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100 years of history

Jan Hearne • Jan 14, 2013 at 9:30 AM

It’s been a four-year process and 100 years in the making, but the Johnson City Country Club has published its first history, “Johnson City Country Club: A Centennial Celebration.”

Former club president Tony Ferro is the book’s author. It was through his work as chair of the club’s Historical and Centennial committees that he became involved in researching and writing the club’s history in time for its 100th anniversary.

“We had 13 volunteers (working on the project),” Ferro said. “We literally wrote the history of the club because there was no written history.”

When they began there wasn’t much to go on. The committee had two pamphlets, two newspaper articles and board minutes dating back to 1941. It would take a lot of digging, perseverance and community cooperation to make the 124-page book a reality, but the stories revealed in the research have brought a deeper appreciation for the club’s role in the development and growth of Johnson City and its place in the community.

In 1909, the only place to play golf in the Tri-Cities area was Bristol. “Traveling 20 to 30 miles in those days was no easy task,” Ferro said. “A group got together that wanted to build Johnson City Country Club.”

In 1913, two charters were obtained from the state: the first, in the name of the Watauga Corporation, was for the financial arm of the club; the second, in the name of Johnson City Country Club, was for “social purposes.” The club opened on Sept. 19, 1913.

In the course of their research, the committee disproved “a number of myths perpetuated for years in the club and were believed,” Ferro said.

One commonly held belief has been the club was built on land purchased from Harry Gump. Research showed there have been two club sites, the first on 60 acres of land leased from Gump on what is now East Holston Avenue and New Street.

“They built nine holes with sandy greens,” Ferro said. “They also built a cabin to hold equipment and golf clubs. That cabin stood exactly where the garage of the Miller House is now [at 705 E. Holston Ave.] The club was there from 1913 to 1920, when they moved to the current location. The myth was the property we’re sitting on today belonged to Harry Gump.”

As part of the research, a trip was made to the assessor’s office in Jonesborough. “We asked for any deeds related to land,” Ferro said. “There were six deeds for six parcels of land sold to the club in 1919 for the purpose of establishing a golf course and club house.”

The club began with 120 acres and now encompasses 130 acres.

In 1919, the club also hired nationally known golf course architect A.W. Tillinghast to design the course in Johnson City. Tillinghast also was asked to design a course in Kingsport, which, Ferro said, was demolished in 1947. Tillinghast developed the two courses simultaneously.

“It was commonly thought Tillinghast had designed nine holes for both courses, but research proved he had designed 18 holes for both courses,” Ferro said.

The committee brought in Tillinghast Association historian Phillip Young, who went over the course and found all the Tillinghast “attributes” are the same on the front nine as the back nine. (The back nine holes were created first.)

Noted architect D.R. Beeson, a club member, was hired to design the club house. The committee worked with Beeson’s son, Dick, who “uncovered the original sketch D.R. proposed for the country club,” Ferro said.

It was a line illustration with watercolor, which was found behind an old bookcase at the architects’ office.

Construction on the club house and golf course began in 1920, with both completed and the club up and running by 1921.

With Prohibition in effect, the country club was the only place to get alcohol, a fact some members would prefer left out of the narrative, but Ferro said, “it’s part of our history.”

“The club is famous for being raided by the constable for serving alcohol,” he said. “On New Year’s Eve, the club would always get raided.”

In its time, the club has hosted notables from the worlds of entertainment, golf and, perhaps, the underworld. Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller played at club dances; Arnold Palmer hit his seventh hole-in-one on the club’s No. 2 par 3 in 1965; Doug Sanders played an exhibition game with Palmer; the great female athlete Babe Zaharis played the course in 1948; and, it is believed, but not proved, gangster Al Capone stopped at the club for drinks during his layovers in Johnson City.

Another revelation came while the committee searched East Tennessee State University’s Archives of Appalachia. The Comet newspaper reported from 1931-1936 the club became a public-for-pay golf course in order to survive the Great Depression. “No one ever knew that,” Ferro said.

The club has survived because it is constantly reinventing itself, he said. “It is the only area country club that has never gone bankrupt, never been sold, never been taken over by a bank. It’s a credit to the boards of directors that came before ours.”

In addition to the publication of the club history, 2013 will see a number of centennial celebrations, beginning with a Roaring ’20s party on Feb. 2.

“We’ve planned a series of events as a way of thanking the public who will be invited to the parties,” Ferro said. “We’re recognizing civic groups, we’re recognizing members past and present, and we also want to recognize the staff, some of whom have worked at the club for 30 to 40 years.”

While the club is celebrating its past, the board, staff and members are looking toward the future. A time capsule will be buried this year containing a number of items, but most poignantly it will hold letters written by present-day members to their grandchildren. In 25 years, the time capsule will be reopened and the letters delivered.

The club’s past will be speaking to the club’s future, just as it is doing this year with “A Centennial Celebration.”

To purchase a copy of the book, call 975-5520.

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