Le Jour – In search of a lost golf course


Watch your steps as you stroll through Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford. If you don’t watch where you are going, you might find yourself in a ditch.

Two shallow depressions, one large and one small, appear out of place on the well-maintained grounds, but they are not. These are remnants of a time when the expansive lawn was full of fairways and greens.

“What can you find of a small … golf course on the Harkness Estate in Waterford?” Asked reader Bill Simons.

These ditches are the short answer to his question. They are what remains of the sand traps, two of many that once dotted the private ties of owner Edward Harkness.

The long answer is more complicated. Vestiges of the course can be found elsewhere: in aerial photos, various facts and local souvenirs. But for something whose existence is so well documented, the missing course has kept some of its secrets.

* * *

As millionaires, Edward Stephen Harkness was not well known, and that is exactly what he wanted. His father had made his fortune as John D. Rockefeller’s silent partner in Standard Oil, and Harkness dedicated his life to giving as much of it as possible, anonymously whenever possible.

“He saw himself as a custodian of the wealth that was in his possession,” wrote James W. Wooster Jr. in a biography published privately in 1949. “He administered this trust, ‘for the welfare of the’ humanity.'”

Recipients of Harkness’ largesse included the fine arts, hospitals and universities. Wooster conservatively estimated the total at $ 129 million. The Day once noted that Harkness “maintains a secretariat body to dig new philanthropies into which he could pour his wealth.”

His wife and donation partner, Mary Stillman Harkness, came from a local family and generously donated to Connecticut College, which owns a Harkness House and a Harkness Chapel.

In 1907 the couple bought a summer house on Goshen Point in Waterford. Before selling it to them, Mary Harkness’s brother-in-law had the property just long enough to build a house where the previous owner had lost two houses in a fire. The Harknesses named the new building “Eolia”.

Getting there allowed Harkness to indulge in one of his passions, yachting. He bought a 135 foot boat to get from his office in New York.

He also had another passion: golf. It seems natural that as a man of means he wants to go his own way. But his decision to create one in Eolia came with a twist: There was already a golf course, or at least the remains of one, on the property.

* * *

In 1897, a farm just east of the future Eolia became a nine-hole course for residents of Pequot Colony in New London. It was called the Quaganapoxet Golf Club, from an Indian word meaning “salt marshes”.

For a decade, the club flourished, according to Edna Tyler, who, writing around 1966, believed herself to be its last surviving member. She said a financial crisis brought on by the clubhouse renovations was part of her loss.

“Another reason was that older men, who had started gambling late in life, had little or no luck in tournaments when they had to compete with boys aged 16, 17 or 18,” he said. -she writes.

The place was also difficult to access.

“If the club had only struggled for a year or two more, the automobile would have solved the transportation problem,” Tyler wrote.

Quaganapoxet was where Camp Harkness is now, a state park for people with disabilities. Most of it has disappeared from local memory. But reader Russ Bingham, in response to The Day’s public call for help with this story, produced a photo of a silver cup his grandmother won there in a tournament. from 1897.

Edward Harkness purchased the property shortly after Quaganapoxet closed, and parts of the abandoned course may have been incorporated into his plans.

* * *

Harkness wound his private route around Eolia, starting northeast of the mansion and winding it south to the tip of Goshen Point. Sometime after 1917, when his next door neighbor’s house burned down, he bought the land, making room for the course to extend west.

It was nine holes with an unconventional design. Among its quirks was a tip-to-tip green that was shared by two holes.

The layout shows intelligent use of the course by a knowledgeable designer, said Anthony Pioppi of Middletown, writer and golf historian.

“It’s not Harkness with his lawn mower,” he said.

So who was the designer, and when was the course created? These questions gave clues but no answers.

Shortly after buying Eolia, the Harknesses renovated the house. Their architect was James Gamble Rogers, who designed many of the university and hospital buildings which they donated. The grounds were also developed under the supervision of Rogers. Could he have created the course? Some believe he did, but his papers at Yale and Columbia Universities, which document his work at Eolia, make no mention of a golf course.

In 1919, the Harknesses hired Beatrix Jones Farrand, a prominent landscape architect. After creating the Jardin de l’Est, Farrand worked intermittently at Eolia for years. Did she design the course? His papers at the University of California, Berkeley offer no proof.

There is also an intriguing third possibility.

* * *

One of the Harknesses early projects was a walled garden with annuals and Italianate statuary on the west side of the house. In 1909, Rogers chose a Boston firm, Brett and Hall, to do the design. The partners gave the task to a young partner who had climbed the ranks of office boy.

The result, known as the West Garden, remains intact. A sketch of the plan bears the name of Rogers as well as that of the associate architect, Wayne E. Stiles.

A few years after this job, Stiles went it alone and started designing golf courses. Although without formal training, he created more than 40 courses across the country and is today considered one of the best course designers of his time.

“You can imagine Stiles walking around the house and the grounds to find the best angles and shades for various species,” Stiles biographers Bob Labbance and Kevin Mendik wrote of the West Garden. “Without a doubt, he noticed how the windy coastal terrain would have been suitable for a links course. “

Is Harkness Golf Course an early example of Stiles’ work? The two tried to find out, but again, there was no document.

“We can only wonder,” they wrote, “if Harkness is a lost design by Wayne Stiles.”

* * *

Another mystery is how the course went on its U-shaped journey from east to west. No plan was presented, so the evidence consists of a 1938 scorecard and a few handwritten notes on the back of an aerial photo.

Pioppi studied the documents and shared them with Bret Lawrence de Morris, a fellow golf researcher. Using the distances from the scorecard and Google Earth, Lawrence worked out a plausible route for the course that returns west to the shared green on the point, then plays due north to the house (see graphic ).

But Pioppi noted that since the course was private, it could be played as Harkness and his guests wanted.

“It’s the joy of owning your own golf course,” he said.

The course may also have changed over time. Comparing the photos, Lawrence believes that one hole was abandoned and another added in the 1930s.

Sand traps also vary from photo to photo. There is an unconfirmed story that Harkness’s frequent partner was James Gamble Rogers, who lived at Old Black Point in East Lyme. Rogers tended to win, the story goes, so Harkness asked his employees to note where Rogers’ shots landed and set traps there to improve his odds.

* * *

After Harkness died in 1940 and that of his wife a decade later, the course shared the fate of the former soldiers and faded away. Golf courses disappear by being fallow, Pioppi said. Either the grass is no longer cut or it is cut evenly to the length of the lawn.

Mary Harkness moved from Eolia to the state of Connecticut to care for tuberculosis patients or veterans. Her wish was partly granted by a day camp, later Camp Harkness, which continued the work with the disabled that she herself had started. The remainder of the 220-acre estate, which included a farm, opened as Harkness Memorial State Park in 1953.

Golf was not part of the plan, but the course has survived in the memory of estate employees, some of whom had been caddies for Harkness and his guests. A few were interviewed by researchers in 1998.

Dan Pennella, a seasonal worker as a child, recalled that his father, also an employee, shot a skunk on the fourth fairway because he was afraid it would tear the greens. He got sprayed for his efforts.

Albert Partridge, a future Waterford chief selectman, felt completely at ease talking to Harkness. The millionaire noted the young man’s interest in golf, eagerly gave him clubs and even let him use the course, except for the ninth hole, which was close to home. Harkness once sent a bullet crashing through a window from that hole as Partridge watched.

The course also caught the imagination of The Day readers. Bill Bucko of Montville said golf always came to his mind when he visited the park.

“I often visualize the layout of the nine hole course and try to play it in my mind as I walk each hole,” he wrote.

In the early 1960s, when Peter Emanuel of Waterford had a picnic there with his family, there was still sand in the traps, although he didn’t realize what they were.

He grew up to be a history teacher at Williams School, explored the park’s past with his classes, and took them on a trip to see the place.

“Until just a few years ago, I could still report sand traps to my students,” he wrote. But on his last visits before retiring, “I was only able to point out a few spots on the level lawn and explain that there was a sandbox there.”

Even today, the last vestiges of the course disappear, but the memories remain.

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