Forgotten Foxburg

America’s Oldest Golf Club?


Mike Cirba

January 2018

The story is now a well-established part of golf lore. An expatriate Scot named John Reid living in America during the 19th century learns that his Scottish friend Robert Lockhart is going to visit the homeland where the natives still play a perplexing but intriguing game of his childhood with balls and wooden implements across open pastures. Upon Lockhart’s return bringing the treasures in tow, with perhaps a sense of excited nostalgia, Reid invites some friends over to teach them the basics and the men go across the street, dig some holes and take a whack at it!

Or, so goes the story that in February, 1888 John Reid and his friends played the first makeshift three hole golf course in Yonkers, NY, and soon they all were infected with the contagious bug. Moving later that year to more spacious grounds, by November they official dubbed themselves the “St. Andrews Golf Club”, becoming the first and oldest continually operating golf club of America. The founder of the club, the man who asked his friend to bring back some clubs and balls, the Scottish emigre John Reid, is soon designated the progenitor of the game in his adopted country.

Meanwhile, at much the same time, on a bluff high above the Allegheny River in Western Pennsylvania a much different story was unfolding. Let’s go there now, crossing by car westward on Route 80 to the lovely, rolling hillsides 60 miles north of downtown Pittsburgh. Forty-five miles from the Ohio border, we exit the highway and turn due south, where we see a sign for “Foxburg Country Club” and beguilingly, “The American Golf Hall of Fame”.

Driving another ten minutes into town, we follow the signs and come upon the sharp right turn of Harvey Road, and drive past golf holes on our right looking comparable to many of the vintage nine-hole courses populating the northeast, albeit with some abrupt cross bunkering suggesting perhaps something more of antiquity.

Still, nothing seems particularly unusual about the log cabin clubhouse tucked back into the trees unless one notes a concrete block on the adjacent tee with containers filled with both sand and water.

Or perhaps the tree carving with a peculiar date in the nearest corner of the property catches the eye?

Entering the dwelling, you come into the bar serving most of the popular local brews and the tiny pro shop is tucked in the back room. Early golf photos adorn the rooms, preserved tenderly for posterity.

You ask about the “Hall of Fame” and the man behind the counter is only too happy to lead you to the stairwell, where you see the following adornments:

Upon ascending the staircase, visitors find a priceless collection of golf clubs, balls, and other memorabilia depicting the history of the game. Clubs made by such craftsmen as McEwan, Andersen, Hugh Philip, and Old Tom Morris decorate the rooms, as well as a proudly displayed mold for making golf balls brought back from St. Andrews in 1884 by the founder of the Foxburg Country Club. The museum exists without fanfare, without much in the way of publicity, but the treasures inside speak for themselves, and need no further reason to be, even if no one knows they are there. There is almost a sense of quiet mythology in play here, so divorced is the club and its history from our modern, common understanding and the hustle and bustle of 21st century life. It’s like entering a time warp to a place perhaps existing only in romanticized imagination.

Stepping outside to the golf course, one finds that time has indeed passed on. While the old concrete “sand and water” tee blocks still functionally exist for those who want to use them, gas-powered golf carts roam the hills, and the sound of titanium clanking against urethane polymer-covered rocket balls resonates in the air. Rows of trees unwisely planted sometime in the 1970/80 timeframe clutter the beauty of the landscape, fitting like plaid bell-bottom pants, and provide sometimes narrow chutes through which to attempt golf shots. The small, modest club does their best to maintain this little gem but one can sense that tough economic times in recent decades have limited what can be done to the bare operational essentials.

Yet through all the foliage, the sense of a very special place is still palpable and the golf holes that have survived lo these many years are quite sound in design and purpose. Played in the right spirit, afoot early on a glorious fall morning making your own tees and perhaps with a few hickories in tow, it’s an exhilarating walk and a challenging game. With some tender loving care and a little infusion of cash it could and should be a national shrine to the game of golf. The fact that it isn’t suggests perhaps a game that has lost something of itself along the way, perhaps fundamentally so.

A “modern” wooden tee fragment floats in the cool morning waters of the tee blocks.

The golfer with a sense of place and respect for history is only too happy to get his hands dirty at Foxburg.

Before we swing away on this crystal-clear morning, let’s go back in time to gain an understanding of how and when it came to be and why it’s worthy of our attention, preservation, and ongoing cultivation. Oil had been discovered in this region in the years after the Civil War, and the area economy flourished. As fortunes were made, large swaths of land became exceptionally valuable and one of the men who benefited was Joseph Mickle Fox of Philadelphia.

Fox was born in Philadelphia in 1853 and while attending Haverford College excelled at the game of Cricket, graduating in 1873. He continued his pursuit as a member of the Merion Cricket Club, and made a summer home in western Pennsylvania, managing family properties passed down by his greatgrandfather Samuel Mickle Fox, a vast 118,000 acres of now prime acreage atop “bubbling crude”. When Merion assembled a team to go abroad for a series of matches against England, Ireland, and Scotland in 1884, Fox was a logical choice as a man with the experience and free time available to compete. The team sailed in May, competed in June and July, and returned that autumn.

During his visit, matches in Edinburgh on June 7-8 led to a visit to St. Andrews where Fox befriended Old Tom Morris. Under Morris’s tutelage, Fox became enamored with the ancient game and was able to obtain a few left-handed clubs for himself as well as balls and a mold to make new ones from gutta percha, known as “guttys”. One can only imagine his combined sense of delight as well as subsequent confusion and ultimate frustration as to how he might utilize them on his return to the states. Unfortunately, no formalized paper records exist to document the specifics of what happened next. However, anecdotal (and affidavits of five individuals) evidence indicates that in the fall of 1884, Joseph Fox laid out a few short holes at the family “Mansion” and began demonstrating the game to his friends. Initially, due to his being left-handed, it was difficult to include others. However, once their interest was piqued, Fox sent to Scotland for additional right-handed clubs and soon the seed was sown.

One of the few who could play with him in those earliest days was a left-handed man named Colonel Hubert F. Miller, who later became a Chicago newspaperman. From a report in The Pittsburgh Press;

“Writing in 1949 shortly before his death, the again Col. Miller recalled playing with Mr. Fox at the mansion, and later on the present course before leaving Foxburg at 21 years of age, in August 1887.”

“If you go back to 1887”, he wrote to Mrs. Ida Adams (author’s note – more on her later) and her husband Marcellin C. Adams, you will have to visualize a very crude golf course at Foxburg with only five playable holes for the first year or two; no regular income or clubhouse, no caretaker, a few “natural” greens; verily, an abandoned cow pasture.”

“Within the area and quite nearby were several producing oil wells and several large storage tanks. One had a capacity of 35,000 barrels. The scars are still visible but almost forgotten.”

“The real founder of the club was Mr. Joseph Fox, who gave us the free use of the cow pasture, reserving room for a small ball park also without cost to anybody. He maintained a private course around the Mansion a year or two before the Foxburg Country Club began to function.”

The author is uncertain regarding the dating of this photo produced in the same article quoted above and below.

Continuing, the article then relates the recollection of one Harry Harvey who lived into his nineties and played the Foxburg course and its “Mansion” predecessor for his entire life;

Harry Harvey, nearly 87, but still able to play golf on good days, can distinctly recall the founding of the Foxburg Country Club, of which he was secretary-treasurer for 54 years. For years he kept all of its records in a small notebook, which unfortunately was lost before Foxburg’s claim ever was thought to be important. (author’s note: it was believed to be lost when Mr. Harvey moved to a different house)

In 1947 he made an affidavit that the club was organized in 1887, with Mr. Fox as president, providing ground for the course free of rent. Dues were a dollar a year and the five-hole course was increased to full nine holes in 1888.

The name was at first “Foxburg Golf Club” but was soon changed to “Clarion County Golf Club”. After a number of men from nearby counties joined, the name was made “Foxburg Country Club”, just as it is today.

For years its dues were only a dollar a year and about the only expense was the $15 annual salary of John Dunkle, who mowed the fairways with a scythe. Members made the greens and lined the holes with tin cans.

A 1959 Pittsburgh Post – Gazette interview with the then 88 year old Harvey related the following;

“I started paying golf in 1884,” Harvey recalls. “It was with young Joseph Fox, when he brought a set of golf sticks home with him from Scotland and laid out a course around his father’s summer home there.”

“We started the club in 1887, using a cow pasture, which we mowed ourselves with a scythe. We had sand greens and at first only five holes, then nine. Dues were $1 a year, but we all had to work.”

“We upped the course to 18 holes but that proved to be too expensive. We built our club house with logs taken from pioneers’ cabins.”

“For almost 40 years Harvey held the course record of 32. He was the club’s first secretary and treasurer, serving 51 years, 47 of which he also worked in the Foxburg bank….After 70 years of golfing Harvey still goes around the 67-year old Foxburg course in the 40s.”

Harry Harvey recounted all of this in a 1947 affidavit. He and his brother Frank were founding members of the club and his brother actually helped Joseph Fox lay out the current nine-hole configuration a few years later in 1893.

Due to the club’s name changes, introduction of an adapted women’s course as well as the early evolution and expansion of the golf holes, the dates listed in the 1899 Official Golf Guide have long perplexed and confused historians and clouded the actual record of golf at Foxburg.

The actual story would have likely been lost to posterity if not for the curiosity of one Mrs. Ida Adams, who long lived in one of the log cabins near the course and shortly after WWII set out to discover the story of its age and origins. Her inquiries soon bore fruit, not only from the accounts of Colonel Hubert Miller and Harry Harvey, but from others whose sworn affidavits notarized between 1947 and 1951 independently confirmed both the particulars as well as the timing of the creation of Foxburg.