Looking back at one of Jefferson City’s oldest men’s only social clubs.
Around the turn of the century, a group of 10 men who lived or worked in the 500 block of West Main Street established a men’s only social club named the Ground Hog Club. Spouses, family, and friends were invited to club functions on special occasions. Some original surnames of the members included Kleene, Wallau, Rephlo, Ruprecht, Robben, Sailer, Slicker, and Linkenmeyer. Additional family names from club records were Schroer, Natsch, Cyrus, Reichel, Gerber, and Hildbrant.
The club was quite structured. It had bylaws, club officers, minutes, and even fines for cussing. Their detailed record book is the only remaining written account from the club. According to the bylaws, rule No. 1 was “to promote general good fellowship and sociability among its members.” The initiation fee was two dollars, with dues being an additional 10 cents, and club bylaws were later amended to expand the 10-member rule to 15 members.
Jefferson City resident Mark Kleene, the grandson of original member Vic Kleene, is now the keeper of the Ground Hog Club record book and bylaws, holding records from 1923 to the club’s end. Mark’s grandfather Vic, and Vic’s brother, Joe, were both founding members of the Ground Hog Club and owned Kleene Bros. Grocery store, located at 501 West Main in the Millbottom area. The shop sat on the left corner where Missouri Boulevard meets West Main.
The grocery store was a dominant presence in the neighborhood. Mark recalls a family anecdote wherein the grocery’s meat freezer went out. Instead of trying to save the meat or sell it, Joe and Vic distributed the meat for free to the residents of the Millbottom. Mark notes how important their community was to them.
Gary Kremer, director of the State Historical Society of Missouri, interviewed Joe Fritz Kleene, the son of Joe Kleene, about 20 years ago. His father was the last remaining member of the original Ground Hog Club. According to Joe Fritz Kleene’s lore, the Ground Hog Club was named for the place of their first meeting — a hole in the Missouri River bluff. No one knows for certain the exact location where the meeting took place, but it is thought to be on Sam Baker Cook’s land, where Heisinger Bluffs is currently located.
Soon, a more permanent location was created to hold meetings for the organization. The new structure, nicknamed “The Shack,” was built between two hills facing the Missouri River, also on the property of Sam Baker Cook, located at the 1100 block of West Main. Joe Fritz Kleene described it as being “located next to the Missouri Pacific track . . . just far enough removed from the haunts of a man to enjoy a little noise without molesting the sleep of the believer in the ‘early to bed, early to rise’ rule of reason.”
According to the club bylaws, members were to meet on the first Sunday of each month, with a required quorum of five Ground Hog members present. The meetings were held there for a little more than two decades.
According to Joe Fritz Kleene, the Ground Hog Club took delight in any reason to socialize. Birthdays and holidays were always a cause for celebration. In 1911, three Ground Hogs shared a birthday (Sid Linkenmeyer, Joe Kleene, and H.S. Sailer) and celebrated with two turkeys and “all the usual fixins.” Vic Kleene had a birthday that was celebrated with a keg of beer and turtle soup. Banquets featured wild game such as chicken-fed possum or an occasional indiscreet groundhog. They hosted live music and held comedic entertainment amongst themselves. The Ground Hogs were known for hosting other gatherings such as their moonlit socials, hayrides, and social dances, which sometimes attracted up to 150 couples. The city accommodated the club by running late-night streetcars for their guests.
In 1923, the Ground Hog Club established a new meeting location east of Wardsville as their new headquarters. They rented a cabin on the Osage River from Mrs. Helena Schneiders for $25 a year. Mark Kleene admits the move was probably attributed to giving the members more “elbow room” and a more central location, as some of the members had moved away from the Millbottom and The Shack’s location.
With Joe Kleene’s passing, the Ground Hog Club ceased to exist. Yet, the cabin on the Osage had life for many years after. Mark remembers going to the cabin in his early years with his family and enjoying family reunions with mint juleps and barbecue chicken. Many family reunions and traditions still continue in the same areas where the club began. We enjoy weddings and events at The Millbottom, moonlit bike rides past Red Wheel Bike Shop, ham and bean dinners at Selinger Center, pints of beer at Paddy Malone’s Irish Pub, Fourth of July fireworks, and community parades where floats are launched from the very parking lot where the Kleene Bros. Grocery once stood.
The final meeting place of the Ground Hog Club was the cabin on the Osage. However, it had been vandalized several times, and in 2005 trespassers set a final fire to the cabin. Mark and Joe, grandsons of Vic and Joe, still own the land where the cabin stood, and Mark reveals there is a cave not too far from the cabin’s original location. It is said that Ground Hogs never go too far from their natural habitat.