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Members of the Fat Men's Club of New York gather at a meeting, circa 1930. Their arrival on these trains was itself a spectacle with people gathering at stations to see the guests of honour arriving dressed in all their finery. Before long Hale himself would pull up in an elaborate coach to whisk them away to his tavern where a large sign greeted them reading “Headquarters of the Fat Men’s Club”.

Members of the Fat Men’s Club of New York gather at a meeting, circa 1930. Their arrival on these trains was itself a spectacle with people gathering at stations to see the guests of honour arriving dressed in all their finery. Before long Hale himself would pull up in an elaborate coach to whisk them away to his tavern where a large sign greeted them reading “Headquarters of the Fat Men’s Club”.

The Fabulous Fat Men’s Club

We’re Fat and We’re Making the Most of It!

For centuries there has been a connection between weight and social status with extreme thinness being associated with poverty and the person’s inability to acquire enough food to feed themselves properly. The struggle to feed a family were not uncommon concerns to early settlers and citizens but with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the landscape of eating began to change. Suddenly, food became more available and meals stopped being an uncertainty. Physical labour in some industries was cut down with some work now being completed by machines. For the first time in a long time people were able to work less and eat more which eventually led to people gaining more weight.

Now it was not just your clothing that could tell of your success, but also the measurements of the pieces you were wearing and your size became a visible testament that you could eat more than you had to work. This very welcomed trend was accompanied by another increasingly popular idea of establishing and joining clubs and “secret societies” that could be based on heritage, occupation, etc. In the late 19th and early 20th century these two streams crossed and the Fat Men’s Clubs were born.

Fat Men’s Clubs sprang up all over the country and became a place where men could flaunt their sizes and the opulence that allowed them to get to that point. Club meetings were lively social events where the food flowed freely and weigh-ins were a competitive sport. One 1885 New York Times article describes the weigh-ins and writes about the disappointment of one member named George Kapp. Mr. Kapp was confident when he walked up to be weighed, declaring proudly “I must weigh over 300 pounds now!” However, poor George was deeply disappointed when he clocked in at only 243 pounds. According to the article “His friends thought he shrank at least 20 pounds more from grief before evening.”

In 1903 the New England Fat Men’s Club was formed inside Hale’s Tavern in Wells River, Vermont when owner Jerome Hale remarked one night that everyone gathered around the fireplace, including himself, were similar in size. Eventually the men came to the agreement that fat people are happy people and should form a club to celebrate themselves. The New England Fat Men’s Club grew quickly becoming one of the most successful clubs in the country with approximately 10,000 members at its peak.

A postcard featuring Hale’s Tavern.

A postcard featuring Hale’s Tavern.

We’re fat and we’re making the most of it!” These aren’t words heard today, but over a century ago there was a club that celebrated men with excess poundage — The Fat Men’s Club. The weight required to become a member was 200 pounds or more. The initiation fee was $1. There were no dues. This exclusive club began in 1903, as told in The History of Newbury, 1900-1977. Ten traveling salesmen often stayed at Hale’s Tavern in Wells River, Vt., while on the road. One night after dinner, Jerome Hale, the portly and genial proprietor, remarked that everyone gathered around the fireplace were similar in size. Friendly banter began. The men came to a consensus — fat people are happy people and therefore needed to band together and form a club. They adopted the motto, “I’ve got to be good natured; I can’t fight and I can’t run.” They decided to hold two meetings each year, with the fall one always at Hale’s Tavern.

The meetings were announced weeks in advance to give those members who didn’t quite meet the weight criteria time to stuff themselves. Hale met the “bulk” of the members at either the Wells River or Woodsville, N.H., railroad stations in his beautiful two-horse coach with a fringed top. He’d proudly drive them to his tavern where a hand carved sign hung over the front door stating, “Headquarters of The Fat Men’s Club.” There’d be much backslapping and handshaking as arriving members greeted each other. Those who’d gained in girth were congratulated. Townspeople looked forward to the summer meetings. Children would gather at the railroad station as guests arrived. They enjoyed watching the oversized members walking the streets, exchanging their secret hand clasp and listening for the secret password.

Clubmen circa 1900 have a "Fat Man's Contest.

Clubmen circa 1900 have a “Fat Man’s Contest.

As told in The History of Newbury, one rainy day a young boy remarked to his friend, “Gee, look at that stomach! Let’s get under it and keep out of the rain!” Members of The Fat Men’s Club didn’t need to worry about getting wet; they carried massive red, white and blue umbrellas emblazoned with the club logo. The first order of business was the weigh in. A member, who weighed in at 377 pounds one year, was surpassed the following year by one from Maine at 435 pounds.

Farcical athletic events filled the time between meals, starting late Saturday morning on the lawn behind the tavern. Pictures show men wearing three-piece suits sporting their club buttons, special watch fobs (with a bottle opener at one end for opening all the soda they consumed), and a gadget to snip off the end of their ever present cigars. Sometimes Hale would pitch a large tent on the lawn behind the tavern, but the games went on regardless of the weather. A phone was installed on one of the tent poles and rang frequently. The games were halted so a club member could answer it and relay important messages.

Calls allegedly came from such notables as President Theodore Roosevelt and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The games served a dual purpose — to work off the huge breakfast the members had eaten and muster up an appetite for the evening banquet. Rules were adjusted on a whim. The baseball game was popular with each team weighing over a ton. Sometimes it had to be called off in an early inning to let the men catch their breath — even though they’d taken great delight in “sneaking” from first to third base. Pole vaulting was abandoned for lack of an adequate pole. When the rope broke in the tug-of-war, a chain was substituted. Competition was keen in the fishing contest held in a nearby river. In the spirit of good fun, members would buy, lie or steal in an attempt to win the prize for the largest salmon caught. Leap frog, sack races, broad jumps, hop-skip-jump events were never quiet. They reached a level of raucous hilarity.

'The Fat Men’ Scene from the film ‘Wait and See’ made at the Nettlefield Studios, Walton on Thames in 1928, featuring London’s "Thirty Fat Men." "Thirty Fat Men" was a fat man's club, which used to be pretty common in the late 19th and even up into the 20th century.

‘The Fat Men’ Scene from the film ‘Wait and See’ made at the Nettlefield Studios, Walton on Thames in 1928, featuring London’s “Thirty Fat Men.” “Thirty Fat Men” was a fat man’s club, which used to be pretty common in the late 19th and even up into the 20th century.

Recorded memories tell of a 222-pound member winning the 100-yard dash, but needing an additional 200 yards to come to a stop. Another one was the high kick. B.M. Wentworth won this event kicking 7 feet, 3 inches with his hands in his pockets, a feat he repeated after eating. It was rumoured he had a wooden leg. Jerome Hale won the wheelbarrow race by pushing a 240-pound teammate across the finish line. Once the games were over, the men got ready for the main event — the banquet. But first came the 7 p.m. business meeting. Little was accomplished other than choosing the officers, as anything serious was thought of as an obstacle to having fun. In the hotel dining room, Hale had thoughtfully scalloped the edges of the tables so his guests could sit in comfort as they bellied up for meals.

Chef Fred Myers, a native of the West Indies, enjoyed telling his friends about the enormous quantities of food the men consumed.

One nine course menu included oyster cocktail, cream of chicken soup, boiled snapper, fillet of beef with mushrooms, roast chicken, roast suckling pig, shrimp salad, steamed fruit pudding with brandy sauce, assorted cakes, cheeses and ice cream followed by coffee and cigars.

The evening was laced with large portions of wit, sarcasm and roaring laughter. There was music at every banquet — often a local orchestra but once a band composed of fat ladies. Members who played instruments often joined in. Special guests were introduced, letters of regret from absent members read aloud, stories told and special gifts presented. Hale was given a 2-foot tin loving cup as a token of friendship. Meetings ended with a display of fireworks or the ascension of a fire balloon, ensuring the delight of residents of Wells River. Wives usually accompanied their husbands to meetings, although there are few pictures and little mention of them.

It is noted that “the women were a good audience for the antics of the men and partners for dancing.” Membership in this novelty club grew to international proportions.

At the 20th anniversary banquet there were 10,000 members, although only about 75 showed up for that meeting. The only men weighing less than 200 pounds were the reporters to publicize the club and the clergy to pray for it.

Image credit: screenshot from British Pathé.

Image credit: screenshot from British Pathé.

The New England Fat Men’s Club put Wells River on the map as newspapers across the country wrote about it. The Boston Globe wrote: “This village is full of bulbous and overhanging abdomens and double chins tonight, for the New England Fat Men’s Club is in session at Hale’s Tavern. The natives, who are mostly bony and angular, have stared with envy at the portly forms and rubicund faces which have arrived on every train.”

Its most famous member was three time Democratic Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. Although he met the weight criteria, President William Howard Taft (1857-1930) declined an honorary membership. He did attend a club meeting in 1909 on a visit to Wells River. He was picked up at the station in a Reo automobile. Once Taft was seated, the car refused to move, despite everyone’s best efforts and choice words.

The former president was forced to switch to an old Model T. He laughed every minute as he struggled to get out of the car. As the years passed, club attendance waned and its treasury weakened. At their 15-year meeting in 1918, their total assets were a $500 Liberty Bond. There’s a sadness to the 1924 meeting. Only 38 members attended, none of whom were the “heavyweights.” They were unable to get an orchestra and had to rely on a record player for music. Five of the original members were alive then, but only three were able to attend the banquet.

UNKNOWN - CIRCA 1910: The baseball team representing the Fat Mans Baseball Association poses in their home ballpark circa 1910 in an unknown location. (Photo Reproduction by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)

UNKNOWN – CIRCA 1910: The baseball team representing the Fat Mans Baseball Association poses in their home ballpark in an unknown location. (Photo Reproduction by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)

The last club outing was in the summer of 1925. Miss Arbutus Saunders, recreational director of Camp Farewell on Hall’s Pond near Newbury, Vt., invited them to a progressive dinner. From cottage to cottage around the lake, the men rode in buggies with seats along the sides. Hale’s Tavern met its demise when it was torn down in 1956, 29 years after Jerome Hale died. The tavern was replaced by a Gulf gas station. For many of the 22 years The New England Fat Men’s Club existed the country was involved with World War I. Perhaps The Fat Men’s Club was a prelude to the Roaring Twenties for these men celebrated the joy of camaraderie, merriment and fine food. Picture them now as they raise their glasses to toast one another.

“A toast to us my good, kind friends To bless the things we eat, For it has been full many a year Since we have seen our feet. But who would lose a precious pound By trading sweets for sours? It takes a mighty girth indeed To hold such hearts as ours.”

Video: The Fat Men’s Club Annual Outing (1924)

The Forgotten History Of Fat Men’s Clubs

The Forgotten History Of Fat Men’s Clubs – Neatorama

Fat Men’s Clubs Existed, And They Were The Ultimate …

The Forgotten History Of Fat Men’s Clubs : The Salt : NPR

 


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  • Cadwallader

    I expect they were all filthy rotten capitalists with all sorts of trusts/accountants/lawyers etc.. Little Angry could’ve bestrode the streets calling them to account for their over indulgent habits, and exhibited wealth.

  • cows4me

    It’s probably just as well the club is no more, the health Nazis would hound them no end these days. It sounds like it was a marvelous club and was based on having fun, as it should be, good on them.

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