Established in 1931
The Jefferson Islands Club was founded in 1931 by Senator Harry Hawes (MO), Senator Key Pitman (NV), and Senator Joseph T. Robinson (AR). The Senators sought an island retreat to escape the pressures of their hectic political lives where they could enjoy the beauty, peace, and quiet of the Chesapeake Bay. They purchased two of the Poplar Islands on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay and the Jefferson Islands Club began.
Charter members included Franklin Roosevelt, then Governor of New York; John Nance Garner, Vice President of the United States; William Bankhead, Speaker of the House of Representatives; August Anheuser Busch, Sr; financier Bernard Baruch, from New York; Royal Copland, Senator from New York; James Farley, Postmaster General; E. Booke Lee, Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates; Breckinridge Long, Ambassador to Italy; Millard Tydings, Senator from Maryland; Robert F. Wagner, Senator from New York; and, David I. Walsh, Senator from Massachusetts.
Under the leadership of Senator Key Pittman, the first Club President, the membership list was filled with the names of some of the most important and influential men in the country: Winthrop Aldridge, Chairman of the Board, Chase National Bank; Sosthenes Behn, Chairman, ITT; Carle C. Conway, Chairman of the Board, Continental Can Company; Steven Early, Assistant Secretary to the President; Lewis Rosentiel, Chairman of the Board, Shenley Distillers Corporation; Myron Tylor, Chairman of the Board, United States Steel Corporation; Gerard Swope, Chairman of the Board, General Electric Company; Thomas J. Watson, Chairman of the Board, IBM; and Owen D. Young, President, General Electric Company. This powerful group of men assembled as the first members of the Club.
After Roosevelt was elected in 1932, the purpose of the Club expanded to provide a peaceful retreat for the President and has been referred to as the original Camp David. The seclusion and solitude of the Poplar Islands in the Chesapeake Bay were treasured as a place where the President could enjoy privacy away from the White House. Governor Albert Ritchie proposed an act that passed the Maryland Legislature and changed the name of the Club's two of the Poplar Islands to the "Jefferson Islands." They constructed a large Clubhouse which the members frequented to relax, hunt, fish and in general promote the philosophy of "getting away from it all."
The Club enjoyed fifteen idyllic years on the Chesapeake Bay until a fire destroyed the entire clubhouse on March 5,1946. At that time, the Club moved to its present location on St. Catherine’s Island in the lower Potomac River at the confluence of the Potomac and the Wicomico Rivers. This location is much closer to Washington, DC, just three miles east of St. Clements Island, the site of the 1634 landing of the ships "Ark" and "Dove" that carried the first Maryland colonists. Along with St. Clements, St. Catherine’s Island was originally part of the Manor granted to Thomas Gerrard in 1639 by the Second Lord Baltimore.
President Harry Truman frequently used the Club location on St. Catherine’s Island as a weekend getaway spot. He is said to have loved to escape the rigors of Washington, play cards late into the night and to fish a little down on the Bay. President Truman last visited the Club at age 76 on May 1, 1960, when a party was held to honor him and Speaker Sam Rayburn. The President flew in from Independence, Missouri, specifically
for the event and wore a dark blue suit with a bow tie and his famous hat. He beamed as he signed the Clubhouse Guest Book that day "Harry Truman –from Independence, Missouri --retired farmer." He wore a special name badge imprinted "Guess Who?" It is not believed he brought any pistols to the island that day as was his custom because of the large crowd.
Long time Club member and then prominent antitrust attorney Ed Pewett rode back to the mainland with the President. He recalled Truman telling him, "You know, even in this modern age of Sputnik and space flight, I wish I could run for President one more time. I would teach some of those fellows a thing or two."
Soon thereafter, President John F. Kennedy became a Lifetime Member and later President Lyndon B. Johnston was a member. When reminiscing about the old days on the island, Club member Senator Claude Pepper said, "Oh, we would fish a little, fix up a little barbecue of some fish or chicken, walk around the island a little bit, or take a ride in one of the Club boats. Or we would just sit around the Clubhouse and tell stories, talk and have a libation or two.”
In 1977, Congressman Dante Fascell (FL) Chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee was elected as the Club President. He renewed the club's mission as a retreat from the political scene in Washington, DC with a renewed emphasis on bipartisanship and inclusion. Under his leadership, the Club initiated a vigorous Capitol Hill-oriented social program featuring Hill receptions and returning to the Club's traditional annual Crab Feast and Oyster Roast at the Club's island retreat that are very popular to this day.
Dante Fascell was succeeded as club president by Congressman Bill Chappell (FL) chairman of Defense Appropriations (1981-1990) and then by Congressman Beryl Anthony (AR) (1990-1996). Changes made to Congressional ethics rules required that a Member of Congress could serve as Honorary Chairman, but not President, and that title was assumed by Congressman Howard Coble (NC), who for many years provided guidance and leadership to the Club. The current Honorary Chairman is Congressman Steny Hoyer (MD), whose district in Southern Maryland includes the club's island retreat. Congressman Walter Jones (NC) served as 'Honorary Co-Chairman until his passing in 2019.
FOOTNOTE: This history is taken from the 1981 book, "The History of the Jefferson Islands Club and St. Catherine's Island" by Jefferson Caffery Glassie. The latest version is available for purchase directly from the author by clicking here
Cabinet members and House leaders Rep. Sam Rayburn, House Majority Leader; Secretary of War Woodring; Secretary of State Cordell Hull; Speaker of the House Bankhead; and Secretary of Agriculture Wallace, were among those leaving for the Jefferson Islands Club. 6/25/37
President Truman enjoyed poker games at the Club and jokingly threatened players with horse pistols reputedly once owned by outlaw Jesse James.