City's exclusive Somerset Club rich in tradition

City's exclusive Somerset Club rich in tradition

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Editor's note: This report was compiled from public records filed with the Wisconsin Secretary of State's office, Racine County Register of Deeds office, City of Racine Health Department and City Clerk's office. Additional information came from newspaper clippings, obituaries and interviews.

by gary metro

Just steps away from the bus stop bustle of Monument Square is a no-frills doorway that leads to the Somerset Club - Racine's most exclusive fraternity and perhaps the ultimate good old boys network.

It occupies the top floor of the Janes Building, a five-story structure at Sixth and Main streets. The club faces Lake Michigan, the Downtown post office and a bus stop crowd of students, working people, hustlers and idlers.

The Somerset Club, however, is literally and figuratively far removed from the petty concerns of the street. It is a men's club that for more than 100 years has culled its members from Racine's wealthiest, most influential and respected families.

Men do not apply for admission to the Somerset Club. The club decides who will be offered the fewer than 100 memberships.

Open the glass door at 201 Sixth St. and step into the small lobby. There is an elevator that ascends to the club's quarters, marked simply with the words, Somerset Club, in white letters on a wooden door.

A handwritten note on white cardboard advises visitors to ring the doorbell. There is no answer on this day, nor were there any replies when Somerset members were asked about the club's organization, its activities and membership.

Requests for interviews were politely refused by several Somerset members, including noted attorney Glenn R. Coates, the club's outgoing president, and Lloyd C. Meier, a retired accountant and former Wind Point village president who has been the Somerset Club secretary /treasurer since 1987.

"I don't really think we're interested in a news story," Coates said. "We'd prefer to remain anonymous."

Meier said he couldn't think of any member who would agree to be interviewed.

"I can't be a spokesman for the club," he said. "The club in its 102 and 103 years has attempted to maintain a low profile."

It is legally known as a "private men's club" on the annual reports Wisconsin's nonprofit corporations have been required to file since 1986. It is obvious that the word "private" is considered a serious obligation for members. They will not discuss the club, which regularly meets for lunch on Mondays. There also are occasional evening dinners at the Somerset Club, and members can use the fifth floor club house for private parties.

Most of the functions are for members only, but the Somerset Club holds an annual picnic that includes wives and family members.

This year's picnic is scheduled for Aug. 12 at the Charles A. Wustum Museum of Fine Arts, 2519 Northwestern Ave. A spokeswoman for the museum said the club's picnic traditionally is held in the garden and a big tent is used to accommodate the crowd.

When they meet in the Janes Building, the men of Somerset dine in a room decorated with reddish wallpaper and dark wainscoting. There is a small bar and a full service kitchen that must be inspected and licensed as a restaurant annually by the city health department. A recent inspection earned the club a respectable 92.

Inspectors describe the club as plush, but not breathtaking or awe-inspiring. The club has a seating capacity of 82 at the restaurant style tables that dot the main room.

One of the city's sanitarians, Darren Collins, said Somerset members always are very polite and cooperative.

"It's a small and elite group," he said. "They're always very nice to me every time I've been in there."

The club was organized in 1892 by Herbert F. Johnson, E.B. Hand, Jack Pitcher, W.V. Adams, George Bolton, Harry Hambright, Edward Wratten, Ernest Hueffner, Arthur Guilbert, Charles Pugh and John Workman.

Johnson was the great-grandfather of Samuel C. Johnson, chairman of S.C. Johnson & Son Inc. Samuel C. Johnson is believed to be a member of the Somerset Club, but could not be reached for confirmation.

The Janes Building has been home to the Somerset Club for many years, although the meeting days have changed. In the post-World War II years, for example, the then-65-member club met for lunch every Tuesday and for dinner every other Saturday.

For much of this century, the club's chef came from the same family. Tom Weaver was the chef from 1911 until his death in 1946. He was succeeded by his son, Kenneth Weaver.

The Somerset Club's bartender, Don Reiter, has held the part-time job for about 10 years. He described it as "a fantastic place," but quickly referred all other questions about the organization to club members.

In 1971, the club incorporated as a nonprofit organization.

A description of the club's purpose in the articles of incorporation offers little insight into the operation of Somerset - though it rambles on in a tract of legal-speak that totals more than 175 words.

Somerset Club Inc. is described as a membership club that owns, operates and maintains meeting space for the social, entertainment and recreational enjoyment of its members and guests. The nature of the recreational, entertainment and social gatherings is not defined.

The articles of incorporation listed the initial directors as William C. Kidd, formerly of 3063 Michigan Blvd., Charles Folwell, of 1136 Main St., and the late George H. Wheary Jr., of 44 North Vincennes Circle.

The officers for 1994-1995 are Coates, president; William F. Rayne, vice president; and Meier, secretary-treasurer. The three officers also constitute the board of directors.

Rayne is expected to serve as president for 1995-1996.

It's a small and elite group.

Darren Collins

city sanitarian who occasionally cleans club

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