The (Somewhat) Secret History of the Oldest Social Club in America
The State in Schuylkill was the first angling club in the country.
An 1825 rendering of the State in Schuylkill clubhouse at Rambo’s Rock//Photo courtesy of Adam Levine/PhillyH2O.org
When the State in Schuylkill assembles at its riverbank castle on the Delaware, a member and his assistant apprentices prepare golden perch in traditional five-foot-long frying pans. They cook three fish over a roaring wood-fueled fire until one side of each is done. Then, with a quick flick of the wrist, they toss the perch up the chimney, catching each on the uncooked side.
Once properly prepared, the fish are served on one of William Penn’s platters to the privileged company gathered around an ancient perch shaped table. The platter was a gift to the fishing club from Penn’s son, John, who was a member while governor.
Also known as the Schuylkill Fishing Company, the State in Schuylkill was the first angling club in the American Colonies. It was founded in 1732 and remains the oldest continuously active social club in the English-speaking world—a designation only London sources contest. The club has many Main Line members, including a Radnor-based descendant of an original member. But this is not a club that invites publicity. “An article mainly historical in nature would be perfectly acceptable, but as a private club that wishes to remain that way, we are unwilling to divulge the identities of our members,” says one, who lives in Villanova. “I have no reason to believe that the consensus opinion regarding publicity about our club would be any different.”
In the early 1700s, several fishing clubs existed in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, but the Schuylkill Fishing Company is the granddaddy. Founded by 27 Quakers as the Colony in Schuylkill fishing club, it acquired land and fishing rights along the west bank of the river opposite the falls, a mile above what is modern-day Fairmount. It was part of Penn’s treaty with the Delaware or Lenni-Lenape Indians. Citizens (members) hailed landowner William Warner as Baron Warner, “Lord of the Soil,” at his estate, Eaglesfield.
The clubhouse has moved several times, in response to damming, pollution and the arrival of the railroad in 1887. Since 1944, it has been on the adjoining edge of Nicholas Biddle’s Andalusia estate. In 1822, it had relocated to Rambo’s Rock, opposite Bartram’s Garden and below Grays Ferry.
Among its founding members were James Logan, Philip Syng and Joseph Wharton. The colony organized itself in governmental titles. The first governor was Thomas Stretch, who held the office for 34 years. Samuel Morris was later governor for 46 years and also captain of First City Troop. One officer—a coroner—made sure meals were fit for healthy eating.
The season opens on May 1 and covers 13 fishing days—every other Wednesday—until Oct. 1. Back in the day, a daily catch in May was flush with shad, herring, catfish, perch and sturgeon. One account has a person catching 3,000 catfish in a single outing. According to Charles Goodspeed’s 1939 opus, Angling in America, club records in 1812 were more realistic, noting that a typical effort netted 30-70 choice fish, mostly white perch.
Today, by edict, membership caps at 30, with 10 apprentices, whose primary task is learning to toss and brown the perch without utensils. The club’s pre-meal toasts are to Capt. Sam Morris and George Washington, a guest in 1787 while presiding over the Constitutional Convention. Some accounts suggest he rather enjoyed the club’s famous Fish House Punch, a deceptive glass of lemonade that’s largely rum.
Modern-day members remain as tight-lipped as Clarence Wolf of G.S. MacManus rare-books shop in Bryn Mawr, who owns original copies of the club’s historical memoir by William Milnor. “I think everyone I knew who had some affiliation is probably resting in Laurel Hill [Cemetery],” he says.