Leaders of the Pack: On the trail of Buffalo's most elusive organization



Illustration by Josh Flanigan

The headquarters of Buffalo’s Pack Club may not seem very distinctive from the outside, but it’s a rare kind of building. This short, white, entirely undecorated building on Elmwood Avenue houses a top-secret group whose very existence makes you question everything you thought you knew about your town. The city’s most exclusive social club is, in fact, so exclusive that you probably haven’t heard about it.

The more you learn about Pack Club, and the more that Pack Club refuses to let you learn, the more you wonder. How much do you truly know about your city’s streets, even the most well-traveled? How much deeper are the social circles and enclaves of the city you thought you knew from the headlines and gossip? And how could the vast majority of residents of a small city, so finely attuned to its history, know nothing about a club whose members are boldface names in business and philanthropy?

Pack Club does officially exist, just barely. There are tax filings for “Pack Corp.,” a tax-exempt social club entity that receives all its mail through a suburban handling office. There is a single, obscure bit of hearsay about the Pack Club in Google searches—no small feat in modern times. There are no Pack Club folders or headers in the archives of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library, the Buffalo News, or the late Courier-Express. There are something close to fifty-two members (as in a pack of playing cards), but try to track them down and they’ll produce the kind of answers you usually hear in spy thrillers.

“I’m not authorized to [speak on] that, and I don’t know who’s in charge there,” said one member, a treasurer of Pack Corp. in 2010, according to tax filings, and vice-president in 2011. “I appreciate you calling, but I have nothing to tell you about it,” said another, a director in 2011. None of more than two dozen other phone messages to purported members were returned. One member did refer me to the current president named in tax filings, Charles F. Kreiner Jr., who did not return calls. The wife of another member who picked up the phone did somewhat confirm both her husband’s membership and the club’s unofficial press policy.

“Oh. Oh, my,” she said. “Well, we will have to see about that.”

The splinter group of a splinter group

In a post about Pack Club on local mapping site Navigetter, Buffalo Rising cofounder and editor Newell Nussbaumer wrote that it was born from members who “ … split off from the Saturn Club years ago when the act of playing cards was banned. This was a place where they could gather for lunches, socialize, and, of course, play cards. … The Pack Club still has the same number of members, many of whom meet on a daily basis. President of the club is the Ace.”

Nussbaumer, one of Buffalo’s most ubiquitous and well-connected figures, clarified by e-mail that he could not learn more than he posted. “[They] aren’t keen on publicity due to the small and limited number of members. This is not the type of club that has membership drives,” Nussbaumer wrote.

The organization and its origins are mentioned neither in any of the extensive histories of the Saturn Club written by philanthropist and prolific author George F. Goodyear, nor in at least half a dozen other local histories of the time. The Pack Club does merit a very brief mention in Goodyear Family History, Volume III. Frank Goodyear, a “handsome man, with curly hair,” is noted as a founder in 1926 of “a small but very exclusive and elite men’s club in Buffalo.” Far more attention is spent on Goodyear’s yachting escapades, including a 1929 explosion in the port of Miami. George Goodyear’s coyness about the Pack Club is particularly notable, given his all-encompassing love of knowledge—he read an entire twenty-four-volume Encyclopedia Britannica over twenty-two years. And Goodyear was, according to his 2002 Buffalo News obituary, a Pack Club member himself.

A splinter group from the Saturn Club makes sense along a fateful, ironic timeline. The Saturn itself was formed by college-age Buffalo Club members in 1885, who thought the Buffalo Club, then just eighteen years old, had become too “dignified and conservative.”

“They decided to form their own group, mainly for the purposes of card playing and drinking, like almost all men’s clubs of the time,” Spree editor Elizabeth Licata wrote in a 2001 retrospective.

The Saturn Club grew and moved into different rented rooms every few years until 1889 when it formally incorporated and constructed its own building. Goodyear’s accounts of its meetings and events in his books One Hundred Years and Saturn Club show a club with irreverence and festivity literally written into its walls—“Where the women cease from troubling, and the wicked are at rest,” went one (since modified) slogan. Card playing was a major concern of the club, with official scores and ledgers, custom printed cards, and bridge tournaments that merited news coverage. Most organizations mature and ossify as they get larger, but the Saturn Club, by the mid-1920s, seemed to be bustling with card games, energy, in-jokes, and drinking. Until one evening in the summer of 1923, that is.

The Saturn had a bar and a bartender during the early years of Prohibition, but did not provide drinks. Instead, on advice from its lawyers, members could keep unquestioned items in private lockers, and order all the ingredients for a cocktail, sans spirits, to be passed into the club’s rooms through a small sliding door. The wink-nudge arrangement did not stand, however, and at 8:30 p.m. on August 23, 1923, U.S. Attorney William “Wild Bill” Donovan launched a court-approved raid. Donovan, a Saturn member himself, had warned the club’s management against on-the-sly drinking, to no avail. Inside the organization’s lockers, Donovan’s men found at least sixty quarts of whisky, a similar amount of gin, five gallons of moonshine, and miscellaneous bottles of champagne, vermouth, and other liquors, according to court documents.

George A. Mitchell, chair of the club’s house committee, told reporters the night of the raid that the liquor “evidently was smuggled in by bootlegging employees of the club.” But the well-known names of liable locker owners were printed days later—Knox, Schoellkopf, Porter, and Lockwood among them—and the club had little option but to agree to a settlement and do away with the sliding doors.

Just under three years later, Pack Club was founded. It might simply be coincidence, but the repeal of Prohibition was still nearly seven years away, and the Saturn Club likely tightened its rules on more than just liquor after the raid. Then again, it could have been a logical progression. One person with many contacts in Buffalo’s social clubs, who spoke on the condition he not be named, heard Pack Club’s origins characterized as Saturn Club members who felt the club, then with hundreds of members, had lost its exclusive appeal. Those members then sought the intentional constraints of a pack of cards and the most modest of homes.

The plot thickens

In May 1929, three years after its informal founding, Pack Corp. purchased the small house at 164 Elmwood from E. B. Green Jr., who graduated from Harvard University in 1911 and moved here to work for his father’s prestigious architecture firm. Green was a Saturn Club member, according to a Harvard class report, and, one might guess, a Pack Club member himself. The Pack was granted tax-exempt status as a social club in 1941. Beyond these milestones, and remarkably bland annual tax filings, there is almost no other public information about the club. Since 2003, Buffalo police can only report a handful of false alarm system calls and a single loud noise check at the Elmwood address.

There are, however, subtle and unexplained references in Buffalo News obituaries. One mentions Charles H. Stephens, passed in 1996, as both a “dean” of the Saturn Club and “an ace of the Pack Club.” Other members outed in this post-mortem fashion include corporate attorneys, investment bankers, heads of real estate firms and steel mills—many of them with recognizable names, most with dual Buffalo Club or Saturn Club memberships, almost all with Ivy League backgrounds.

Living relatives of some deceased Pack Club members had little to say about their relatives’ membership. One member’s niece asked for her name to be withheld, just to allow herself to say that her uncle “was a (Pack Club) member” and “always enjoyed his time there.” A person with acquaintances in the club, who spoke on the condition he not be named, seemed to realize halfway through speaking with me that he knew much less than he had thought about the organization. There is a hard fifty-two-member, invitation-only limit, so turnover is both slow and sudden, he said. Mondays are popular for lunch and cards, and there is an annual holiday party that non-members can attend. He had been to such a party many years before, but could scarcely describe the club’s interior in any detail.

“It’s a lot of well-connected people, some notable names,” he said, a fact backed up by the recurrence of members as parents in New York Times wedding announcements. “But it’s a social club, a lot like the others.”

Simply to prove the Pack Club’s ongoing operation, I watched its headquarters from a car for about an hour, starting at noon on a winter Monday. About a dozen men, mostly older, found parking spaces on Elmwood Avenue between Allen and North streets, then casually strolled toward the club, which is further off the curb and much shorter than the neighboring storefronts and Victorian homes. The alleyway entrance has a wrought iron railing and door, both with playing card clubs shaped into them.“The Pack” is also visible on the top half of the gate. That is as close as one can get, without a holiday party invitation or trespassing. One man I could identify entering for lunch did not return my call later that month.

Why this article, then? Why write about something for which there are so many more unanswered questions than confirmed facts? Just for that very reason. In this era of personal branding, social networking, and easily searched history, Pack Club’s monastic existence is extraordinary. While so many organizations are seeking to expand their presence in the information age, one club would rather not exist in any way that matters except to its members.

So let this serve as notice that there may be some remarkable business deals and civic arrangements happening in a house you hardly notice in Allentown. Or it might just be a quiet spot where it’s nice to have lunch and play a simple card game, surrounded by friends and shielded by utter obscurity. The only people who know for sure are the ones who aren’t talking.

 

Tech writer and TEDxBuffalo founder Kevin Purdy is a frequent contributor to Buffalo Spree.

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