Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Brief History of The Pelham Country Club Published in 1954

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In 1954, the Town of Pelham celebrated the 300th anniversary of the signing of the agreement by which Thomas Pell acquired the lands that became Pelham (and surrounding lands) on June 27, 1654. Just like the 350th anniversary celebration held in 2004, the local weekly newspaper (then The Pelham Sun) published periodic articles on the history of Pelham. One such article appeared in the August 4, 1954 issue of The Pelham Sun. It dealt with the history of The Pelham Country Club. The text of the article included a discussion of the history of the game of golf in the Pelham area.

Although today we know much more about the development of the game of golf in 19th century Pelham than was known when this article was published in 1954, the article still offers a wonderful glimpse of the recollections and understandings of two long-time Pelham residents regarding the development of a popular sport in the Town of Pelham. The article is reproduced below.

"The Pelham Country Club
Interest in golf here began in 1900 when the Gilletts tried the game in Mrs. Reily's cow pasture. The growth of Pelham's golf club is followed through the years.

Going back to the very beginning of the story of golf in Pelham, Dr. Charles R. Gillett used to say that in the year 1900, he and his brother Will bought clubs and balls, planted cans in the ground of Mrs. Reily's cow pasture on Prospect Hill and proceeded to teach themselves the game, which had recently had been introduced into this country from Scotland, where the shepherds tramped the broad acres and their flocks kept them close-cropped.

A little later the first Pelham Country Club was formed. This club laid out a nine-hole course on Fowler Avenue. It was a sporty little course on the rolling meadows known as the 'Carson Place'. The Carson house was on the hill where the Chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Help now stands. It was more than one hundred years old, and there was also a red hay barn, such as we now find in the back country.

Dr. Edward P. Fowler of New York City bought the Carson place as a summer home. He lived in the farmhouse, and rented the grounds to the Pelham Country Club for a golf course. There was a tiny clubhouse, for the keeper and the clubs. It had originally been a carriage house on the farm.

After some time Dr. Fowler decided to divide his property into building lots, and the Pelham Country Club had to look for a new home.

In 'Recollections of Pelham Manor,' published in 1934, Dr. Gillett stated that he and the noted actor Francis Wilson, who was a member of the club, tramped over the countryside looking for a place to re-establish their golf club, but were not successful. The situation was serious until one member residing in New Rochelle suggested renting the old Disbrow farm on North Avenue.

In the first tentative club, lasting friendships had been formed, friendships based on devotion to golf, and rather than give this up, the members explored the possibilities of this Disbrow Farm, far out on North Avenue in New Rochelle. It comprised 180 acres of comparatively level land, which had been under cultivation for several years. After much discussion the Pelham Country Club made the move. Dr. Gillett was responsible for having the place called after an old Dutch name for the territory, but it was not easy for the Pelhamites to become accustomed to the new name 'Wykagyl Golf Club'.

A few years later Mr. George Phelps was responsible for starting another Pelham Country Club on the Iden property on Wolf's Lane now bisected by Iden Avenue. The residence was the clubhouse, and the members played tennis and squash.

In the year 1908 the members decided to expand their club quarters. They chose the present site of the clubhouse which at the time was a baseball field. The road leading to the club was known as Oneida Avenue. It extended from where the bicycle rack now stands out to Boston Post Road. The section of the roadway in front of the golf shop and first tee, still remains on the town maps as Oneida Avenue.

The present clubhouse was designed by the late George S. Chappel, prominent architect with a remarkable humerous literary flair, who gained literary fame in the early '20's as 'Dr. Walter E. Traprock, Fellow of the Royal South Sea Explorer's Union', and intrepid explorer whose imaginative exploits of daring were described in his best-selling books 'The Cruise of the Kawa' and 'My Northern Exposure.'

Plan for Golf Course Started

In the year 1919, the late Mont D. Rogers conceived the idea of converting the Country Club into a Golf Club. Mr. Rogers had courage and enthusiasm that bubbled like a spring. He was ably assisted by the late Edmund E. Sinclair, who acted as 'angel' for some prospective members who could not afford the entrance fee, which meant becoming a stockholder in Pelham Leasing Corporation.

Since the golf course could not be easily built without funds, a plan was devised by the late Theodore M. Hill which turned out to be practicable. This called for 200 persons to pay $2,000 each, entitling them to twenty shares of stock in the new organized Pelham Leasing Corporation, the holding company for the Pelham Country Club.

Options were taken on the property which was owned by members of the Black family, the Witherbee, the Edgar and the Reynold estates. The latter include Bonnie Brae, a roadhouse situated on the Boston Post Road, near the site of the present first green. It so happened that the options were for fairly long periods of time, except the option on Bonnie Brae.

Bonnie Brae Proved an Obstacle

This option was fast expiring, and on a certain day (I am afraid it was a Sunday), twenty Pelhamites met at the clubhouse, and were advised that the Bonnie Brae option expired within 24 hours. Another would-be purchaser had loomed on the horizon and was ready to take over the property at a price in excess of our option figure. Without this tract of land, the golf course could not have been constructed.

When the situation was explained, we all sat and looked at each other bewildered -- until Elmore F. Higgins, took out his check book and wrote a check for $250, and 19 others followed suit. Our options were exercised and we were safe in starting the Pelham Country Club golf course.

Course Laid Out by Devereux Emmet

Mr. Devereux Emmet a noted golf architect was commissioned to lay out our 18-hole course. He was a lover of nature and planned the course with fairways lined as far as possible by large trees, giving the effect of an English park.

Construction was started in April 1920, and the course was ready by July 1921. Much of the stone removed from the land was used in the construction of many fine stone residences in Pelham Manor.

The construction of the golf course was one of the finest things that could have happened to Pelham Manor. The land on which the course was laid out, was of low order in the real estate market. Its inevitable future would have been a cluster of small houses, spoiling for all time one of the most attractive residential sections of Westchester County. Therefore the present aspect of the section reflects great credit on the original investigators who had the vision and devotion of purpose to overcome all obstacles, and who achieved their goal.

Robert J. Leonard was the first president of the new Pelham Country Club. The original Board of Governors included David A. L'Esperance, Mont D. Rogers, George Lahey, J. L. R. Van Meter, Newton M. Argabrite, William B. Randall, Roscoe C. Ingalls, Scott Donahue, L. Ogden Thompson, Benjamin F. Briggs and W. Howard Burney.

James M. 'Long Jim' Barnes was engaged as golf professional on a three-year contract at $10,000 per year. He promptly obliged by winning the United States Open Golf Championship at Columbia Country Club, Washington, D. C. and Pelham Country Club enjoyed wide publicity with a U. S. Open Champion as its golf professional. The trophy which was presented by President Warren G. Harding was displayed at the Pelham Club for the first year of Barnes' association with the club.

As assistant to Jim Barnes, came Walter 'Wally' Whiting, who continued to be golf professional here after the conclusion of Barnes' contract, and who later became manager of the club.

The official opening of the golf course was on July 11, and 12, 1921, when the British Open Golf Champion Jack Hutchinson, and the English golf stars Abe Mitchell and George Duncan played the course with an immense gallery following them. Jim Barnes was to have played in this match, but his return from England was delayed, so Tom Kerrigan of Siwanoy filled in for him.

PGA Played Here In 1923

In Sept. 1923, the Professional Golfer's Association Tournament was played at Pelham Country Cloub with golf's most prominent players participating. Gene Sarazen and Walter Hagan stole the show, when they finished even-up in the 3-hold final, and went on to extra holes.

They halved the 37th with par 5's and then came the 38th with what has become the most-talked-of-tournament finish in Pelham Country Club history.

The old second hole was a par three -- dog leg to the left, in those days. Hagan's drive was brilliantly placed. His ball landed within a short chip-shot of the green. It appeared easy for 'the Haig' to come hole-high on his second. When Sarazen hooked his tee shot, his ball appearing to go out of bounds, they made ready to hand the trophy over to Hagan. Sarazen played a provisional ball, but searchers found his first ball within bounds but in a difficult lie in the rough. Hopefully the intrepid Gene neatly pitched the ball to the green for his second shot. Hagan, on the other hand, may have been too confident. His 'easy' second, landed in the trap. He went down in four, but Sarazen won with a short putt for a three.

The above article was compiled from the writings of Mr. and Mrs. Randall in Pelham Country Club News, and The Pelham Sun.

New Construction

Construction of the New England Thruway necessitated the relocation of some of the club's playing area but the Pelham course is still considered first rate.

A new addition to the club's facilities, estimated to cost in excess of $100,000, is expected to be completed by the time this edition goes to press.

Included in the addition are locker accomodations for 300 and showers, a grill and tap room, card rooms, a barber shop and storage area. There will also be a new women golfer's lounge and locker room. The addition adjoins the present building on the East or New Rochelle side."

Source: The Pelham Country Club, The Pelham Sun, Apr. 14, 1960, p. 7, col. 1 (reprinting article from The Pelham Sun published on Aug. 4, 1954).

We now know that there were even earlier efforts to organize golf clubs in Pelham. For example, during the summer and fall of 1895, a group of Pelham Manor residents organized what was known as The Pelham Manor Golf Club. See Bell, Blake A., The Early Days of Golf in Pelham, The Pelham Weekly, Vol. XIII, No. 36, Sept. 10, 2004, p. 12, col. 2. Still, The Pelham Country Club remains the area's premier golf club formally organized 100 years ago.

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