From the inception of The Fort Atkinson Club in 1912, there was a clear vision of what the building would be to both its members and the community that surrounded it. That vision was to be a place for social enjoyment and recreation, conversation where wit meets wit, and, above all, a place to cultivate the very needs of human nature. As told in an article from the Jefferson County Union in 1912, “This club is for the social enjoyment and play, if you please, of a lot of very intensely worked, young men. They are not partial to the saloon as a meeting place for social converse. In one corner we see a few cronies enjoying their rubber whist, in another corner a cue artist explaining the wonderful game he played at Pinger’s some five years ago. Down the stairs we see the brawny arm sweep back, shoot forward with a slow, sure swing, and lo, we hear a cry, “strike” as the ball drops all the pins.” At its core, The Fort Atkinson Club was created as a place where Fort Atkinson’s men of the early 1900’s could step away from what was required of them in their daily work and find comfort in the many pleasures the club had to offer.
The club was financed with individual pledges of $200 by the Main Street businessmen, including W.D. Hoard and three Hoard sons. The land upon which The Fort Atkinson Club rests was purchased in 1912 from A. R. Hoard. The two lots run along the beautiful Rock River which has long provided a majestic backdrop for the many events The Fort Atkinson Club has hosted. Of these events, perhaps none have ever matched the elegance and grandeur of the opening of the club on November 7, 1913. At the time of the opening, it was headlined as the “Most Dazzling Event Ever Given in Fort Atkinson” by the Jefferson County Union. The paper also stated, “It was a crowning glory that will live in the memory of all club members till earthly things pass from view.” Imagine a ball so brilliant that it would rival a party given by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fictional character Jay Gatsby. Beautiful women accompanied the men of Fort Atkinson into the lavishly decorated club which housed over two hundred guests. The notes of Chopin and Verdi danced in the air as The Imperial Orchestra of Madison entertained the guests as they sat for a five course meal prepared by a famous chef. As the tables were being cleared for the ball the curiosities of the new club brought the guests from room to room as they awed in the beauty and craftsmanship of the building. Men played cards and smoked in the lounges, and the gowns of beautiful women swayed to music on the freshly waxed dance floor. Joy was most certainly had by all who attended.
Eventually, in January of 1930, during the beginning of the depression, The Fort Atkinson Club was purchased by Billings Masonic Lodge for $17,500. The building would be the Billings Masonic Lodge’s Temple for the next fifty-six years while also housing other Masonic Orders such as the Order of Eastern Star for women, the Order of De Molay for boys and Order of Rainbow for girls. During their long stay, the Mason’s took great care of the building. They remodeled and redecorated the interior to suit their need which included the creation of a large second floor lodge room. To this day there are still artifacts that remain of the Mason’s long stay at The Fort Atkinson Club. The Mason’s ultimately sold the building in 1997 to a local Fort Atkinson business man.
For the next fifteen years the beautiful building would quietly hide in the shadows and slowly begin to fall into disrepair. In 2011 Joan and Milo Jones purchased the building with the goal of saving and restoring it to its former glory. Shortly after the purchase, the building was transferred to the non-profit Rock River Heritage whose board was dedicated to creating a community center for Fort Atkinson.
In order to complete the restoration of The Fort Atkinson Club, a great community effort was needed to raise the $2.3 million it would take to bring the building up to code and back to its former splendor. In order to accomplish this monumental project Rock River Heritage Inc. launched The Fort Atkinson Club Capital Campaign to raise the money. During this campaign, which ran between 2013 and 2014, the community rallied behind the project and the generosity of the Fort Atkinson Community Foundation, local families, individuals, organizations and businesses helped raise enough money to give the center the makeover it desperately needed. In appreciation of this community effort a display of the many generous donors to the Capital Campaign is proudly hung just past the club’s main entrance. Many of the donor’s names are also displayed on the original theatre seats which were purchased by individuals through the numerous fund raising efforts.
The many facets of the construction project would take up the majority of 2014. The restoration started with a complete reworking of the exterior structure which included exposing and restoring 105 windows, including those facing the Rock River, a national landmark waterway. The goal of the interior was to keep it as close to original as possible while installing all new mechanical, electrical, plumbing, as well as an elevator wing to comply with code. The original floors and woodwork were restored, and the vintage two lane bowling alley was also saved but is currently under repair to become usable once again. The project was completed in January of 2015. Pictures of the various phases of the reconstruction can be seen in the photo gallery section of www.fortatkinsonclub.org.
Today The Fort Atkinson Club stands as proud and grand as it did in 1912. Along with the restoration of the building, the vision of what it would be to the community has also been realized. It is a place where people of all ages and backgrounds in Fort Atkinson and surrounding areas and beyond can come together through education, arts, wellness, business, community events and other fun activities—while showcasing the history, culture, and heritage of the area. The Fort Atkinson club hosts many activities and events including the Lecture Series which run throughout the spring and fall, the Partner for the Arts programs which include music and dance lessons, theatre productions, and wellness programs such as Tai Chi classes. The stunning building and grounds also provides the perfect setting for the many passages of life such as baby showers, weddings, receptions, birthdays, retirements and funeral luncheons. Please call 920-568-1720 to become a member, volunteer, share ideas for new programs or discuss your event.