Sunday, April 21, 2024

Stratford History Never Boring!


2023 Marks Mill River Country Club’s 100th Anniversary… Or Does It?

In 1913, the country was prospering, people had more leisure time, and golf fever had been ignited after Francis Quimet, the blue-collar underdog, won the U.S. Open. Construction of new golf courses would double over the next decade.

The Mill Hill Golf Club in Bridgeport had been sold for building lots and a remnant group of members, led by the president of Mechanics and Farmers Bank, James M. Otis, and Rev. E. C. Carpenter of the Methodist Church, set out to establish the Weatogue Country Club in Stratford. They signed a 3-year lease for 60 acres of land known as Knowlton Park and built a 9-hole golf course, 6 tennis courts, and a new rustic style clubhouse that featured a spacious veranda overlooking the grounds.

The first Weatogue clubhouse was complete with fireplace, kitchen, and locker rooms. The clubhouse still stands – as a residence located at 375 Rockwell Avenue.

Weatogue attracted many prominent residents from Bridgeport, Stratford, and Milford. Subscriptions (as they were called in the day) to the club came fast and furious as the membership limit slated for 150 was quickly raised to 250 by the end of the second year. Members enjoyed golf tournaments, tennis matches, tea socials, bridge games, and holiday celebrations complete with fireworks. The club was flourishing.

However, the end of their lease was nearing, and the owners would not renew. The club needed a new home. In December of 1914 the board began negotiations with the George O. Lines estate to purchase Columbus Farm located at 4567 Main Street. Not only was the 124-acre farm strategically located along a trolley line for easy access, but the character of the land, as stated in The Bridgeport Times and Evening Farmer, “was eminently suited for golf, including a pond, two brooks, and small copse woods…ideal bunkers, hazards, and riving greens are afforded in the natural topography of the ground and that no club in the country offers better natural qualifications.”

Caddies at the Weatogue Country Club pose on the wall outside the club’s entrance. The plaque on the stone pillar reads “Private Property. Members Only.”

In August of 1915, a group of members, one of whom was DeVer Warner, son of one of the Warner Brothers Corset Company’s (a.k.a. Warnaco) cofounders, formed the Weatogue Holding Company for the purpose of buying Columbus Farm along with a few small adjacent properties – the Frank H. Wheeler estate and the Wilcoxson estate. The Bridgeport Times and Evening Farmer notes that “…the Weatogue Club property will be in the hands of a few members but will be used by all.”

A month later, for a purchase price of around $50,000, the properties transferred to the Weatogue Holding Company and work began on turning the George O. Lines homestead into a handsome new country club. The farmhouse was remodeled, removing walls and expanding rooms. Several tennis courts were built. And a nine-hole golf course was constructed under the supervision of New Haven golf course architect Robert D. Pryde.

The next part of this story is best told by the late Everett Japp who had been a member of Mill Hill, Weatogue, and Mill River. In the Mill River Souvenir Program of 1958 Japp writes:

“There are a great many details of what happened between 1916 when we opened the new course and 1923. But I will not bother you with them even though they make for a very interesting story and reflect great credit upon the men who held on to the club and preserved it for the membership of today. Just let me say, that in 1921 the Weatogue Holding Company who owned the property was ready to throw us out, but we were able to get a lease of life for 2 years through the good offices of DeVer Warner who was president of the Weatogue Holding Company.

The agreement with him was that if we succeeded in living within our income for 2 years, they would agree to sell us the property at a very reasonable figure. This we succeeded in doing (but it sure was a struggle) and the reorganization of the club took place. Certificates were sold at $150 each, the funds were raised together with a mortgage, and the name changed to Mill River Country Club.”

More than 200 Weatogue members signed on to Mill River Country Club.

So, while we are celebrating our 100th anniversary this year, I wonder if the “Weatogue 200” would say it was our 110th.

Top right is a photo of DeVer Warner. At center is a clipping from the 1958 Mill River Souvenir Program depicting breaking ground for the new clubhouse. Bottom left is golf course architect Robert D. Pryde. Originally from Scotland, Pryde designed many courses in CT. Among them are Racebrook CC, Wethersfield CC, and Alling Memorial. He also coached the Yale golf team to 15 intercollegiate championships. Pryde is a member of the CSGA Hall of Fame.


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