America’s Oldest Golf Club?
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.
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.”
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.
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.
The United States Golf Association (USGA) was made aware of these particulars and in April, 1952 John P. English, the founding Editor of the USGA Golf Journal penned an article for the USGA Journal and Turf Management magazine titled, “The Case for Foxburg’s Old Course”. In it, English repeated the account of Miller and Harvey (Harvey’s affidavit is reproduced verbatim), but also includes the following corroborating accounts.
“H.J. Crawford of Emlenton, PA, a banker who is more than 80, deposed on September 9, 1947, “that for a period I was a member of the Foxburg Country Club and to my personal knowledge know the said club was organized and began doing business in the year 1887, that said club has been in continuous existence and operating without interruption since that date.”
“C.H. Adams of Parker’s Landing, PA, 86, deposed on October 30, 1950, “that in my younger days I was a commercial traveler. In 1888 I made the territory adjacent to Foxburg, Pennsylvania, every thirty days. One of the places covered regularly was St. Petersburg, a distance of three miles beyond Foxburg. Returning by livery team on an early spring trip to St. Petersburg, I passed a field on which a game new to me was being played. This I found to be the game of golf, and on several occasions I stopped to watch the players. This field is still part of the Foxburg Country Club golf course. I fix the year from the fact that in 1888 I first began traveling in that section. Also it was the year of the great blizzard of March, 1888.””
“The late C.A. Miller of Foxburg deposed on September 29, 1951, “that he attended Clarion State Normal School during the years 1887 and 1888 and made frequent trips on the narrow gauge railroad which passed the golf grounds of the Foxburg Country Club in the Borough of Foxburg, Clarion County, Pennsylvania; that he usually returned home from Clarion to Foxburg for weekends and says that during the spring vacation of 1888 he played golf on the Foxburg Country Club course with Mr. A. J. Dixon of Philadelphia, who he understands was one of the original members of the Foxburg Country Club; that he has been a citizen of the Borough of Foxburg, Clarion County, Pennsylvania, practically all his lifetime and that he believes the Foxburg Country Club has been in existence since sometime during the year 1887 continuously until this time. “ The opening of the Normal School in Clarion in 1887 and the existence of the railroad are confirmed facts.” (author’s note: Miller was the brother of the aforementioned Col. Hubert Miller whose account was mentioned earlier)
“The late Mrs. Major R. Morgan of Foxburg, who was then 87, stated in 1948 that in the autumn of 1888 she had been married and moved to Foxburg, where her late husband had regularly played golf with Frank and Harry Harvey, Fox and visitors from Philadelphia. “The men all played on land belonging to the Fox estate. This is the same land on which the Foxburg Country Club still has its course”, she wrote.
“Several years after the men had organized their golf club, a lady’s golf club was formed of which I was the first President, and with the exception of two intervals I retained that office for thirty years. Although we used the same course, this was an entirely separate organization with its own rules,” she added. “I do not remember a time when golf was not played either on the course laid out by Mr. Fox around his residence or on the links adjoining the Petersburg Road on land Mr. Fox allowed the new club to use.”
“The lack of documentation regarding these early activities is simply explained. Harvey relates that he took care of the simple details of running the club with the sole assistance of a small notebook into which he entered the names of the members and the dates on which they paid their dues, originally one dollar a year. The dues eventually were used to pay one John Dunkle at the rate of $15 a year to cut the fairways with a scythe. Collecting the dues and paying the “greenkeeper” were Harvey’s only duties in the early years, and when all financial entries had been made, the records were considered complete for the year. Eventually the notebook disappeared, probably when Harvey changed his residence. There were no minutes and no newspapers were published at the time in Foxburg, so there was no medium for other records of club activities in the earliest years.”
“Although organized as the Foxburg Golf Club, the name was soon changed to the Clarion County Golf Club. When it became apparent that players were being drawn from the counties of Armstrong, Butler, and Venango, it was decided that it would be more diplomatic to revert to the Foxburg name. Since then, it has been the Foxburg Country Club. The course, which had been enlarged from five to nine holes in 1888, later great to 18 holes, but the newer nine subsequently were abandoned, leaving only the original nine.”
Perhaps diplomatically, Mr. English offered no conclusions in his article, but simply let the facts and the various accounts speak for themselves. With that history as backdrop, let’s move forward 130 years and turn our attention to the golf course as it exists today. This broad description from the Pittsburgh Press, September 19, 1954 remains apt to this day;
“The golf course is short, as it to be expected in one laid out before the invention of the modern, rubber-cored ball. But it is picturesque, with old tone sand and water containers, the scars of tanks from the halcyon days of oil, and just about the world’s greenest golf green, still richly fertile (according to old tradition) from the days when the town slaughterhouse drained its blood there. Many of the bunkers were built by Foxburg boys for the privilege of playing there.”
Today’s course features two sets of tees for an 18 hole round, but at its max plays to 2,688 yards, par 34. With the clubhouse high on the bluff at near the highest point, the course stretches down to the valley below, but contains more than enough internal undulation to keep interest.
Interestingly, from an architectural standpoint, most of the drives play down into valleys with subsequent uphill approaches needed to perched greens on hilltops, the better to drain certainly, yet one or two play down into natural bowls that drain beyond.
As mentioned, tree planting done primarily in the 1970s timeframe (according to aerial photos) today have grown to a point where some holes are choked tight and the great views across the rolling landscape are diminished.
Rather than go through a hole by hole pictorial display, the following pictures provide a good sense of the historical course at Foxburg, as well as the potential. A comprehensive course tour provided by Joseph Bausch can be found at http://myphillygolf.com/uploads/bausch/Foxburg/index.html
In many ways, it’s amazing to consider how well preserved the golf course at Foxburg is all these years later. While playing shorter than most modern designs, the golf holes still hold the same basic appeal to our adventurous sporting instincts that is universal and timeless in spirit. It exemplifies the fact that golf at its core need only be what it is; a simple game in the limitless variety of the great outdoors that brings people together in a spirit of honest competition and bonding camaraderie.
It’s also impossible to visit Foxburg without considering what it can and should be to the game of golf. Although lovingly tended by the club and its staff, it’s clear they are operating on a shoestring budget. A well-considered tree and turf management program perhaps provided pro bono by interested benevolent individuals and expert assistants could do wonders in sprucing up the old joint, and helping it to shine for future generations in the coming centuries. A little infusion of cash wouldn’t hurt, either.
The author hopes you have enjoyed your tour of historic Foxburg Country Club and highly recommends a visit by students of golf course history and architecture. It would be fantastic to see the USGA take a more active role in the preservation and enhancement of such national sporting treasures but regrettably that has not been their role in recent years. Instead, Foxburg may be a place where interested parties who frequent GolfClubAtlas.com and/or some Hickory Golf organizations could take a custodial interest in making the architecture shine through greens expansion, recovery of bunkers, and general economic upkeep to preserve and highlight the wonderful historical and architectural heritage of the game in the United States.
For posterity’s sake. Sources: www.newspapers.com
USGA Journal & Turf Management
Harper’s Official Golf Guide 1899
The author wishes to thank his wonderful golf companions who accompanied him on a glorious visit to Foxburg and encouraged this work; John Yerger, Joe Bausch, and Matt Frey. Every golfer should be blessed with partners who love the game as they do.
Footnote – The author is familiar with the claims of Dorset Field Club (VT) that golf was played there earlier (i.e. September 1886) so you’ll note that there are no claims stated that Foxburg is the oldest continually operating golf course in the United States, although it may well be. However, if one accepts the dates of golf at Dorset to be correct it seems that group did not formalize into a club until 1896. Thus, the claim that Foxburg is the oldest continually operating golf club in America is believed to be accurate. The author welcomes additional evidence and informed debate on the matter.