Oldest “Club” West of the Mississippi???

The first golf course in the United States was Oakhurst Links, built in 1884 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. It was originally a six hole track which was later expanded to nine holes. Oakhurst was the first course and golf club in the United States.

In February, 1888, John Reid (considered to be by many as the father of golf in America) took a group of friends to play three holes of golf on a pasture near Yonkers, New York. Soon their “clubhouse” became an old apple tree, and the original members of the St Andrews golf club became known as “The Apple Tree Gang.” Because Oakhurst disbanded for a short while around 1910, St Andrews has the distinction of being the “oldest club of continuous operation” in the United States. Although by this definition it may be the oldest “club,” it is not the oldest “course” when you consider “continuous operation.” St Andrews moved several times over the next few years to “larger pastures” until it found its permanent 18 hole home in 1897. St Andrews Golf Club was one of five founding golf club members of the USGA in 1894 even though they had yet to have a permanent course.

Golf development west of the Mississippi did not take long . In the spring of 1892, Dr. James Frederic Clarke stopped in Chicago on his way back home to Fairfield, Iowa from a medical meeting in Philadelphia. He saw some golf clubs displayed in a State Street window, and having just become interested in this game through reading an article in Harper’s Weekly which said Satan played golf, the doctor purchased a wooden driver and three balls with which to inoculate his home town.

After arriving in Fairfield, Dr. Clarke melted the tops from seven empty tomato cans with the help of his nephew Charles C. Sampson, making them ready to be set into the ground as “holes” for the new game. After office hours, equipped with the club, the balls and the tin cans, these two novices fared forth to play.

At the Post Office the experimenters met Mr. Robert B. Louden who joined the expedition and farther on the way Mr. Charles J. Fulton and Mr. J. Wilbur Dole were drafted for the game. These five men proceeded down Main Street to Lamson’s pasture. The cans were sunk into the ground and golf began in Fairfield. There were seven holes going out and the same seven holes going back for a total of 14 holes.

Shortly thereafter on May 16, 1892, a golf club was organized under the name of the Kahgahgee Golf Club after the Indian name of a nearby creek. Its membership has proudly considered itself “the oldest club west of the Mississippi.” There are other clubs and courses that have similar claims. In this discussion, note distinctions like “club” versus “course” as well as “continually operated.”

Burlington Golf Club (Iowa) – Burlington Golf Club was incorporated on June 7, 1899 and believes it is the oldest “continually operating incorporated” club west of the Mississippi.

If you care about “incorporation,” Burlington’s claim may be valid. The Fairfield Club was never “incorporated” until 1914 renamed as the Fairfield Golf Club. The club was a more informal organization before then. After its founding in 1892, the Kahgahgee Golf Club (named after the creek than ran near the course) , it was reorganized in 1900.

Ironically, Burlington (the city, not the golf club) may have a claim to one of the oldest, if not the oldest course in the U.S. When returning from schooling in Scotland, Andrew Bell brought home to Burlington, Iowa some golf clubs and balls in 1881. He then built four holes on his father’s farm. This is arguably the first golf course in the U.S. It was not a “club” nor did it “continually operate,” but it very well may be the oldest “course” built in the U.S.

Gearhart Golf Links – Their claim is “The oldest golf course west of the Mississippi.” Three holes opened in the sand dunes of the Oregon coast as part of the entertainment for guests at Hotel Gearhart sometime in 1892. In 1901, the course expanded to nine holes and then to 18 in 1915.

Gearhart is not the oldest “club” west of the Mississippi. We don’t know what month in 1892 the course opened, and not much documentation has been provided to historians. If it was later than May 16th, Fairfield Golf and Country Club may actually be the oldest “continually operating course” west of the Mississippi.

Mare Island Golf Club – They claim to be the “oldest golf course west of the Mississippi.” This course was located in Vallejo, CA near the former Marine barracks. Historians have not been able to verify their stance of opening in 1892. The first written reference that can be found of its existence is in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1897. A map in their diner today shows an altered date. Whenever this course opened, it did not last long in that location. Over the years, there has been extensive relocation of the course particularly during the two World Wars.

The claims appear to be murky at best. It is not the oldest course as the four hole course in Burlington, IA trumps that. It is not the oldest course in continual operation in one location. If there was evidence that the course opened before May 16, 1892, they might have a claim to being the oldest course of continuous operation with “moving locations.” That is, provided, that there was activity during both World Wars.

Tacoma Country & Golf Club – They advertise themselves as being “The oldest private club west of the Mississippi.” According to their website, “Employees of Scottish firms began playing golf on the prairie lands of South Tacoma in 1892. By 1894 Alexander Baillie and a handful of others organized a club, leased 280 acres at Edison (South Tacoma) and built a clubhouse.
In 1904 the Tacoma Golf Club merged with the Tacoma Country Club on American Lake, and work began on a new course and clubhouse.”

Their logo has 1894 as their founding date. Fairfield was founded two years earlier. Because the Club merged in 1904 and built a new course, other asterisks arise of their claim.

Del Monte Golf Course – Del Monte Golf Course claims to be the oldest course west of the Mississippi in “continuous operation in the same location.” On a side note, holes may have been rerouted but not relocated on different land. In 1903, the course was expanded to 18 holes.

Other miscellaneous claims –

Waveland Golf Course (Des Moines) – Oldest Municipal Golf Course West of the Mississippi (1901)

Normandie Golf Club (St. Louis) – Oldest Public Golf Course West of the Mississippi (1901)

Glen Echo Country Club (St . Louis) – Oldest 18-hole Course West of the Mississippi (1901). Glen Echo and Normandie Courses are neighbors and shared Robert Foulis as their designer.

Conclusion – Fairfield Golf & Country Club has claimed to be the “Oldest Club West of the Mississippi.” None of the other clubs we examined refute that claim. Some might take issue that the Fairfield club was not incorporated or initially highly organized, but no one disputes its spirited uninterrupted local legacy to this day. The club organized in 1892, reorganized in 1900, incorporated and changed its name in 1914, but nonetheless, had the same membership lineage and has basically operated on the same property since its inception.

Was the initial membership too small to be meaningful? Neither was the “Apple Tree Gang” who “organized” four years earlier.

If we really want to throw a wrench in the mix, technically, San Francisco’s Olympic Club might have the honor of the oldest “club” west of the Mississippi. The club was founded in 1860, but they didn’t add golf until 1918 when they bought the former Lakeside Golf Club. To make a clearer distinction, Fairfield Golf & Country Club is “the oldest golf club west of the Mississippi.”

In looking into the matter deeper, it may very well be that FG&CC is also the “oldest continuously operating course west of the Mississippi.” Although we may never know, there is a reasonably good possibility that it is. Did Mare Island really open in 1892, and if so, in what month? The course moved many times and may not have continually operated. Gearhart Links had three holes in 1892 but again, in what month?

Some may argue that the so-called course was not designed and then built. It was more or less spontaneously created by a few avid novices. Perhaps all the better in the true spirit of the game. Even The Old Course at St Andrews is said to have evolved out of the natural terrain over time.

Some may take issue that the club did not even pay rent on the land it used for its course. Fairfield’s situation is probably a bit unique in that the course used privately owned land that was allowed to be used by the public as more or less as commons. This is likely not much different than some of the original links courses in Scotland. The club began to pay rent on the grounds in 1901 and then purchased about half the land they had originally used from the same owner in 1921. Fairfield’s original course was about double the size of today’s course (14 holes), but today’s holes (nine holes) reside on some of the same land.