The Day – In search of a lost golf course

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Watch your step as you walk through Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford. If you don’t look where you are going, you could end up in a ditch.

Two shallow depressions, one large and one small, look out of place on the manicured terrain, but they are not. These are remnants of a time when the expansive lawn was full of fairways and greens.

“What can be found of a small … golf course on the Harkness Estate in Waterford?” asked reader Bill Simons.

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

The long answer is more complicated. Remnants of the route can be found elsewhere: in aerial photos, reports and local memories. But for something whose existence is so well documented, the vanished course has retained a few of its secrets.

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As millionaires, Edward Stephen Harkness wasn’t very well known, and that’s 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 most of it away, anonymously whenever possible.

“He considered himself an administrator of the wealth which came into his possession,” wrote James W. Wooster Jr. in a biography published in 1949. “He administered this trust, ‘for the welfare of mankind .'”

Beneficiaries of Harkness’ largesse included the fine arts, hospitals and universities. Wooster conservatively put the total at $129 million. Le Day once noted that Harkness “maintained a secretarial body to dig new philanthropies into which he could pour his wealth”.

His wife and giving partner, Mary Stillman Harkness, is from a local family and generously donated to Connecticut College, which has a Harkness House and a Harkness Chapel.

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

Getting there allowed Harkness to pursue one of his passions, yachting. He bought a 135-foot boat to travel from his office to New York.

He also had another passion: golf. It seems natural that as a wealthy man, 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 the Pequot Colony in New London. It was called the Quaganapoxet Golf Club, from an Indian word meaning “salt pans”.

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 clubhouse renovations was part of her downfall.

“Another reason was that older men, who started the game late in life, had little or no luck in tournaments when they had to compete against 16, 17 or 18 year old boys,” 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, a state park for the disabled, is now. It has mostly disappeared from local memory. But reader Russ Bingham, in response to The Day’s public plea for help with the story, produced a picture of a silver cup his grandmother had won there in an 1897 tournament .

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

* * *

Harkness looped its private course around Eolia, starting northeast of the mansion and winding it south to the tip of Goshen Point. Sometime after 1917, when his 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 peculiarities was a green at the tip of the tip which was shared by two holes.

The layout shows clever use of the land by a competent designer, said Anthony Pioppi of Middletown, golf writer and 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 remodeled the house. Their architect was James Gamble Rogers, who designed many of the university and hospital buildings 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 in Eolia, make no mention of a golf course.

In 1919 the Harknesses hired Beatrix Jones Farrand, a prominent landscape architect. After creating the East Garden, Farrand worked intermittently at Eolia for years. Did she design the course? His papers at the University of California, Berkeley offer no evidence.

There is also an intriguing third possibility.

* * *

One of the Harknesses’ first projects was a walled garden with annuals and Italianate statuary on the west side of the house. In 1909, Rogers selected a Boston firm, Brett and Hall, to do the design. The partners assigned the task to a young associate who had risen through the ranks of an 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 associated architect, Wayne E. Stiles.

A few years after that job, Stiles struck out on his own and began designing golf courses. Although without formal training, he created over 40 courses nationwide and is now considered one of the finest course designers of his time.

“One can imagine Stiles walking around the house and the grounds finding the best angles and shading for various species,” Stiles biographers Bob Labbance and Kevin Mendik wrote of the West Garden. “He no doubt noticed how good the windy coastal terrain would have been 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 documentation.

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

* * *

Another mystery is how the course unfolded on its U-shaped course from east to west. No plans have appeared, so the evidence consists of a 1938 time card and some handwritten notes on the back of an aerial photo.

Pioppi studied the documents and shared them with Bret Lawrence of Morris, a fellow golf researcher. Using 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 wished.

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

The price may also have changed over time. Comparing the photos, Lawrence thinks one hole was dropped and another was added in the 1930s.

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

* * *

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

Mary Harkness left Eolia for 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 begun. The rest 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 remained etched in the memories of estate employees, some of whom had caddyed 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 up the greens. He was pulverized for his efforts.

Albert Partridge, a future First Councilor from Waterford, felt quite comfortable 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 captured the imagination of The Day readers. Bill Bucko of Montville said golf always comes to mind when he visits the park.

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

In the early 1960s, when Peter Emanuel from Waterford picnicked there with his family, there was still sand in the traps, although he didn’t realize what it was.

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

“Just a few years ago, I could still point out sand traps to my students,” he writes. 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 sand trap there.”

Even today, the last vestiges of the route are disappearing, but the memories remain.

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