It’s probably the only club in town to claim a vice president of the United States as a member.
But the proof’s in the portrait, and there, behind glass in living black-and-white are Hubert and Muriel Humphrey, the hand-written dedication reading, “To my good friends and fellow members of the Winona Athletic Club — With best wishes, Hubert H. Humphrey.”
It’s easy enough to imagine the ebullient “Happy Warrior” of Minnesota politics laughing and swapping stories — long stories — in a pastel-lit back booth at the Winona Athletic Club. “There’s always been an atmosphere of great fellowship here,” said club manager Terry Howell.
It started when William McKinley was president, said longtime member and former president Ken Poblocki, 83, looking over an early history of the club that documents its beginnings from a time when “men earned $1.00 per day, supported and educated their children and drank beer at 5 cents a glass and liquor at 25 cents a quart.”
The club got its start when eight young men organized in a little room at 804 East Second St. In the early days, the club constitution specified that “only single men of good character” could be members, and, in the event of a member marrying, he automatically lost membership. It wasn’t long after a number of the founding members found themselves at the altar that this rule was amended to permit a member in good standing to marry — but requiring new applicants still to be single men.
That provision was also later abandoned, and today women have been welcomed as full members “for quite a number of years,” Howell said.
The club has operated out of the brown brick building at East Fifth Street and Mankato Avenue since 1931. On the eve of the Great Depression, the club sold bonds bearing 5 percent interest to its members, quickly raising the $75,000 construction cost. After the club opened, it quickly issued another $10,000 in bonds to install a six-lane bowling alley in the basement. The club featured social and meeting rooms on the first floor and an upstairs ballroom.
Poblocki is the club’s 13th-oldest member. “When you make the top 10 you get a gold membership card and your dues are paid for life,” he said. He’s been a part of the Athletic Club since the bar manager handed him an application, telling him, he recalled, “You’ve been coming in here pretty regularly. I know you pretty well … and I know you’re going to be 21 in a short time. We may as well get you in now.”
Back when Poblocki joined, membership was $5 a year, Poblocki recalled, and was a social center for Winona’s east end.
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“It was a busy place—you knew everyone there,” he said.
Dances, socials, picnics — there were events for young and old, children included. Athletics and sports were a strong tradition among club members, many of whom were active or former athletes. For many years, the club was a sponsor of the Polish National Alliance baseball club, the semi-pro alma mater of Julian Wera, who went on to be Babe Ruth’s teammate on the New York Yankees. Over the years, the club sponsored billiards, boxing, wrestling, volleyball and other activities, and Athletic Club bowlers have consistently made a name for themselves in local leagues.
For a long time the club was known as “The Polish Embassy,” Howell said, acknowledging that the club membership roster has featured more “ski”s than the Winter Olympics. In fact, for years, the official club jacket was done in red and white satin — the colors of the Polish national flag — with “Polska” above the Polish eagle proudly displayed on the back.
In October 1954, the building was severely damaged by a fire started by a cigarette smoldering in a cloak room. A duck hunter bound for his blind just after 4 a.m. spotted smoke and flames and called the fire department in time to save the building — save for a big hole burned through the ballroom floor.
The ballroom was restored and is still in regular use, Howell said. The club continues to be a social center, rental facilities for receptions, parties and other events, and providing a meeting place for local groups and organizations. The club still hosts a Christmas party for members and their families, a picnic in the summer and other events.
And since 1983 Rocco’s Pizza has made and served pizza fresh from what was once the club card rooms.
While the current membership of about 350 is down from the nearly 1,500 the club boasted 60 years ago, “the younger people are coming in,” Poblocki said.
Annual membership dues are $20 now, but in addition to invitations to all club activities and discounted rates on the use of club facilities, every month every member is entitled to a drink on the house, Howell said.
“It’s the same old place,” Poblocki said. “It’s a real good group to belong to.”