LONACONING -- Republicans from far and wide have come to a grand old place in Lonaconing -- the meeting hall of the Grand Old Party where members have assembled for debate, drink and duckpins for 49 years.
Hidden away in the Western Maryland mountains of Allegany County, the Lonaconing Republican Club is legendary for its party loyalty, so much so that its members boast that it is the largest such Republican club in the nation.
"I think we are considered the largest Republican Club incorporated in the United States," said club President Marvin "Huck" Shockey.
Republican National Committee officials could not verify that claim, but it may not be an idle one, as the club carries a membership of nearly 1,000 Republicans, in a town with about 1,400 lower- and middle-class older residents.
That doesn't mean that nearly everyone in town belongs to the club -- it just seems that way.
Dues are not expensive -- $4 to join and $3 a year -- and you don't have to be a resident to belong. All you have to be is a registered Republican.
The club is an establishment rich in lore, with its bar, dance hall
and duckpin bowling alleys formerly
owned by Lonaconing's favorite son, the late Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Grove. It is still often referred to by some as "Lefty's Place."
"Lefty had the bowling alley and lived in one section of the building and rented out another part to the Republican Club," Mr. Shockey said.
The club purchased the building from Mr. Grove in 1969.
The beer garden-like hall overlooks George's Creek. It has a long bar and the words "Lonaconing Republican Club" carved out of wood.
The paneled walls are decorated with American flags and photos of Republican heroes such as Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan. Jars of red hot sausage and beef jerky are stored behind the bar.
It is the social spot of the town, with monthly dances and a weekly duckpin bowling league, with two nights of league play on the club's two duckpin lanes, manned not with automatic pinsetters, but with a pin boy.
"This is one of the best places to come in the area," said George T. Kelly, 60, who works at the nearby Westvaco paper mill.
"We don't have any trouble, and there's always some good people here."
There's also usually some easy going conversation or some good-natured jabbing going on.
"It's the place where everyone comes around to shoot the breeze and meet their friends," said Calvin Shockey, Marvin's brother.
In the past, the club had been a powerful political force. "At one time, we could get somebody elected here with the membership we had and the amount of Republicans along George's Creek," said Mr. Shockey, 56, who has been president of the club for 17 years over several different periods.
But their strength was watered down when the town was redistricted out of Allegany County and linked with Garrett County.
It is the only Allegany County community represented by Garrett County State Delegate George Edwards -- a Republican.
"They just took from the outskirts of one end of Lonaconing to the other end," Mr. Shockey said.
"It was political because back then we had a lot of force."
The club can still deliver votes, though, he said.
"We can still put 1,500 Republicans out in the polls on Election Day," he said.
The club consists of mainly middle-aged and older members, but Mr. Shockey said they have attracted some younger members recently.
It also has its share of members who have since moved away, but remain loyal to the organization.
"We have people who once lived here who have moved away to Pennsylvania, West Virginia, even Michigan, and still keep their membership," Mr. Shockey said.
Mr. Shockey said some notable Republicans who have frequented the club include former U.S. Sens. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. and J. Glenn Beall Jr. and former Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, when he was governor of Maryland.
He also notes that a well-known Democrat stopped by last year. Gov. William Donald Schaefer was in here after the fire, Mr. Shockey said, referring to the fire last year in the town's business district that destroyed several businesses.
Mostly, though, the club's clientele consists of loyal "Coney" Republicans who are attracted to a place where everybody knows their name.