According to its North Carolina highway historical marker (at Second andChestnut streets, Wilmington [Map this]), the Cape Fear Club is the “oldest gentleman’s club in the South in continuous existence.” Founded on March 3, 1866, and incorporated by the General Assembly on Feb. 8, 1872, it is generally recognized as the oldest men’s social club of its kind in North Carolina.
The roots of the Cape Fear Club actually date back to 1852, when 13 Wilmington men formed a social club (according to some sources, called the “Hollowleg Club”). This group dissolved around the outbreak of the Civil War, but several former members joined with others to found the Cape Fear Club “with a view to promote social intercourse among its members.” Its first meeting place was upstairs at 19 Market St.
The original club was largely made up of Confederate veterans; the 1868 membership roster listed one former brigadier general (William MacRae), 10 colonels, five majors and 13 captains. From the start it also had ties to the railroad industry. Guilford Lafayette Dudley, elected as the club’s first president, was general freight agaent for the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad. Champion McDowell Davis, longtime president of the Atlantic Coast Line (which absorbed the Wilmington & Weldon), was club president from 1922 to 1926.
Henry Walters, a president of the Atlantic Coast Line in the late 1800s and founder of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, was also a member; he anonymously donated a number of paintings to the club’s collection.
According to its charter the club exists to promote “Literary and Social intercourse” and to provide for the respectable entertainment of vistors to Wilmington.
During the late 1800s, the club chambers migrated around downtown Wilmington. From 1875 to 1885, it was on Front Street between Market and Princess. For a brief period, it was upstairs in the old Bank of New Hanover building at the corner of Front and Princess (where The View is now being constructed). It then moved into the Dawson House, a two-story building at the corner of Second and Chestnut streets. Its present home, a brick Neoclassical Revival structure, was built on that site between 1912 and 1913. The club’s official address is 206 Chestnut St., Wilmington [Map this].
Officially non-partisan, the Cape Fear Club has always been influential in local affairs. At the time of its centennial in 1966, its membership included Wilmington’s mayor, its city manager, two City Council members and executives of most of the city’s large companies. Before open meetings laws went into effect, it was often alleged that local officials would caucus in private at the Cape Fear Club before walking over to City Hall or the county courthouse to enact what they’d already decided. By the 1989s, however, the club’s lack of women or African-American members sometimes caused controversy.
The Cape Fear Club is affiliated with the U.S. Navy League and, as a result, has amassed a substantial collection of Navy, Coast Guard and maritime memorabilia.
Among its traditions is “Cape Fear Club punch,” a potent potable for which it was once famous. The recipe is supposed to have been developed by J. Alvis Walker, a member at the turn of the century.
Membership is officially by invitation. In other words, if you want to join, it helps to know someone who’s already a member.
Date posted: February 3, 2010
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