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"Quoits, The sport of Gentlemen"

Virginia Cavalcade Magazine

Summer 1965

 

This very interesting and informative article was provided to me by Christopher P. Nicholson of Sterling, VA.  The article was published in the Summer 1965 edition of the Virginia Cavalcade Magazine, a regional Quarterly publication with colorful and historic stories and details of life in Virginia during the 1800's, and especially during the Civil War period.  What is most intriguing about this Quoiting story is that during this time in history, the game of Quoits was not just a game played by commoners, but was also a formally organized club sport enjoyed by the most affluent and public figures of the day.  The article provides intimate details of the Buchanan Spring Quoit Club, which was founded in the late 1700's in Richmond, Virginia.  The article spans 13 pages of the magazine, and includes many black and white photos, all of which are reproduced here along with a full-text reprint of the story.  The flowery, Colonial-era language of many of the quotes in this article is always a fun read...
 

Magazine Front Cover, Summer 1965

Title Page with Table of Contents

 
* * * * * *

Quoits, the Sport of Gentlemen

 The informal Buchanan Spring Club provided a robust Saturday entertainment

for Richmond’s leading Citizens. 

 Edmund Berkeley, Jr.

Richmond had many clubs for its male citizens in the early nineteenth century, but certainly the most unusual of these clubs were devoted to the simple game of quoits.  The game itself was popular, and, in combination with an excellent meal and pleasant company, it flourished.

The game of quoits was brought to this country by early settlers, who often played with horseshoes as well as the customary round hoops, or quoits.  In America, the similar game of horseshoes has survived, while quoits has virtually disappeared.  Quoits was a popular game in the colonies because the equipment was relatively simple to make or to obtain.  Also, it was a game largely dependant on the skill of the player rather than on luck.  Gambling on quoit games was popular in colonial times; Thomas Jefferson, as a young lawyer attending court in Staunton, noted in his memorandum book June 21, 1769, that he had lost sevenpence ha’penny playing “at pitchers” with Thomas Boyer.  The players at court were evidently out of Jefferson’s league, for he lost the same sum two days later in a contest with a Mr. Madison.

 The origins of Richmond’s most famous quoit club were reported by the American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine in 1829:

This club is probably the most ancient one of the sort in the United States, having existed upward of Forty years.  It originated in a meeting, every other Saturday, from the first of May until the month of October, of some of the Scotch merchants who were early settlers in that town.  They agreed each to take out some cold meats for their repast, and to provide a due quantity of drinkables, and enjoy relaxation in that way after the labors of the weeks.

 In this way, according to the correspondent, the other residents were introduced to the idea of forming a club:

 …They occasionally invited some others of the inhabitants, who, finding the time passed pleasantly, proposed, in the year 1788, to form a regular club, consisting of thirty members, under a written constitution, limiting their expenses each day by a sort of sumptuary law which prohibited the use of wine and porter.

This club may also trace its origins back to another organization which recorded its initial meeting in these words:

A company of gentlemen having met at the Richmond Coffee House in the city of Richmond on Saturday the 13th Dec 1788… They then resolved to form themselves into a society by the name of the Amicable Society of Richmond on the principles & for the purposes expressed in the Rules, which were then read, duly considered and adopted by the said society…

Unfortunately, the Amicable Society did not record its rules in the minute book, and therefore it is impossible to determine its exact purposes.  However, a week later, John Marshall was elected to membership, and on February 7, 1801, the Reverend John Buchanan was elected president; these two men were later important to the Buchanan Spring Quoit Club. 

Whatever its origins, the biweekly meetings of the quoit club gave the members an opportunity to relax, eat, drink, talk, and to play quoits.  They probably met at various places in the club’s early days, but they finally settled on a site which gave its name to the club, Buchanan Spring.  The spring was on the property of Parson Buchanan, an Episcopal minister whose farm, Gielston, lay just north of Broad Street and west of the present Hancock Street.  The spring was in a grove of old oaks which soon became the local country club of its day.  Parson Buchanan readily opened his property for picnics; the Richmond Light Infantry Blues and the Buchanan Spring Quoit Club regularly took advantage of his kindly hospitality, and both organizations included him in their social events. 

Two extant letters contain reminiscences of former members of the club, and these give a good picture of its affairs and membership.  These letters were written by Thomas P. Taylor and Colonel Thomas H. Ellis. Taylor, who was the last secretary-treasurer of the Buchanan Spring Quoit Club, wrote in 1889 of the loss of the original records of the club:

 …Jefferson Peyton was the last secretary who had the original books… he became very dissipated as you may remember, and lost the old records, he told me, from his offices in the house on the Basin formerly occupied by Dean and Brown next to the Galley Mills.

Taylor went on to relate that the record book which he had kept during his tenure in office was lost when the old court house burned during the evacuation of Richmond in 1865.  Taylor states that the original membership was twenty-five, and that his number was not increased until 1853, when the limit was raised to thirty.  Ellis recalled the original number as thirty with a later increase to forty members.  Whichever figure is correct, the membership was not large, and was kept exclusive, for a constitutional provision stated that two adverse votes would disqualify a prospective member.

An idea that may have aided recruiting for the club was a superstition that grew up around the early members.  According to the 1829 Turf Register article, for some years after the founding of the club no vacancies occurred, and the idea was spread about that one could ensure longevity by becoming a member.  It added, “The Arch Destroyer, however, at length, appeared in all his strength, and made such havoc, that only one of the original members, (the venerable Chief Justice of the United States,) is now living…”  A small membership prevented the growth of cliques within the club and allowed all members to participate in the lively conversation and humor for which the meetings were noted. 

George Wythe Mumford records in The Two Parsons  the names of some of the distinguished Richmonders who held membership in the Buchanan Spring Quoit Club:  John Marshall; Dr. John Brockenbrough, the president of the Bank of Virginia; John Wickham, the famous barrister; Dr. William Foushee, an outstanding physician; Thomas Ritchie, editor of the Richmond Enquirer; William Wirt, author, scholar, and lawyer; Phillip N. Nicholas; Daniel Call, lawyer; Thomas Rutherford and Charles Ellis, merchants; Major James Gibbon, the hero of Stony Point; William Munford, a member of the Executive Council; Dr. Peter Lyons, physician; Colonel John Ambler; Colonel John Harvie; James Brown Jr., merchant and second auditor of the State; “besides others, equally meritorious, full of life, joyous and grave, in every way qualified to add to the merriment and sober pleasantries of such a party.” 

The constitution of the club provided honorary, but active, membership for the governors of the Commonwealth during their terms of office. 

 

One peculiar rule of the Buchanan club which worked some hardship was the interdiction against political discussions at the meetings.  To politically-minded Virginians, this restriction was difficult to observe, and Munford records a fine of one basket of champagne levied against two imprudent members by John Marshall, the recognized leader of this otherwise informal assembly.  The Clubs original constitution included a prohibition against the use of liquor and wines except upon unusual occasions, but this was an exceptional hardship, so the rule was not allowed to stand for long. The Turf Register adds further information on this controversy: 

 

Some years ago, an amendment was made to the constitution, which admits the use of porter.  Great opposition was made to this innovation, and the destruction of the club was predicted as the consequence.  The oppositionists, however, soon became as great consumers of malt and hops as their associates, and now they even consent to the introduction of wine at the last meeting of every year…

The Buchanan Spring club members rapidly accustomed themselves to the presence of liquor at their meetings.  Chester Harding, an artist who was painting a portrait of John Marshall, was invited to attend a meeting of the club, and he wrote shortly thereafter:

I went early, with a friend, just as the party were beginning to arrive.   I watched for the coming of the old chief.  He soon approached with his coat on his arm, and his hat in his hand, which he was using as a fan. He walked directly up to a large bowl of mint-julep, which had been prepared, and drank off a tumbler full of the liquid, smacked his lips, and then turned to the company, with a cheerful, “How are you, gentlemen?”

 

The recipe for the punch often served to the club and to the Richmond Light Infantry Blues in their famous “Big Bowl” has survived: lemons, brandy, rum, and Madeira, poured into a bowl                                                                                                             one-third filled with ice and sweetened.

Besides their own members, the club welcomed interesting out-of-town guests, or “strangers” as they were called. Colonel Thomas Elliot recalled that some members of the club would call at the best hotels in the city on club day to determine if there were any distinguished travelers registered.  Such fortunate visitors would be invited to the club meeting.  The sponsoring member was expected to contribute the cost of the guest’s meal. In this fashion, the members had an opportunity to meet the distinguished visitors to Richmond, and to welcome them into the best circles.  One of the frequent visitors to the club was General Winfield Scott.  He thoroughly enjoyed the excellent fare of the club, and especially liked hog jowl and turnip tops.  However, he was considered by many to have disgraced himself when he learned in the North to call this dish “pig’s cheek and salad.”

The strangers occasionally wrote of their welcome and entertainment by the club.  With such accounts, and the memoirs of the former members, we have a good idea of a typical meeting:

Early in the morning of the meeting day, the members whose turn it was to act as caterers for the day would meet either at the Old Market on Main Street, or at the “New Market” on what is now Marshall Street.  As it was then the custom for gentlemen to shop for their families, the caterers probably met a number of the other members strolling about the market.  Some few followed John Marshall’s example and carried their baskets on their arms, but most would be followed by a son or servant, who would carry the burden. 

There was a great rivalry among the caterers to produce the best meal possible from the strictly limited sum allotted from the club’s treasury.  However, the caterers occasionally stretched the budget a bit, and paid the excesses themselves, as on June 30, 1838, when G. W. Munford and J. Rutherford were caterers.  The club had given them forty-five dollars, but they each contributed an additional eighty cents to pay the total bill.

Meat was the basic food, and Munford and Rutherford bought more than enough. Their account includes a pig, forty-seven pounds of mutton, fifteen pounds of beef, eighteen pounds of sturgeon, a dozen chickens, and two large hams. To this, they added cucumbers, cymlings, beets, cabbage, potatoes, snaps, onions, herbs, mint, eggs, butter, cheese, lemons, sugar, pepper, capers, mustard, cayenne pepper, crackers, vinegar, lard, flour, and bread.  By this time, liquor was established as a necessity of the meetings, and the caterers ordered one and one-half gallons of brandy, one and one-half gallons of rum, one-half gallon of whiskey, a dozen bottles of porter, and a pint of wine.  For a concluding flourish, they added thirty “segars” (cigars) to the list. 

The caterers evidently contracted with the well-known Negro, Jasper Crouch, who would be the butler and major-domo of the meeting. Jasper Crouch charged three dollars for his services and the use of his cart to move the supplies to the meeting place, and he paid the cook and other servants himself.  He also furnished such other necessities as firewood and ice.

 One can well imagine the caterers’ concerns as they studied the meats, calculated their remaining sums, felt the vegetables, and speculated upon the appetites of the club members.

In the middle of the warm summer afternoon, the members of the club would stroll out broad street toward the Buchanan farm.  Colonel Ellis mentions that it was the custom for years for the members of the club to walk to meetings, even though many of them had horses or carriages.  Near the groups of conversing gentlemen was a fire where the foods for the meal were carefully guarded, according to Colonel Ellis, by several cooks.

"The kitchen was just far enough off to be out of the way – but was in itself an attraction, and, to strangers, a curiosity, some of whom would go to take a look at the cooking process.  Nothing of the steam pipe, or the coil-heater, or the hot-air register, or the range with its broiler attachment was seen about that kitchen, you may be sure.  The mode of roasting, too, was primitive – reminding one of the picture in Captain John Smith’s “True Travels, Adventures, and Observations,” wherein is given the Indian method of cooking fish, which was simply to build a platform by laying sticks across four stakes driven in the ground, and make a fire beneath the platform, and place the fish upon it to be broiled."  

The liquors were under the sole charge of Jasper Crouch who, Colonel Ellis records, had been well trained in “that department of industry” by the Light Infantry Blues.  At each meeting, he would take a glass of the punch to some distinguished guest, present it with a flourish, and ask, “You is a Judge; is de eroma of de proper flavor?  Am it all smooth and savory?” 

When all the members had gathered, they would seat themselves around the long pine table under an open shed for the meal.  Jasper and the other servants would rush the steaming food to the table.  The main course of roast pig gave to the Buchanan Quoit Club its informal name of “Barbecue Club.”  Cayenne pepper, which was heavily used in the preparation of the pig, made welcome the punch, porter, and toddy served at the table together with the juleps.  Accompanying the roast pork were fish and other meats and vegetables of the season.  Colonel wistfully recalled that he had never again eaten sturgeon cutlets to equal those prepared for the club.  According to George Munford, the only dessert was a “steaming juicy mutton chop, cooked to a turn, and deviled ham, highly seasoned with mustard, cayenne pepper, and a slight flavoring of Worcester sauce,” but a guest at one of the dinners mentioned fruits and melons which were served with the juleps at the end of the meal. 

After such a heavy meal, the members probably sat around the table for some time before they felt spirited enough for the main activity of the afternoon, the quoit contests.  As John Marshall was considered the best player of the Buchanan Club, he usually headed one team, and was often opposed by one headed by Parson John D. Blair. They each chose four partners, and the selected men doffed their coats and procured their quoits from Jasper Crouch, the custodian of the “weapons” of the club.  Most of the players used smooth brass rings, kept highly polished by the faithful servant, but the Chief Justice used extra large, heavy, rough iron rings which he threw with great power and accuracy. 

Marshall was the chief judge of all disputes over the nearness of quoits to the meg, as the iron target stake was called, and Chester Harding wrote:

“…before long, I saw the great Chief Justice of the …United States, down on his knees measuring the contested distance with a straw, with as much earnestness as if it had been a point of law; and if he proved to be in the right, the Woods would ring with his triumphant shout.  What would the dignitaries of the highest court of England have thought, if they had been present?”

One distinguished European visitor’s opinion is known, however, through the Turf Register account.  A French Gentleman (Baron Quenet) was at one time a guest, when the Governor, the Chief Justice, and several judges of the high court of appeals, were engaged with others, with coats off, in a well contested game.  He asked, “if it is possible that the dignitaries of the land, could thus intermix with private citizens, “ and when assured of the fact, he observed, with true Gallican enthusiasm, that “he had never before seen the real beauties of republicanism.”

Many of the members did not choose to participate in the active sport, but preferred to remain at the table to join in the sparkling conversation.  According to Colonel Ellis:

"Mr. Watkins Leigh, by common consent, possessed one of the finest intellects, not only in this fraternity, but in the State, and was gifted as a conversationalist; others were eminent, some for wit, some for anecdote, some for song, and taken together, there was an amount of wisdom, experience, learning spirit and culture which afforded the finest opportunity for enjoying a rare social intercourse."

Meetings of the club evidently led some of the gentlemen to imbibe a little too freely, but this was not common.  Colonel Ellis recalled:

"I do indeed remember that Mr. George D. Fisher (who’s mother was a sister of Mrs. Judge Marshall) once told me that he went over to the Judge’s house one Sunday morning just before breakfast, and seeing the Judge drinking a glass of water at that unusual hour, he said to him, “I notice, Sir; that you seem to be a little thirsty this morning!”  “Yes,” replied the old gentleman, with a twinkle in his eye, “I find that I didn’t drink quite enough mint julep last evening!”

Quoit Clubs were popular in Richmond until the Civil War, but the ravages of war and the struggle of reconstruction left little time for such leisurely pleasures as quoits.