Sangamo Club

The lounge in the Sangamo Club of 1931 — on top of the Illinois building, Sixth and Adams streets — was “predominantly Elizabethan” in style and furnishings. (Courtesy State Journal-Register)

The very first Sangamo Club boasted a technological marvel: a telephone that could be raised and lowered between the first and second floors.

The Sangamo Club, founded in 1890, closed, apparently permanently, in June 2023. Over 133 years in existence, the club moved five times, not counting a second Illinois State Fairgrounds clubhouse that lasted from 1895 until World War I.

Maj. Bluford Wilson, a railroad lawyer and public official, spearheaded formation of the club in April 1890. The 117 charter members (all men) each paid a $25 initiation fee and quarterly dues of $24.

As its first quarters, the club rented a mansion at 523 S. Sixth St. owned by charter member G.J. Little (1847-1919).  According to the Illinois State Journal::

The house is a roomy old fashioned one, with large rooms opening broadly together and just suited to the needs of a club of this kind. Broad verandas in front and rear make it a pleasant lounging place that is sure to be well patronized by club members during the hot summer evenings, and it is surrounded by ample grounds. In the rear is a brick barn which it is intended to enlarge and transform into a bowling alley which shall be as complete in its appointments as any in the country.

The house al­­­so featured a lounge, parlors, card rooms, and pool and billiard tables, “around which, no doubt, many a merry party will gather,” the Journal said, adding:

An excellent contrivance that is said to have been the invention of Mr. Little, and is believed to be the only one in the city, is a slide containing the telephone. The connections are so made that it can be raised or lowered at will and used upon the second or first floor as the convenience of members may require. If a member on the second floor wishes to use the telephone and it happens to be down stairs, all he has to do is to pull it up and use it, instead of having to go down stairs. The invention is so useful that it is a wonder it has not been generally adopted.

“The by-laws provided that ‘games of hazard of playing for money in any form’ (were) not permitted,” according to history notes on the club’s website in 2023. “Games of cards, billiards, or any other game shall be absolutely prohibited on Sundays.”

Though women couldn’t belong to the Sangamo Club, “Ladies’ Day” — Thursday evenings beginning in September 1890 — were among the club’s busiest.

“Last evening, the club was favored with the presence of a number of ladies, who seemed to enjoy their invasion of the domain of the club men, engaging with great zest in the games of whist and chess, and some of them evincing quite a penchant for billiards and pool,” the Journal said that October.

The club’s first relocation, in 1894, was to 518 E. Capitol Ave. (the former Virgil Hickox home, best known to modern Springfield as the Norb Andy Tabarin building).

In 1915, the Sangamo Club moved a few feet west, to a building it had constructed on the southeast corner of Fifth and Capitol.

“At this time 76 of the 78 members of the Gamma Club, known as convivial spirits, joined Sangamo Club as a group,’ the club history said. “They brought with them, among other things, a magnificent player piano.  The adjoining property to the south was purchased in 1925.  The second floor was rented to the Chamber of Commerce and the Club operated a tea room on the main floor.”

The Sangamo Club took over the top two floors (the 14th and 15th) when the new Illinois Building opened at Sixth and Adams streets in 1931. “In addition to dining facilities, the clubhouse in the Illinois Building had a gymnasium, golf driving range, wrestling mats, exercising equipment and ping-pong tables,” according to the club history.

The Great Depression forced the club back to Fifth and Capitol in 1937. A rebound in membership, however, allowed the Sangamo Club to buy its final site, 227 E. Adams St., in 1963 and then undertake a major expansion there in the 1970s.

The club opened memberships to women in 1978, and the Sangamo Club prospered for several decades more.

Ultimately, however, the club lost luncheon and banquet traffic as government offices and local businesses moved out of downtown Springfield.

In announcing the closure of the Sangamo Club in June 2023, the last president, James Ackerman, blamed the losses on “an exodus of office workers, along with their expense accounts,” a phenomenon only made worse by the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic.

As recently as 2016, Ackerman said, the club had almost 1,000 members. When it closed, the Sangamo Club had only 250 members, and most of those had spent no money on food or alcohol at the club in the preceding month.

The fairgrounds clubhouse

Alice Shepherd, Bessie Connors and Mary Shepherd, “all popular socially,” pose in front of the Sangamo Club’s building at The Illinois State Fairgrounds, undated. (SJ-R)

The Sangamo Club’s auxiliary clubhouse at the Illinois State Fairgrounds was erected as an outgrowth of the club’s role in making Springfield the fair’s permanent home. It was demolished as an outgrowth of World War I and Prohibition.

As part of local lobbying efforts to win the fair, the Sangamo Club made its downtown facility (“the Little house”) open to members of the Illinois State Board of Agriculture while they were deciding on a permanent location for the previously nomadic fair.

When Springfield got the nod, the club also was one of the first private entities to announce building plans for the fairgrounds. After a brief tussle with the Knights of Pythias, the Sangamo Club won rights to a prime piece of fairgrounds landscape — a spot in the infield of the original fairgrounds racetrack that, the Journal said later, “afforded occupants of its broad verandas a splendid view of the track.”

The fairgrounds clubhouse was built in 1895. Club members used it for only about 20 years, and then almost always during the state fair itself. “There were some who hinted,” the club history said, “that the principal purpose was to give members opportunity to rinse fairgrounds dust with something better suited to a dry throat than soft drinks.”
Tradition also has it that the city’s very first golf shots took place on a rough course — only four or six holes, depending on the source — that the Sangamo Club created in the track infield next to the clubhouse.

Military officers took over the fairgrounds building during WWI. Sangamo Club members never resumed activities there after the war — largely, according to a delicately phrased explanation in a June 1929 Illinois State Register story, because Prohibition no longer allowed members to imbibe anything stronger than soft drinks there.

The fairgrounds clubhouse was converted to temporary offices during the fairs of the 1920s, then to a police station in 1927 and ’28. It was demolished in 1929.

“Many will recall happy recollections of the old building and of the events that have transpired therein or with the view its trackside location afforded,” the anonymous 1929 reporter wrote. “If the scrapped material that now represents the ancient structure could divulge their secrets, doubtless many political plots would come to light.”

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society. Learn how to support the Society. 

This entry was posted in Amusements, Buildings, Prominent figures, Social life, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Sangamo Club

  1. Marilyn Montney says:

    G. J. Little was my Great, Great Grandfather. I knew that his house had been used by the Sangamo Club, but never knew the full connection and that G. J. was a charter member of the club. Ironically, my son and his bride had their wedding reception at the Sangamo Club in 2013.

  2. Thanks for this fascinating story, Mike. I understood the Sangamo Club to be very exclusive and never quite understood its appeal, other than exclusivity. Did it exclude Black Springfieldians, along with women? What were the dues and membership fees? Were Jews also excluded from membership or attendance? Do you know if that kind of policy was used at the Illini Country Club?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *