| Club History || |
At times Merion was the victim of its own success. Despite the club’s two eighteens, some of its members still found conditions crowded. On June 19, 1916, a meeting was held to organize the Gulph Mills Golf Club. The founding group—Alba B. Johnson (who would be named president), Isaac H. Clothier, Jr., and A.J. Drexel Paul (vice presidents), Weston J. Hibbs (secretary-treasurer), C. Willing Hare, Thomas McKean, J. Kearsley Mitchell, J.H. Barnes, R.K. Cassatt, G.Q. Horwitz, C. Munn, and F.K. Wainwright—consisted in the main of men from Merion Cricket Club who envisioned a golf club limited to 100 or, at the most, 150 members.
A decision was made to purchase 160 acres on Swedeland Road in Gulph Mills at a cost of $60,000. Brought in to lay out the course, Donald Ross promised that Gulph Mills "will have one of the best inland courses in this country and that it will undoubtedly be a much superior course to any around Philadelphia."
Construction began in August, laborers being paid 30¢ an hour. In October a prospectus was circulated to a select list of potential members, and the course was touted even more highly than its designer had done: "... a course that will rank with the greatest inland courses in this country and Europe... will be ready for play July 1, 1918 .... With this limited number of members , we will never be annoyed by the course becoming congested, nor will starters and starting times ever be necessary. [Because of] the close proximity to Norristown, Swedeland and Conshohocken... every man here will always be secure of having a first-class caddie at any and all times." Initiation fees and annual dues were set at $100 each.
This farmhouse, built around 1761, served as the Gulph Mills clubhouse until 1925.
By May 1917, the club had only 45 members, and, according to the excellent history written by former president A. Willing Patterson in 1976. "Directors were asked that wherever possible they show the grounds to prospective members and talk with those invited to join." A month later the club, because of its very limited revenues, had to borrow $18,000 from the Pennsylvania Company (eight directors personally endorsed the note) and $2,000 from Isaac Clothier. In a long, informative letter to Lieutenant A.J. Drexel Paul, who had survived the sinking of a U.S. Navy convoy escort ship off the coast of France by a German submarine on Nov. 5,1917, Weston J. Hibbs, the club’s secretary-treasurer, concluded: ". . . . We have done practically nothing about the clubhouse and we will use some sort of makeshift for it till after the war, and after we finally lick the Huns we will have some golf."
The course, with considerable work still to be completed, opened "on a War basis," July 1, 1918. On more than one occasion directors as well as Life Members would advance the club money in these formative months to keep it afloat. At the beginning of October, the board voted to close the course because the activities of the small membership could not cover the overhead. But on Nov. 1, it was decided to cut the greens and keep the course open during the coming winter. The possibility of bringing in a flock of sheep "for the greens was discussed, but no decision was reached."
At the end of January 1919, "the Secretary was instructed to complete construction of the course as soon as practical so that a membership campaign could be commenced at once .... It was decided to allow the Bellevue-Stratford and Ritz-Carlton Hotels to sell to their guests club cards entitling them to club privileges at $2 per day, the club to receive $1 and the hotels to retain $1, for purposes of advertisement."
On May 16, 1919, the club held the formal opening of its course. The engraved invitation made it clear that prospective members would, as it were, have an opportunity to examine the merchandise: "The President and Founders of The Gulph Mills Golf Club request the honor of your company at the Opening Reception and Inspection of the Links ...." More than 1,250 people attended, but a full 18 months later, with the club’s funds once more perilously depleted, the membership roster showed only 88 active members—little more than halfway toward the goal of 150. Effective Jan. 1, 1921, annual dues were increased from $100 to $150. Nevertheless, the club continued to operate at a deficit, and Life Members were once again called upon to pony up the needed funds. However, on Feb. 25,1922, the secretary-treasurer, in a letter to the membership, was able to announce that". . . . our limit of 150 Active Men Members has been reached, and we have a waiting list."
Not all the high drama at Gulph Mills in the early years stemmed from money matters. A letter from the secretary- treasurer, Mr. Hibbs, to the president early in 1922 cited a personnel problem:
.... I have had considerable trouble in bringing the steward and his wife to the point of view that the kitchen and clubhouse must be kept clean and that the food served to the members must be clean and fresh.... At times they fought with one another, and twice the Steward cut his wife with a knife.... They have refused to serve meals to members at times when they did not want to.... Last Sunday morning I was obliged to go to Rochester on business, and Mrs. Hibbs went to Atlantic City. She returned to the Clubhouse unexpectedly Monday morning and found the house in a complete state of disorder and the Steward’s wife intoxicated. A closet and two doors on which I had Yale locks were broken open in their efforts to find liquor or get at my private effects. Mrs. Kane (acting chairman of the House Committee) instructed me to discharge the Steward and his wife at once, which I have done.
Early in 1923, the club’s barn burned down. The board was not distressed, since a claim for $18,000 was paid in full by the insurance company. However, the fire might not have been so devastating had it not been for the golf professional’s chickens. When the volunteer firemen arrived at the burning barn, the first thing each of them did was rescue two chickens, one in each hand, and run home with them, letting the fire blaze out of control till they could get back and make a belated—and unsuccessful— effort to put it out.
It was at about this same time that the professional, who seemed more inclined toward raising chickens than dairy farming, sold the club cow without authority. He was reprimanded in writing by the secretary-treasurer.
In June 1924, the club contracted with Toomey and Flynn to rebuild all 18 greens at a cost not to exceed $650 per green. What the Gulph Mills Golf Club then had was a Donald Ross course—the routing of these excellent holes was not changed—with greens designed by William Flynn. It might no longer have been a purebred, but it was—and is—outstanding nonetheless.
To learn more about Gulph Mills history, check out the Golf Association of Philadelphia Magazine piece on the club’s centennial, which appeared in the Fall 2016 edition.