American democratic culture has long had some peculiar features about it. Until the vice of identity politics took hold, a conviction reigned throughout the land that equality of opportunity was real—that a man might go as far as his native talents and penchant for hard work could take him. This conviction almost certainly spiked upward after World War II, as the sons of the soil and the factory floor went off to college courtesy of Uncle Sam’s GI Bill, stepping into civilian life with possibilities that would have fallen into the category of fond dreams only a few years before. The assumption that everyone started from more or less the same gate was natural, as was the belief that a man should use his opportunity to excel and distinguish himself from the pack. In the post-war years, the newly successful—the many thousands who had reason to believe they were “making it”—looked for ways to reward and enjoy themselves that also set them apart from the crowd, even as they celebrated the democracy and equality that had made their success possible.
In the small town where I grew up, this was evident at the country club. Country clubs have been with us since the late nineteenth century, flourishing especially with the spread of suburbanization in the 1920s. By the middle of the century, most of these clubs’ substantial real estate was given over to golf courses, but there were often other amenities, such as tennis courts and swimming pools. And in the clubhouse one could find dining, dancing, and, of course, drinking. Memberships typically were limited in number and involved restrictions, meaning no Jews, Catholics, or others thought not to be of the right sort. “Whites only” was a given—a policy many clubs did not abandon until forced to in the 1960s. That being granted, country clubs cultivated an air of refinement, respectability, and, yes, exclusivity.
The country club in my town was merely an imitator of the tradition, but the sinews were there. It started life in 1950 on what had been the Quillen family farm and apple orchard, little more than a mile from downtown. The original nine-hole golf course (a back nine was later added on land that had been the Hewitt dairy farm) was designed by Fred Findlay, and a serviceable clubhouse was fashioned from an old post-and-beam barn, like hundreds of others hereabouts: think a smaller version of the set for the movie White Christmas. There were Saturday-night dances in the haymow-turned-ballroom for the adults, as well as cotillions and square dancing for the younger crowd. The former milking floor down below became a cozy tavern (children not allowed). By the late Fifties, tennis courts and a family-friendly swimming pool rounded things out. The place was named simply, and one suspects with some pride, Waynesboro Country Club.
Prevailing mores assured success. Heavy industry had come to town in the 1920s with a DuPont plant that made rayon and, down the years, a bevy of other synthetic textile fibers culminating with Spandex in the early Sixties, which turned out to be the factory’s apogee. Wageworkers by the thousands were drawn from the local labor pool—high-school-educated men of rural backgrounds who worked the graveyard shift and on days off went hunting and fishing—that was decidedly not country-club material. The management ranks were another matter, however: they were filled with transplants from up and down the East Coast, college men with young families and degrees in chemistry and engineering, many of whom had been young officers during the war, with careers to tend to, not just jobs to do.
The plant was home to the second-largest research and development laboratory in the DuPont empire, staffed with spear-carrier Ph.D.s whose job was to discover the next great thing. A nearby General Electric factory brought in Yankees from headquarters in Schenectady, who with the DuPonters formed a genial elite and gave the otherwise ordinary small town a distinctly corporate, if not exactly cosmopolitan, feel. They also were the target demographic for the country club, an affordable indulgence for up-and-comers making somewhere around $20,000 a year (which comfortably supported a wife and family then). Add in a few local doctors, lawyers, and businessmen, and you had a nice mix.
In the decades since, life took me far from this scene; things changed. Heavy industry departed or slimmed its payrolls. A nearby interstate highway drained traffic and trade from downtown. A more or less unified middle-class culture went to splinters. Normative standards and customs that had long made for a wholesome way of life became just one of many “lifestyle” options. As civic vigor receded, the familiar pathologies of decline moved in. Waynesboro Country Club declined too, went through a series of management changes, and eventually closed shop. As the population aged and the professional class shrank, the market for club-style recreation shrank with it.
But there was more going on here than changing demographics. The shift in moral attitudes toward just about everything, which fanned out across America starting in the 1960s in the wake of the Kennedy assassinations and the civil-rights revolution, cast doubt on old notions of aspiration. And the country club was nothing if not aspirational: a place where one’s achievement could be rewarded without offending the democratic ethos. This was because most suburban or rural clubs were, for the most part, by then open to all, provided there was room and the right degree of congeniality between the applicant and existing members. Of course you had to be able to pay, but the dues were less of a barrier to entry than they were a revenue stream necessary to keep the doors open and the greens in good shape. Americans, then as now, still tended to self-sort naturally by class, without fuss. Back then, the community typically divided itself between those who were in the club and those were not less by way of blackballing and more as a result of someone thinking, “No, that’s just not for me; I prefer bowling.” The not-yet-demonized idea of exclusivity connoted not snobbery or crude discrimination, but rather, to use a word not much heard anymore, classiness. If that’s how you saw yourself—the classy sort—then chances are the club was for you.
Thus it is with some good cheer that I can report life in the old place yet. A few years back, local entrepreneurs bought the club at auction for less than $1 million and have been engineering a turnaround, sprucing up the clubhouse and links, adding activities, and marketing membership. They appear to be pushing golf memberships for all ages, the poolside pleasures in summer and, year-round, a fully licensed restaurant and bar. A sign out front announces that the restaurant is open to the public, and my wife and I have found the dining room, which overlooks the putting green and the eighteenth hole, a civilized place for lunch after church on Sunday. The only oddness is that they no longer call it a club but a collective.
I have noticed the word “collective” creeping across the landscape of late, and confess to not knowing what it means, except that it seems bogus. Something called the River City Collective is now the ownership entity of the old club, which means legally it is owned and operated by its members. This type of ownership is nothing new, even if the public-relations language used to describe it is. In these days of aggressive progressivist language policing, perhaps “collective” assuages those fearful of appearing to exclude, or those resentful at being or having been excluded. Downtown, several retail shops have recently dubbed themselves collectives too, appealing to those with a taste for local, artisanal, organic, curated, fair-trade merchandise. I have seen “collective” recently attached to those shared creative-space places often dubbed “innovation hubs” (one is reminded of all those “technology corridors” of thirty or forty years ago); galleries and performing-arts venues adopted the “collective” branding some time ago. By the time such fashion shows up here, in the provinces, it is bound to be well practiced out there, in the larger world. Casual internet searches reveal, for example, in New York City an outfit called Collective Retreats that will accommodate you in a tent and feed you fancy food and drink on Governor’s Island; in the Lone Star State, The TX Collective will put you up close to nature in an A-frame or a converted shipping container; in our nation’s capital, the Collective Apartments at the Navy Yard promise that “Collectively We Can Conquer.” A peg or two down the ladder, or maybe not, the DC Collective, which “Supports the Black Community,” is ready to meet all your marijuana needs and is currently offering “Heavy Hitters 30 percent OFF.”
Do not be deceived. Every one of these so-called collectives is a business enterprise aiming to make money and stay solvent. Of course, this is more than could be said for more notorious applications of “collective” from a century ago. Collective farming was Stalin’s catastrophic idea for speeding up the communist utopia; it ended up starving millions. Mao was another fan of collectives. League of Nations puffery about collective security secured nothing when dictators called off the Treaty of Versailles and decided to help themselves. Collective responsibility generally came to mean that no one was responsible for anything.
In my younger days when traveling for business, I much enjoyed the comforts of city clubs, a number of which remain in business. While much has happened to our world in recent years that one could not imagine happening even a decade ago, and while one now queues for a tee time at the River City Collective rather than the Waynesboro Country Club, these old places hold the line (though few are any longer all-male redoubts) in this respect at least. Might it still be possible, even at this late hour, that there are limits beyond which language will not be forced, limits that could call time-out amid our collective nonsense? “Let’s meet after work for a drink at the collective?” No takers here, thank you very much. I’ll be at the club.