Time stands still four times a year for the gentlemen of the Ancient South River Club.

That's when the members, average age 70, meet at their one-room clapboard clubhouse 10 miles south of here to pitch quoits, drink their secret punch, feast on country ham and blackball prospctive members much the same way their ancestors did nearly 300 years ago.

What has kept the oldest operating social organization in the Western Hemisphere going? "We're not allowed to talk about religion or politics," said Tom Worthington, Annapolis real estate broker and club member since 1968.

That, club members said, is the only rule.

The society, whose tiny clubhouse resembles a grown-up tree house perched on a lush country hill 10 miles south of here, is open only to men, over 21 years of age who were born in Southern Maryland. Membership is limited to 25 men mainly because that's how many can squeeze into the clubhouse which is surrounded by tall oak trees, honeysuckle bushes and the ghost of members past. s

"Welcome to the 17th century," Worthington said, ushering a guest into the "new" clubhouse. The old clubhouse burned in 1740, destroying the club's records. Nevertheless, the membership claims the organization, founded by Maryland tobacco farmers, dates to around 1680.

"We're just a little country club," said Worthington, noting the lack of golf course, swimming pool or bar and grill.

There's horsehair plaster on the ceiling, worn pine floors, a long walnut table and faded portraits hanging on the yellowng walls.

"This is," said Worthington, chairman of the grounds committee, "an oasis of tranquility in a rather turbulent world."

There's no electricity, no indoor plumbing and no running water. There is also, members say, no reason for the club's existence.

"We don't espouse any cause or person," Worthington said. "I suppose the only thing we get out of it is pleasure."

Four times a year -- on the third Thursday of May, the Fourth of July, the third Thursday of September and the Thursday before Thanksgiving -- the members meet. The purpose of these gatherings is to feast on a lavish meal, which members take turns serving. Two staples of these afternoon repasts are a 15-pound Maryland country ham and a potent punch, brewed two months in advance.

The punch recipe is a closely guarded secret, but as club members' wives will attest, the main ingredient is Maryland rye whiskey.

The steward of the day, as the host member is referred to, must also supply club members with clean clay pipes and tobacco, although these days the men prefer cigars.

The meetings are open only to members, but the steward of the day is permitted to bring five guests. Over the years such notables as baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, former secretary of the Navy J. William Middendorf and former acting governor of Maryland Blair Lee have tasted the secret South River Club punch as guests.

Along with the meal, the members indulge in local gossip, trade jokes and pitch quoits -- bronze rings much like horseshoes -- on the one half-acre manicured lawn.

Outsiders might call the Ancient South River Club snobbish, even discriminatory. But Tom Worthington, pointing to the dilapidated toilet facility hidden behind the tall bushes, said, "How can we be snooty with an outhouse like this?"

The "necessary," as the facility is called, suffered its current fate when Hurricane Hazel blew it down the hill in 1954.

What then -- if not the setting -- makes this quirky little club so attractive?

"It's forbidden fruit," said 86-year-old William H. Hall, the oldest member of the club, referring to its restricted membership. A prospective member's name must be proposed by two club members. Then the name is placed on a waiting list. Currently, there are 30 names on the list. One man's name has been there since 1936. Membership is voted on during the meetings, and approval must be unanimous.

"It's a wonder anyone gets in at all," said Worthington.

Special consideration is given to sons of past members, although it is not a strict qualification.

Asked to name the worst tragedy that could befall the Ancient South River Club, Hall replied, "For all the members to die at one time."

Over the years, the membership roll has indeed had its ups and downs. During the mid-1800s, for example, there were only three members. And in 1864, while several other club members were othewise engaged in the Civil War, one man decided to hold the meeting anyway alone.

"We've only had one member resign," said Worthington. In 1804, Jonathan Sellman incurred the wrath of his fellow members by failing to show up for a dinner that he had been assigned to serve. The day before, a blizzard had dumped two feet of snow on the surrounding area. The storm, however, did not stop 10 club members from trekking seven miles through the snow, anticipating a hot turkey dinner. The members found instead, Sellman's servant, who informed the group that his master was incapacitated by the inclement weather.

And so the club continued to flourish, its members arriving first by horse, then in horse and carriage, buggies, Model Ts, Edsels, Rolls-Royces and pickup trucks. Anxious to preserve what had been handed down to them, they kept the tradition alive.

In fact, there's only one concession the Ancient South River Club has made to the 20th century; the navy blue club ties dotted with American and British flags. They're 100 percent polyester.