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June 2017

Links to the Past

The demise of the Loon Lake Golf Course

Built 30 years after the Civil War and nestled between Loon Lake and the southern base of Lookout Mountain in Franklin County, the Loon Lake Golf Course was carved into the woods, manicured and maintained for more than a century before absentee landlords raised the leasing fee and made it prohibitive to operate. My wife, Cheryl, and I were the last people to lease the course. We poured our hearts and souls into keeping it going, but it wasn’t enough.

The Loon Lake area was first developed in 1878 by a Vermont couple, Mary and Ferd Chase, who turned it into a profitable and well-known upscale resort. At one point, the Chases owned 4,000 acres on and around the lake. Mary Chase was known for her bright red wig and her parrot. Their hotel, the Loon Lake House, grew to accommodate 500 guests, and 60 cottages were added later. At its peak, from 1883 to 1915, U.S. Presidents (Benjamin Harrison, McKinley and Cleveland), famous composers (Irving Berlin and George Gershwin) and literati (Oscar Wilde and Theodore Dreiser) vacationed at the resort. 

I read up on the history of the area, but many anecdotes came from long-time superintendent Leo Collins. Leo had worked for the Chases when he was a young man fresh off the farm, back when the Loon Lake House employed many local people. “Old Mr. Chase fired this feller who worked in the kitchen because he heard the man laughing and thought he was laughing at him,” Leo told me. “The man needed a job so he went to Mrs. Chase and she hired him back to work with the hotel grounds crew. When Mr. Chase saw him working outside, he asked, ‘Say, didn’t I just fire you a couple of days ago?’ The man said, ‘No, that was my twin brother.’ Times was tough back then and Mrs. Chase didn’t want to let a good man go just because Mr. Chase was in a bad mood. People had to feed their families. She was good to us, but I think she cared more about animals than she did people.” 

The resort fell on hard times at the onset of the Depression, and Mary Chase died in 1933, two years after she was forced to sell it.

The original nine-hole golf course opened in 1895. Designed by noted golf-course architect Seymour Dunn, it still tested the skills of a golfer a century later. The back nine holes were heavily wooded and some ridiculously narrow. The front nine—a wide open, up-and-down pasture with gorgeous views of nearby Kate Mountain, the Alder Brook Range and the distant High Peaks—was added in 1926. The holes were short and a golfer could wind up three fairways over and still have an unobstructed shot at the green.

Leo worked all through the heyday of the resort and beyond. He left once when he was a young man to work on a railroad crew in Canada, but returned after an accident killed everyone on his crew but him. He continued to work at the course and as a caretaker for many Loon Lake camps until he was almost 90.

He watched the old hotel and golf course change ownership a number of times and maintained the grounds when the course was closed during World War II. He witnessed a steady decline in the quality of the food and accommodations—Leo told me of one owner who served a dinner of plain spaghetti to guests at the hotel. When a diner complained about the lack of sauce, the owner handed the man a bottle of ketchup and said, “Here’s your sauce!” The old hotel burned to the ground in 1956, shortly after those owners bought the place.

By the time he was in his late 80s, Leo’s mind began to slip back to the past. Although he had become overwhelmed and confused by the daily routines of life, the course was a comfortable place for him to be; he reluctantly retired once he became unable to work. When no one else wanted the job, I became the superintendent. Leo was placed in the hospital while waiting for a nursing home vacancy. I went to see him in the hospital and he was unsure who I was, but once I got him talking about the old course, he was lively and friendly. His stories skipped back and forth through time, long dead friends and family returning to visit in his tales. It was a pleasure listening to him and seeing him so happy. After a while, a nurse poked her head in the door and said, “Mr. Collins? We’re having ice cream now; would you like some?” Leo looked at me and said, “Nice talking with ya, gotta go!”

Most days on the course were the same but rarely ordinary. The rewards of my labor were vibrantly green fairways in early spring and the privilege of being out before the sun in July, as sprinklers satisfied the thirsty grass. Or being mesmerized by the sound of bagpipes from a nearby inn as the sun set in late summer.

Then, in 2003, the course closed after 108 years of operation. It took me a few years to accept its fate. It was gone and deep down I knew it, but I kept hoping for a resurrection. For a while I mowed and played a form of golf on a fairway hidden from the road so I could keep part of the course alive. 

Others expressed interest in taking over the lease, but the value the landlords attributed to it far exceeded its worth. The course and over 2,000 acres around and on the lake are owned by a wealthy family from Italy and are just one of a number of the family’s multinational holdings.

Today the land has been reclaimed by nature. Raspberries and mullein have taken over the greens, a plantation of Scotch pines sprang up on the 13th and 17th fairways, and ATVs have desecrated the front nine, spinning figure-eights on the dried-up fairways and launching recklessly off a ramp constructed from the dug-up green high atop Number Nine Hill.

The course and land around it are currently up for sale. There’s no way to tell if the golf course will return in another incarnation, but anyone who truly loves the game of golf would welcome the opportunity to swing a club and watch their ball soar through the air, come down and roll once more along the old, hilly fairways—to be out playing golf the way it was meant to be played.

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