Oldest State Society Celebrates 150th

Posted December 3, 2004 at 3:01pm

Each year at the Wyoming State Society’s annual event marking the opening of Cheyenne Frontier Days, the largest rodeo in North America, Wyoming transplants in Washington, D.C., “get cowboyed up in they’re best boots, hats and big belt buckles for a night of country dancing and Western revelry,” according to the group’s Web site.

But people from Wyoming are not the only ones who need a taste of home. That’s why there is the pre-Derby party and the bourbon tasting event put on by the Kentucky State Society. Maine has an annual lobster dinner, while Californians enjoy an Oscar night event. And every four years the Texas State Society holds its Black Tie and Boots inaugural ball.

There are also golf tournaments, picnics, holiday parties, happy hours and group outings to sporting events when the home team plays in Washington or Baltimore to bring state expatriates together for a little reminder of home.

It all began with the Illinois State Society, the oldest of the state societies in Washington, which celebrated its 150 birthday last week at a party which also honored outgoing Reps. Philip Crane (R) and Bill Lipinski (D), as well as other former Members from Illinois.

It is believed that Abraham Lincoln was once a member of the Illinois State Society, said the group’s vice president of communications, Mark Rhoads.

Founded in 1854, the group was originally known as the Illinois Democratic Club of Washington, D.C. During Lincoln’s presidency, the name became the Illinois Republican Club and continued to change depending on the party in power until the 1890s, when it became the nonpartisan Illinois State Society.

Throughout the 20th century, 20 Members of Congress from Illinois served as the Illinois State Society president, including Speaker Dennis Hastert (R), who served from 1992 to 1994.

“That pattern would repeat itself over almost all of the state societies,” Rhoads said. For Congressional Members in their second or third term, serving as president of their state’s society helps form a statewide network in Washington, Rhoads said. Former President and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson (D) served as president of the Texas State Society, as did Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R).

Whether they serve as an officer or not, Congressional Members are almost automatically members of their state society, Rhoads said.

“It is the only continuous, nonpartisan venue where you can routinely get together across party lines and try to advance the common good of states,” he said.

Networking aside, members of the societies often join for the social aspects.

“Because Washington is such a transient place, it’s a way to keep a connection to hometown ties,” said Rhoads.

Last year the Illinois State Society gathered approximately 140 people to attend the Chicago Cubs’ first game against the Orioles at Camden Yards. Rhoads said the group hopes to have more such opportunities with National League baseball coming to Washington next season.

The group also tries to organize outings when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra plays at the Kennedy Center, as well as other receptions and picnics to maintain a close-knit community.

In January, 22 societies will hold inaugural galas. Though separate from the official inaugural celebrations, the parties are traditionally well attended and listed on official inaugural calendars, Rhoads said.

The Illinois State Society sent 10,000 invitations for the group’s inaugural ball, and they expect approximately 3,500 people to attend, Rhoads said.