Island Activities

by John Thomson

Members have joined the Sycamore Island Pleasure Club -- Montgomery Sycamore Island Club -- Sycamore Island Canoe Club -- for multiple reasons: Mary Cover because she saw a black walnut she wanted to carve; Ed Wilcox, who became the club's leading pool player, because of the tennis courts; George Malusky for the fishing; John Heidemann, Phil Jones and I for a stop-off and canoe storage on the way to and from work. We've all discovered that, no matter what the original attraction was, there are multiple reasons for our membership and our on-going commitment to this river sanctuary only two miles from the District line. For the first half century, before autos and highways made travel easier, Sycamore was a social club attracting campers through the summer months and crowds of enthusiastic members every weekend. In fact, prior to 1936 the week-enders were so numerous that a guest limit for each member was set at two persons.

The flood of 1936, followed by those of 1937 and l942, marked a turning point in club activities. Our dedicated predecessors hung on, of course, or we wouldn't have the Club today. At the same time, access to the mountains to the west and to the beaches to the east opened up, and the horizons for residents of Greater Washington, D.C. expanded. The scheduled activities on the Island changed, and diminished. Sycamore has become a sanctuary, a refuge to which most members come for quiet activities and relief from the stresses of life in the world's most important capital city.

As for the mythology of the "German Beer and Rifle Club," we've seen that it has a basis in fact. We know that beer was available at family get-togethers (at 5 cents a glass). We know nothing of the rifle aspect and, so far back as I read, fire arms in general have been banned from the Island. Whatever gambling there may have been, it was outlawed early on.

Oyster roasts, on the other hand, must have been a great attraction over the years. Almost everywhere one digs -- up near our tulip poplar, down by the sycamores of the canoe shed -- one runs into the evidence. (I find, having sampled the Washington Canoe Club's contemporary roasted oysters, that I wish we could revive the parties.)

Bowling appears in photos and we have prize pins in our archives which show that Sycamorean bowlers were winners well into the 1920s. I have yet, however to discover where the bowling took place on the Island. Could it have been lawn bowling?

Tennis was a real attraction even though most Island memoirs make the point that the court, above and to the river side of the clubhouse, left much to be desired. Nonetheless, until 1936 we had regular tournaments.

A Sycamore Dance? We had dances before and after the flood of 1936 though it appears that such functions were in their heyday in the twenties. The parties were dry of course and on most occasions it was hand-wound victrolas which provided the music. I do see from the minutes of the 1890s that individual members were charged with the responsibility of providing the music. Today I'd guess that this responsibility would fall upon either the Social Committee or the House Committee.

The annual regatta , begun in the early years and continuing into the 1960s, combined serious competition with horseplay (see the memoirs of the Conners). Several different classes of canoe races were staged -- solos, tandems, OC-2Ms (the modern terminology for "open canoe, man and woman"), teams of four and tailenders. The last involved sitting on the bow or stern of the canoe, facing out, (with the rest of the boat far out of the water) and paddling hard, often in circles. The requirement was to cross the finish line with the boat behind the paddler. There was also the glorious art of canoe jousting where the two contestants wielding well padded lances attempted to knock each other off into Broadwater. While these events could be revived, they have been largely replaced by the nationally known Potomac River White Water Race which in 1956 was one of the first white water races to be held. Sycamore has hosted these races ever since.

Club suppers and club parties, including Christmas, Halloween and Independence day parties, have slipped into hibernation. With a little effort they could be revived. For the reader of the Club minutes and the ISLANDER from the thirties and forties the highlights were the suppers put on by Wirt Kinsley. In the sixties Nate Roberts barbecued his multitudes of chickens for the workfests and Mary Mulford staged her Christmas parties for the young.

Horseshoes has been a persistent and pleasant pastime on the Island. We had a proper range out behind the Clubhouse until Hurricane Agnes finally wiped it out. The space is available for a possible revival of this Club activity.

Camping is not a thing of the past. But camping in the old style is. The flood of 1985 wiped out the last Island reminder of what was once the Club's major attraction when tent platforms and shacks dominated the upper end of Sycamore -- and proliferated on Ruppert Island as well. Members summered here on the river and commuted to work by canoe or ferry from the Island. Today, as camping continues, it is the special and temporary activity of a member family, a group of friends or a visiting scout troop, girl or boy.

Contemporary Sycamore Programs

As it was in the beginning, and is now, we have the Island's Monthly Meetings. There was a time when we tried to get along with an Annual Meeting, leaving the routine problems to an Executive Board. It didn't work, and we went back to Monthly Meetings, customarily on the second Wednesday of each month. The business segment is usually, though not always -- certainly not during floods and other crises -- long-winded and boring as we ponder details and trivia. The compensations, however, are the warm social exchanges and the beauty of Sycamore at night plus the pleasures provided by the monthly speakers.

We've lost the historic woodfests but we still have the two Workfests, Spring and Fall, that are necessary to open the Island after an icy winter -- in time for the May Whitewater Race -- and to close it down again as the leaves are failing and we are looking for the cold of winter -- snow and ice.

Today these 15 activities -- the 12 monthly meetings, the two workfests and the Whitewater Race are the only regularly scheduled Club activities. Of course, they are expanded in times of crisis, such as for flood cleanups. Informal activities, however, abound. And these are what make the Club for us today.

The most frequent, and least reported, of these activities, or programs, are the family outings -- picnics, swims, canoe trips up and down the quiet waters of Broadwater, skating in the winter and the like. Pool and billiards too. Horseshoes and croquet.

On a more organized basis, but still informal, groups of Islanders and friends come down to take advantage of the volley ball -- the successor to our tennis courts. So long as they do not occur on weekends or holidays, there is no need for pre-planning. So long as the Caretaker is aware of the players pending arrival and is available to provide ferry transportation, these outings can occur on the spur of the moment.

Art sessions too -- painting and sculpting -- have been on-going Island activities, the programs of members and friends.

Large Parties, announced in advance when they occur on weekends or holidays, range from wedding celebrations and school picnics to Easter egg hunts, to office or association get-togethers and to memorial services. Since the time when the Club used to host the Black Knights, the Saengerbund, the Hessians and the Martha Washington Club, the Club has always been an attractive sanctuary in its river setting.