A brief history of the inception of the Portland Club, as summarized by Frederick Neal Dow, in: The Portland Club of Portland, Maine : articles of association, by-laws, executive committee rules, house rules and roll of members 1926- 27. Chapter entitled: The Portland Club – From “The Origin of the Portland Club, By It’s First President, Written in 1909.”
Fred Dow, the first President of the Portland Club, was a prominent member of society. Involved in politics, he became Chairman of the Republican State Committee in 1883. By virtue of his post, he was encircled with other equally distinguished and prestigious men. Enjoying his position, he soon began to entertain the men he met as Chairman, first at his office, then at his home. The men would come individually, or in groups of up to a dozen at a time. The gatherings were so popular that his home became an open house, with men arriving whether he was there or not to entertain them. They were not just talking politics, but also enjoying each-others company as close friends.
Because of Fred’s position as Chairman of the Republican State Committee, naturally all of the men attending these gatherings were Republicans themselves. It became understood between the closest of the friends, that their bonds were valuable. Not just in the private sphere, but also the public. The intention to use these connections publicly was not made widely known. Political factions even within party lines were common at this time, as the Chairman and his associates knew. They intended not to cause jealousy and alarm within the community they had created. Recognizing a need for an official outlet for local Republicans, they officially organized the Portland Club on June 1, 1886. Organizing it themselves allowed them to control the power held by the group, furthering the cause of the Republican Party. At the same time, and for the same purpose, the publication The Evening Express was purchased. The connection between Club and paper was close. A majority of Evening Express Publishing Company directors were also executive committee members of the Club. So great was this connection, the Club and paper were often called “brothers”.
Publicly, the social nature of the Club was promoted. For this reason, its non-political name was chosen. Clarence Hale, who became Judge Hale of the U.S. District Court proposed the name. “Let us call it The Portland Club, with emphasis on “The” because there has been none like it, and it is likely to become of lasting importance to this city.” The founders also focused on the wholesomeness of the Club and its members, not permitting the drinking of alcohol or gambling on its premises. Even with these precautions to delay the discovery of the Club as a political instrument, the change came when a Democrat was proposed for membership. Even though this was a man of good standing, and would have been allowed into any polite social function, the decision was made to only allow membership to like- minded individuals. Thus, the true nature of the Club began to take shape.
The membership base of the Club expanded, as did its influence. In late 1886, a particularly notable dinner was held for Governor-elect Joseph R. Bodwell at the Falmouth Hotel in Portland. There were many distinguished guests in attendance, including: U.S. Senator Eugene Hale, Frederic Hale – then Governor of the State, former U.S. Secretary of State James G. Blaine, U.S. Representative Thomas B. Reed (future U.S. Speaker of the House), and the 34th Governor of Maine, Nelson Dingley,. This was the first appearance of Blaine since his defeat for the presidency in 1884. His presence attracted a lot of attention, as he was still well loved in Republican circles. This event prompted the arrangement of Republican clubs all over the country. It also added power and prestige to the Portland Club, which was already being recognized locally. Hosting speeches and receptions of prominent figures for many years after that, the Club survived internal strife and the creation of other antagonistic clubs. Fred Dow writes that the history of the Club cannot be written without reference to the troubling political times that it survived.
The Hunnewell-Shepley mansion, built in 1805, is located at 156 State Street. It became the home of The Portland Club in 1921. That same year John Calvin Stevens, president of the club, designed the grand ball room, and the pool and billiards room that the club added to the mansion1.
Today, the Club has fallen from its original political objectives, and maintains the social nature that the original members tried to hide behind. Alcohol and casual games are permitted on the premises. Most importantly, people of all political persuasions are welcome to join the fold.