by Edward Pinkowski
Unlike many visitors to Williamsburg, Va., who stroll down Duke of Gloucester Street and hardly notice a marker, which reads Pulaski Club, Founded 1779, Peter Obst, who came from Philadelphia to attend the annual convention of the American Council for Polish Culture (ACPC), did not leave without taking a picture of the gathering place of the Pulaski Club.
The stone marker in the middle of a patch of red bricks and three benches between the sidewalk and the street were gifts of John D. Rockefeller (1874- 1960), who, beginning in 1926, gave $56,000,000 for the restoration of the colonial capital of Virginia. But the Pulaski Club, which has not always met in the same place, is one of the oldest and most loosely organized clubs in the country.
For 221 years it has never held a dinner without a toast to Casimir Pulaski, and the number of members is frozen by the Polish general's age, one member for each year of his life. Now that there is proof Pulaski was born March 6, 1745, the Pulaski Club may grow to 34 members.
On the day I called Willard Gilley from my home in Florida, the retired 79-year-old milk man of Williamsburg and a member of the Pulaski Club since 1978, was on his favorite bench for an hour and a half in the afternoon, talking with interlopers on topics of the day, and returned my call in the evening. Never before was he interviewed for a story of the Pulaski Club.
Warming the benches of the Pulaski Club is an old Gilley tradition. Father and son bear the same name. The father was born August 31, 1896, on a 40 acre farm in Rock County, northwest Minnesota, 25 miles east of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the grandson of an English immigrant who purchased the land from the federal government in 1844. The family moved to James City County, Virginia, lying between the York and James rivers, when Willard Gilley was nine years old. He started a dairy farm in 1929.
In the following years, Willard Gilley delivered milk to homes and stores in Williamsburg and one of his customers, Henry Dennis Cole, who had a newstand on Duke of Marlborough Street, was president of the Pulaski Club. Eventually, before his death in 1936, Cole invited the milk deliverer to join the Pulaski Club. The first year he joined, he made a toast to Pulaski at the dinner in the fall.
Since then no year has passed without a Gilley going through the same ritual. The father remained a member until his death in 1979, and the year before, in 1978, the two sat together on the benches of the Pulaski Club. Sometimes a person sat on the benches a long time before he was asked to join the club. One person sat for fifteen years. Don Thomas, who is the present secretary of the club, has very few records. He keeps no minutes. Members pay no dues. He maintains only a mailing list in order to invite members to two social affairs a year, one in the spring for members and their spouses, and the other in the fall, for men only, to drink a toast to departed members and Pulaski.
Rockefeller was a reluctant member of the club. He was a teetotaler, and because the initiation fee was a bottle of Virginia bourbon whiskey, the members of the Pulaski Club figured out a way for him to join. When he became a member in 1950, his chauffeur presented the bottle of whiskey in his behalf and drank a toast to Pulaski at the dinner.
CHANGES IN THE CLUB
The first members of the club, however, were citizens of Williamsburg who heeded General Washington's suggestion to venerate Pulaski and named their organization after him. It is said they were at the bar of Raleigh Tavern when word was received that Pulaski died of his wounds on October 15, 1779, after being wounded in the siege of Savannah. On the way to his final battle, Pulaski sailed from Annapolis, Maryland, to Williamsburg, where he might have stayed at the Raleigh Tavern overnight, then sped on a horse, or a series of horses, to save Charleston, South Carolina, from falling into British hands. The Tories claimed Pulaski's horse was captured at Savannah, Georgia, and sold in New York after Pulaski's death to a Loyalist of King George III.
After that the founders of the Pulaski Club met at the Raleigh Tavern, where Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and other Revolutionary patriots often dined, and few of them were alive when a banquet for Lafayette was held there in 1824. After the tavern was destroyed by fire in 1859, no newspaper clippings and other records mentioned the Pulaski Club, also known as Pulaski Sociable, until the 1870s.
The club almost died in 1877. It depended on men who liked to hang around and tell stories. For many years students at William and Mary College in Williamsburg were good recruits, and the Pulaski Club suffered when the students graduated. The college was closed from 1881 to 1889. Women were admitted to William and Mary College in 1918. The Pulaski Club, however, would not accept women. Today it accepts only male citizens of Williamsburg.
In his years as president, however, Henry Cole did not throw in the towel. He managed to attract new members. Somehow he held the members together, first around a pot-bellied stove and then at his newsstand, and, after his death, Rockefeller provided wooden benches for their use.
A TALE OF TWO CITIES
There's no comparison between the stone marker in Williamsburg and the Pulaski Monument in Savannah, Georgia. Yet, in the 221 years since Pulaski's death, the Pulaski Club has warmed his Polish name year after year, albeit for a long time in a declining city. The benchwarmers of Williamsburg could do no less than take their gift of gab, spirit, and ingenuity to Savannah.
The Masonic lodges of Georgia for the most part gave Savannah the Pulaski Monument, the tallest one in Georgia, and a Mason dug up Pulaski's remains on his grandmother's plantation, Greenwich, three miles from the city limits in 1852, and ordered an iron box to keep the bones in a brick-lined vault under the Pulaski Monument. For a century and a half, the promoters of Savannah used the Pulaski Monument to draw tourists, but as time passed forgot what was done with Pulaski's bones. DNA was a gimmick.
Now, on the verge of holding a funeral for General Pulaski on October 15, 2001, Savannah is being helped a lot by the American Council for Polish Culture. The prominent names of the past, from Don Gardner to James Wermuth, are gone. Edward Pinkowski, who proved without DNA that Savannah has Pulaski's bones, is waiting for Pulaski's third funeral.
In her report to the Williamsburg convention, Deborah Majka, who served six years as ACPC president, reported that she plans to bring the best Polish singers in the nation to Savannah in 2001 for a series of performances. Her sidekick, Paul Bosse, who is in charge of special events, went to Poland to invite all the VIP's in his ancestral homeland to Pulaski's funeral and, as Peter Obst wrote in Polish Heritage, ordered a hand-crafted coffin in Poland for Pulaski's body.
There's more to come. Stay tuned.