away.

The late Donald J. Gonzales in his excellent The Rockefellers at Williamsburg related many stories about Mr. Rockefeller, but some of the best involve the Pulaski Club. During his early visits, Rockefeller stayed at the Bruton Parish Church rectory, located next door to the Cole Shop and the Pulaski Club benches.

"One day Rockefeller was sitting on the rectory porch, rocking gently and reading the morning newspaper. In a burst of hospitality, a Pulaskian asked the visiting New Yorker to step down and join the group's discussion on the day," Gonzales wrote. "Rockefeller accepted promptly. It was years later, however, that he became one of the "good old boys." As Dr. Carlton J. Casey, now the club's president, said, "He just sat on the bench until there was a place for him in the club."
Rockefeller also did not want to be called "Mr. Rockefeller" when he was sitting on the benches, so to his fellow club members he became simply "John," explained George E. Kidd, who at 89 is the oldest Pulaskian in age and club membership-58 years.

Father, Son, and the Family Dog visit "the Benches"

November 21, 1950, was the day of Rockefeller's "official" installation as a Pulaski Club member, although he apparently had joined the ranks earlier. A dinner meeting was held out of town at Rockefeller's request, because he did not want to attract outside attention. R.W. Kyger, club secretary, contacted Mrs. Cordie Austin, who agreed to let the club meet in her home. She lived in an 18th-century farm house at Green Swamp Farm off Centerville Road between James River Baptist Church and News Road in James City County, five to six miles from the city.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr.

According to her grandson Blair Burleson, "my grandmother was known to be a very outstanding cook. The night of the dinner was a rainy, stormy evening and Grandmother met Mr. Rockefeller at the front door and said she was glad to meet him, "but I feel like I've known you since you started Williamsburg." She was a very unpretentious woman, and his importance would not have impressed her very much," Burleson said.

The dinner fare included "some of her home-cured ham, poultry, green beans, tomatoes and other vegetables-just good Southern cooking. I think the dessert was tapioca," he added.

Another club member in the Gonzales account said Rockefeller "was carried away by such an honor." After the ceremony, Rockefeller said, "I know you want something, tell me what it is, and I'll see if I can provide it." R.W. Kyger, who held the triple title in the club as secretary, treasurer, and sergeant-at-arms, replied, "Mr. Rockefeller, we just want you to be a member of the Pulaski Club."

"What are the dues?" Rockefeller asked. "Four dollars," Kyger replied (probably the cost of the dinner). Then the inevitable happened. Rockefeller felt his pockets. He didn't have any money. Embarrassed, he asked club member Willard Gilley for a quick loan, and the evening ended as Rockefeller paid in full - with borrowed money.


L to R: Jim Anthony, Colin Campbell, Gene Nichol, Bobby Hornsby, and Gil Granger enjoy the 227th Pulaski Club anniversary dinner in the Great Hall of the Wren Building at the College of William & Mary in historic Williamsburg, Virginia.

Click here for more information about the 227th Anniversary Dinner


Send E-mail to The Pulaski Club

LINKS

Pulaski Club Home Page * 225th Anniversary Dinner * History of Count Casimir Pulaski * 227th Anniversary Dinner

Thanks to these sources: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Va; Casimir Pulaski 1747-1779 A Short Biography, written by John J. Kulczycki, Professor of History, University of Illinois at Chicago; Published by the Polish Museum of America, Chicago, IL; and Casimir Pulaski: Father of American Cavalry by Richard Lysiak
Thank you for visiting the official site of the Pulaski Club in Williamsburg, Virginia. The Pulaski Club is not responsible for the content on this page. The Pulaski Club of Williamsburg, Virginia is not particularly responsible for anything at all, except to keep the oral history of Williamsburg alive and spread local lore to future generations of Pulaski Club members in Historic Williamsburg, Virginia.