Augusta’s old Commercial Club was a gentlemen’s association formed in the 1880s. It was among many men’s clubs and fraternal organizations spreading across America at the time.
If you were a businessman and needed a downtown place to relax or unwind, you could join the Commercial Club.
If you were a cotton broker or a bank president or a mill supervisor or an insurance agent looking for a challenging game of billiards or whist, the club could offer amenities for gentlemen. These were legal, we assume, but in 1885, Augustans apparently had to wonder.
That’s because the officers of the Commercial Club were hauled into court to answer serious charges — i.e., breaking the Sunday laws that prohibited drinking and gambling.
More than a century later we might yawn at what was considered a legal and moral outrage in the 1880s, but the looming courtroom action was considered important enough to warrant a newspaper story.
It appears such libertine activities had been suspected for some time, and finally the authorities had a witness — the club bar-tender.
Recorders Court Judge M.P. Foster dismissed the case.
The judge calmly reasoned that because the Commercial was a private club, the only witnesses to any alleged crimes would be the members, and the members were constitutionally protected from testifying against themselves. The same must have held true for the bartender, Lewis Doolittle, who was the only man named on the criminal charges.
That was a proper verdict, Commercial Club President J.A. North later assured The Chronicle’s staff, which included Patrick Walsh, the newspaper’s editor and publisher. (By coincidence Walsh happened to be a Commercial Club member.)
North said there was no gambling of any sort, and vowed no liquor was sold in the club rooms on Sundays. To prove his point, he pointed out no Commercial Club member had ever been charged with intoxication on the premises.
The Commercial Club remained a valued participant in Augusta’s civic life, even constructing its own large building in the middle of Broad Street’s 700 block. But things began to change in the 1900s. Civic clubs — such as Rotary or Kiwanis or Exchange— began to offer a more useful purpose. Country clubs offered social or sporting outlets.
Perhaps that’s why Augusta’s Commercial Club met March 8, 1916 and decided it would reorganize or disband April 1.
It was interesting timing.
Two weeks later the Great Fire of March 1916 burned much of downtown, including the Commercial Club building. Its ruins stood briefly after the fire was put out, but soon collapsed.
The rubble was removed and a new structure went up on the spot.
It will celebrate its 100th birthday this year. We call it the News Building.