The Kennebunk River Club was founded by thirteen summer residents who enjoyed the games, competitions, boat parades, and carnivals provided by the Kennebunk River as well as the leisurely canoe rides and picnics two miles up river to the rock outcropping aptly named Picnic Rocks. They originally dubbed themselves “The Lobster Club” and “The Lobster Boat and Canoe Club,” but in 1889 they organized themselves as the Kennebunk River Club and the Boathouse (originally called the Clubhouse) was quickly constructed in time for the summer of 1890. How did these people come to summer in the Port and on Gooch’s Beach across the River?
In 1870, four men from Arlington, Massachusetts formed the Sea Shore Company to develop a vacation community along the New England Coast. They finally decided on the rocky shores of Kennebunkport and negotiated the purchase of 700 acres of coastal land stretching from Turbat’s Creek in Kennebunkport to Lord’s Point in Kennebunk. The farmers and fisherman were surprised at the size of the offer for what they considered worthless property (no pastures nor docking sites for fishing boats, nor even a decent road to town) and thought they had pulled a fast one on the city slickers. Streets were laid out on paper and hundreds of building lots were offered for sale through advertisements in the newspapers of Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia. Most of the streets were never built and most of the lots were never built upon, but some large houses were constructed (with spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean), in the American Shingle Cottage Style popularized by the Portland architect and landscape artist John Calvin Stevens. In addition to viewing the ocean and engaging in river sports and social activities, the Club members turned to tennis.
Tennis was an outgrowth of a 12th Century French game played in an indoor courtyard with the ball struck by hand; rackets were first used in the 16th Century. It wasn’t until the 1870s that tennis spread rapidly in England and France and then was introduced in the United States first on Staten Island, New York and then in Newport, Rhode Island. The game quickly caught on among the well-to-do who had the money to build courts and the leisure time to enjoy them. River Club members formed the nucleus of a new club, known as the Arundel Casino, established in the 1890s off South Maine Street high above the Boathouse. The Casino was also used for theatrics, including plays by neighbor Booth Tarkington, the most popular American novelist of his time. In 1929, The River Club leased enough land across the road from the Boathouse for two tennis courts and then absorbed the Arundel Casino Club. The Casino building was cut in half for the move down the hill where it still hosts theatrics and art shows.
Over the years, the Club has evolved into a robust membership as the boating, tennis, and social activities have expanded. And, in 1975, the Club was honored to receive designation on the National Register of Historic Places. With a newly restored Boathouse project just completed in 2009, the Club is now poised to create another hundred years of wonderful memories.