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In search of a lost golf course

Watch your step as you walk around at Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford. If you don't look where you're going, you could end up in a ditch.

Two shallow depressions, one large and one small, seem out of place on the well-kept grounds, but they aren't. They're leftovers from a time when the expansive lawn was full of fairways and greens.

"What can be found of a small ... golf course on the Harkness Estate in Waterford?" reader Bill Simons asked.

Those ditches are the short answer to his question. They're what remains of sand traps, two of many that once dotted owner Edward Harkness' private links.

The long answer is more complicated. Vestiges of the course can be found elsewhere: in aerial photos, news stories and local memories. But for something whose existence is so well documented, the vanished course has hung onto a few of its secrets.

* * *

As millionaires go, Edward Stephen Harkness wasn't well known, and that's just how he wanted it. His father had made a fortune as John D. Rockefeller's silent partner in Standard Oil, and Harkness devoted his life to giving most of it away, anonymously whenever possible.

"He considered himself a trustee of the wealth which came into his possession," James W. Wooster Jr. wrote in a privately published 1949 biography. "He administered this trust, 'for the welfare of mankind.'"

Beneficiaries of Harkness' largesse included the fine arts, hospitals and universities. Wooster figured the total, conservatively, at $129 million. The Day once noted that Harkness "maintained a secretarial corps to dig out new philanthropies into which he could pour his wealth."

His wife and partner in giving, Mary Stillman Harkness, came from a local family and donated generously to Connecticut College, which has a Harkness House and a Harkness Chapel.

In 1907 the couple bought a summer home on Goshen Point in Waterford. Before he sold it to them, Mary Harkness' brother-in-law had the property just long enough to build a house where the previous owner had lost two homes to fire. The Harknesses named the new building "Eolia."

Getting there allowed Harkness to indulge one of his passions, yachting. He bought a 135-foot boat to commute from his office in New York.

He also had another passion: golf. It seems natural that, as a man of means, he would want his own course. But his decision to create one at Eolia came with a twist: There was already a golf course, or at least the remnants of one, on the property.

* * *

In 1897, a farm just east of the future Eolia became a nine-hole course for residents of the Pequot Colony in New London. It was called the Quaganapoxet Golf Club, from an Indian word meaning "salt marshes."

For a decade the club thrived, according to Edna Tyler, who, writing around 1966, believed herself to be its last surviving member. She said a financial crisis brought on by clubhouse renovations was part of its undoing.

"Another reason was that the older men, who had taken up the game late in life, stood little or no chance in the tournaments when they had to compete with boys of 16, 17, or 18," she wrote.

The place was also hard to get to.

"If the club had only struggled on for a year or two longer, the automobile would have solved the transportation problem," Tyler wrote.

Quaganapoxet was where Camp Harkness, a state park for the disabled, is now. It has mostly disappeared from local memory. But reader Russ Bingham, in response to The Day's public appeal for help with this story, produced a photo of a silver cup his grandmother won there in an 1897 tournament.

Edward Harkness bought the property shortly after Quaganapoxet closed, and parts of the abandoned course may have been worked into his plans.

* * *

Harkness wrapped his private course around Eolia, starting northeast of the mansion and winding it south to the tip of Goshen Point. Sometime after 1917, when his next-door neighbor's home burned down, he bought the land, making room for the course to extend westward.

It was nine holes with an unconventional design. Among its quirks was a green at the tip of the point that was shared by two holes.

The layout shows a smart use of the land by a capable designer, said Anthony Pioppi of Middletown, a golf writer and historian.

"This isn't Harkness with his lawnmower," he said.

So who was the designer, and when was the course created? Those questions have yielded hints but no answers.

Shortly after they bought Eolia, the Harknesses remodeled the house. Their architect was James Gamble Rogers, who designed many of the college and hospital buildings they donated. The grounds also were landscaped under Rogers' supervision. Could he have created the course? Some believe he did, but his papers at Yale and Columbia universities, which document his work at Eolia, make no mention of a golf course.

In 1919 the Harknesses hired Beatrix Jones Farrand, a prominent landscape architect. After creating the East Garden, Farrand worked on and off at Eolia for years. Did she design the course? Her papers, at the University of California, Berkeley offer no evidence.

There's also an intriguing third possibility.

* * *

One of the Harknesses' earliest projects was a walled garden with annuals and Italianate statuary on the west side of the house. In 1909 Rogers chose a Boston firm, Brett and Hall, to do the design. The partners assigned the task to a young associate who had worked his way up from office boy.

The result, known as the West Garden, remains intact. A sketch of the plan bears Rogers' name and also that of the associate architect, Wayne E. Stiles.

A few years after that job, Stiles struck out on his own and started designing golf courses. Though without formal training, he created more than 40 courses nationwide and today is considered one of the finest course designers of his time.

"One can imagine Stiles walking around the house and grounds to find the best angles and shading for various species," Stiles' biographers, Bob Labbance and Kevin Mendik, wrote about the West Garden. "No doubt he noticed how suitable the windy coastal grounds would have been for a links course."

Is Harkness' golf playground an early example of Stiles' work? The two tried to find out, but again, there was no documentation.

"We can only wonder," they wrote, "if Harkness is a lost Wayne Stiles design."

* * *

Another mystery is how the course unfolded on its U-shaped journey from east to west. No plans have turned up, so the evidence consists of a 1938 scorecard and some handwritten notes on the back of an aerial photo.

Pioppi studied the documents and shared them with Bret Lawrence of Morris, a fellow golf researcher. Using the scorecard yardages and Google Earth, Lawrence worked out a plausible route for the course that doubles back from the west to the shared green on the point, then plays due north to the house (see graphic).

But Pioppi noted that since the course was private, it could be played however Harkness and his guests liked.

"That's the joy of owning your own golf course," he said.

The course also may have changed over time. Comparing photos, Lawrence believes one hole was abandoned and another added in the 1930s.

The sand traps also vary from photo to photo. There's an unconfirmed story that Harkness' frequent partner was James Gamble Rogers, who lived at Old Black Point in East Lyme. Rogers tended to win, the story goes, so Harkness had his employees note where Rogers' shots landed and put traps there to improve his odds.

* * *

After Harkness' death in 1940 and his wife's a decade later, the course shared the fate of old soldiers and just faded away. Golf courses disappear by going fallow, Pioppi said. Either the grass is no longer cut, or it's cut evenly to lawn length.

Mary Harkness left Eolia to the state of Connecticut for the care of tuberculosis patients or veterans. Her wish was partly fulfilled by a day camp, later Camp Harkness, that continued work with the handicapped she had begun herself. The rest of the 220-acre estate, which had included a farm, opened as Harkness Memorial State Park in 1953.

Golf wasn't part of the plan, but the course lived on in the memories of the estate's employees, some of whom had caddied for Harkness and his guests. A few were interviewed by researchers in 1998.

Dan Pennella, a seasonal worker as a child, recalled that his father, also an employee, shot a skunk on the fourth fairway because he was afraid it would tear up the greens. He got sprayed for his efforts.

Albert Partridge, a future first selectman of Waterford, felt completely at ease talking to Harkness. The millionaire noted the young man's interest in golf, eagerly gave him clubs and even let him use the course, except for the ninth hole, which was close to the house. Harkness once sent a ball crashing through a window from that hole as Partridge watched.

The course also has touched the imaginations of The Day's readers. Bill Bucko of Montville said golf always comes to mind when he visits the park.

"I often visualize the nine hole course layout and try to play it in my mind as I walk each hole," he wrote.

In the early 1960s, when Peter Emanuel of Waterford picnicked there with his family, there was still sand in the traps, though he didn't realize what they were.

He grew up to be a history teacher at the Williams School, explored the park's past with his classes and took them on trips to see the place.

"Until just a few years ago, I could still point out the sand traps to my students," he wrote. But on his last visits before retiring, "I could only point to some spots on the leveled lawn and explain that there used to be a sand trap there."

Even today, the course's last remnants are disappearing, but the memories remain.

j.ruddy@theday.com

Editor's note

Editor's note: In addition to the sources mentioned in the text, the following were especially helpful: Mary Beth Baker, Nancy Lieffort of the Connecticut State Library, Waterford Town Historian Robert Nye, Benjamin Panciera of Connecticut College, Judith Schiff of Yale University, Jeanne Shelburne and Renee Vogt of the Friends of Harkness, and Sheila M. Wertheimer. The enthusiastic response by readers to The Day's public appeal for information made this story substantially better. 

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