In the beginning years of the 20th century, the tiny village of Wells River, Vt., was invaded annually by hordes of fat men. They came because their club had its headquarters at Hale's tavern, and every fall it hosted an outing.
Only men with double chins and large bellies could join the club, which they called the New England Fat Men’s Club.
The club started one evening in 1903 when Jerome Hale, the tavern’s husky proprietor, bantered with his guests around the fireplace. They were 10 traveling salesmen who often stayed at Hale’s establishment. Hale noticed every one of them weighed more than 200 pounds. And so they decided to form a club.
To join, they decided, you had to weigh 200 pounds. They agreed on a motto: "I've got to be good-natured; I can't fight and I can't win." They agreed to hold one outing a year in Wells River.
Soon the club flourished, with hundreds of members from throughout New England.
In the post-Civil War era, social clubs were essential to businessmen building their contacts. Some saw an opportunity to lampoon the clubs – and enjoy the same benefits. There was the Anti-Bell Ringing Society, the Bald Men’s Club, the Association of Bankrupt Insurance Companies and the Mammoth Cod Association and the Flouring Committee.
Clubs for Fat Men
The New England Fat Men’s Club meetings were networking events that gave members access to business and community leaders, including U.S. senators, governors and presidents. William Howard Taft, whose weight peaked at 340 pounds, was offered a membership but declined. He did attend a meeting in Wells River. When he got into the car that picked him up at the train station, it wouldn’t move.
The New England Fat Men’s Club wasn’t the first, by any stretch. The Fat Men’s Association of New York City first met in 1869. There was also the Jolly Fat Men’s Club, the United Association of the Heavy Men of New York State, the Fat Men’s Beneficial Association and the Heavy Weights. Even France had a club for fat men, called Les Cent Kilos.
In Wells River, the townspeople looked forward to the annual meetings. The bony and angular natives stared with envy at the portly forms that arrived with every train, reported the Boston Globe in 1904. Children gathered at the train station to watch the guests arrive.
One rainy day a young boy said to his friend, “‘Gee, look at that stomach! Let’s get under it and keep out of the rain!”
“Wells River is a village of one street, and as the fat men toddled about preparing their jokes they constantly ran into each other,” reported the Globe.
The date for the meeting was announced well in advance so members who fell short of the weight requirement had time to stuff themselves.
The meeting started with a weigh-in. Then came farcical athletic events, which provoked much laughter and helped build appetites.
Tons of Fun
In 1904, Hale won the potato race. Three men fell and "F.C. Dignac (377), the fat hackman of Franklin Falls, N.H., was unable to get up again before the race was finished,” the Boston Globe reported.
Pole vaulting was abandoned when they couldn’t find a pole sturdy enough. During a tug-of-war the rope broke, so they substituted a chain. Baseball games featured teams that each weighed a ton.
The banquet went on until midnight, “the only men leaving the table being those who feared apoplexy,” reported the Globe.
One menu included oyster cocktail, cream of chicken soup, boiled snapper, fillet of beef with mushrooms, roast chicken, roast suckling pig, shrimp salad, steamed fruit pudding with brandy sauce, cakes, cheese and ice cream, with coffee and cigars at the end.
By 1911, the Globe reported, they met monthly. At their March meeting in Boston, the Revere House chef prepared 400 dinners. The 100 members of the club for fat men polished them all off.
By then, though, attitudes about girth were changing. Doctors and insurance underwriters began to stress leanness as healthier than avoirdupois. Fashion changed, too. In came the lean flapper look, out went big-boned opulence.
The New England Fat Men's Club last met in 1924, when only 38 members showed up, and none met the 200-pound mark.
With thanks to The New England Fat Men’s Club from Upper Valley Life Magazine by Polly Tafrate. This story about the club for fat men was updated in 2019.