Throughout its 158-year history, the Illinois State Society of Washington, D.C., known as the Illinois State Association before 1917, has been famous for its sociability and generous hospitality. The great American humorist Mark Twain was the most famous son of Missouri. But he was not yet a famous celebrity during his visit to Washington City as a reporter on February 20, 1868, when he fell in with a party for the Illinois State Association. Mark was only 32-years-old on that night early is his career and he had not yet published any books. What limited fame he did enjoy that night at the Illinois party came from his 1865 short story called The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.
Here is how Mark Twain described his visit to the Illinois party in a letter to The Chicago Republican newspaper published on March 1, 1868:
"I refer to the reception given by the Illinois State Association, yesterday evening. Or, rather, it was more a "reunion," with considerable 'at home' in it than the funereal high comedy they call a 'reception' in Washington. Col. Chester and his fair daughters -- former citizens of Chicago -- conducted the honors, and performed the onerous task with a skill and address that placed even diffident strangers at their ease; insomuch that I shortly became a contented Illinoisan without knowing just how or where the change took place." (Note: Twain is refering to Col. Augustin Chester who was president of ISA and the state agent for Gov. Richard B. Oglesby in Washington in 1868.)
"The invitation I had received was couched in such mysterious terms that I gatheredfrom it a vague notion that I was going there to report a sort of State Agricultural Society; and it was a very agreeable surprise to find a large party of gentlemen present who were not talking about steam plows and corn-shellers, and a brilliant company of ladies who were taking no thought of prize turnips and miraculous cabbages. I like agriculture well enough, but not agricultural mass meetings. There is nothing about them that fires the blood."
"At some of the receptions here, the people move in solemn procession up and down the drawing-rooms, bearing an imaginary Ark of the Covenant, and looking as if they knew they had to wander forty years in the wilderness. Yet; but there was nothing of this kind last night--no processions, no solemnity, no frozen ceremony. The throng shifted constantly and talked incessantly. Nothing could be less stately or more agreeable. It was a very sociable company for a stranger to fall among. Finally, I found a petite young lady (I don't know what petite means, but it is a good word) right from my own side of the river, and then I felt more at home than ever, if possible. She was from Dubuque, which is on the California side of the Mississippi river, and so, of course, we were, in a manner, neighbors. A constructive old-acquaintanceship like this, is wonderfully fortifying and reassuring, when one is in the midst of a foreign element, even though that element is disposed to be a generous and a friendly one.”
For the full article, see http://www.twainquotes.com/18680301.html
What better compliment could there be for a successful social club? And from one of the world’s greatest authors no less! Mark Twain’s observation that the Illinois State Association “placed even diffident strangers at their ease” and was conducive to “a constructive old-acquaintanceship” shows his insight at its best. Sociability is as much at the heart of the traditions of the Illinois State Society at the start of the twenty-first century as it was in 1868. Now if you come to an Illinois State Society party today, you are of course welcome to talk about about steam plows or prize turnips if you really want to. But those topics just do not come up that often anymore now than they did on the night in 1868 when Mark Twain was our special guest and he became a "contented Illinoisan."