Tuesday, September 8, 2009
Shady Rest Golf at Scotch Plains
Shady Rest in Scotch Plains was first African-American club of its kind
Many thanks to Vicki Hyman for coming up with this gem of a photo, and story.
Althea Gibson, mentioned in the article, played in the US Women's Open at ACCC.
Before a black doctor from North Jersey invented the golf tee, you would have to pinch a little bit of sand from the sandbox to make your own tee. I wonder if the black doc who invented the golf tee was connected to this club? - Bill Kelly
Posted by Vicki Hyman/The Star-Ledger February 19, 2009 5:44PM
Categories: Black History Month, Must-see stories
Shady Rest was the first African-American club of its kind in the U.S., offering daytime sports and nighttime socials
On fine summer days, the Packards and Studebakers would pull up Jersualem Road in Scotch Plains, and men lugging golf clubs and women in crisp tennis whites would bound into the Shady Rest Golf and Country Club.
They'd play nine holes, or watch their kids practice on the clay tennis court, or go skeet-shooting. Maybe they thought of nothing but the prospect of cocktails on the wraparound porch, Miss Lillian's famous fried chicken and potato salad in the club dining room, or the big band that would play in the ballroom later that evening.
Nothing unusual about well-to-do Americans enjoying a summertime idyll. Except that all the members at Shady Rest were African-American, and this was the 1930s.
Shady Rest was the first African-American golf and country club in the United States. There were other black-owned or operated golf courses at the time, but none combined golf with other amenities typically associated with country club life, such as tennis, horseback riding, locker rooms and a dining room, according to Lawrence Londino, a Montclair State University professor who produced a documentary called "A Place For Us" about Shady Rest, and John Shippen, the resident golf pro who is believed to have been the first American-born golfer to play in the U.S. Open.
"I guess we didn't at the time, but now we know how important it was," says Annie Westbrook Brantley, 88, of Roselle, who grew up near Shady Rest and who met her husband there in 1938, while Duke Ellington played "One O'Clock Jump."
The clubhouse, which dates to the mid-1700s, began life as a farmhouse. It briefly served as a tavern until 1900, when the Westfield Golf Club turned the surrounding farmland into a golf course, according to Ethel Washington, the history programs coordinator for the Union County Division of Cultural and Heritage Affairs.
When the Westfield club merged with a Cranford club, plans were drawn to build a new 18-hole course at what would become the Echo Lake Country Club. A group of African-American investors called the Progressive Realty Co. bought the property in 1921 and opened Shady Rest.
The Jerseyland neighborhood around the club was predominantly African-American, but the club drew members from across northern and central Jersey, with guests driving in from as far as Manhattan and Brooklyn for a day in the country.
Shady Rest also featured prominently on the Jersey musical circuit, drawing big names like Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, and Newark's Sarah Vaughan.
Brantley and her sister, Rosabelle Westbrook Johnson, remember Chick Webb introducing a young singer named Ella Fitzgerald, who delighted the crowd with "A-Tisket, A-Tasket."
"We'd get a chance to see all of them," Brantley says. "The place would be packed. We would be dancing. It was a great time. All the boys came up there to meet the girls."
Back then she was too young to attend the dances, but Yvonne Cooley Whaley remembers her brother driving her to the clubhouse and parking outside so they could hear the music from the masters. Some white kids from the surrounding area did the same: Laura Swidersky of Scotch Plains says her uncles and cousin, who studied classical music, would hang around outside the clubhouse, "spending many a Saturday night enjoying the jazz that they rarely were able to imitate."
W.E.B. DuBois spoke there. The clubhouse was a popular spot for fashion shows and luncheons put on by African-American community groups, and it hosted a multitude of weddings.
Joan Cooley Carter's family moved to Westfield from Jersey City in the mid-1930s, and soon Joan was toting a tennis racket around wherever she went. Shady Rest is where Carter, now 77 and living in Carmel, Calif., met her husband, a member of the Cosmpolitan Tennis Club, the most prestigious black tennis club in New York.
Carter, whose older sister is Yvonne Whaley, vividly recalls another competitor from the Cosmopolitan, a tall, wiry and athletic young woman with a "cannonball serve" who "knocked the socks off everybody."
"You could tell she was really going to go somewhere," Cooley remembers. "She walked all over me, then looked at me and said, 'Next.'"
That woman was Althea Gibson, who became the first African-American to win a Grand Slam tennis tournament.
Shady Rest was also the home course to Shippen, another barrier-breaker who is not as well known as Gibson. Shippen may have been the first American-born golf pro, not just African-American pro, because until 1896, when Shippen made his professional debut at the U.S. Open at Long Island's Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, only European-born players had ever competed. Despite a threatened boycott, Shippen played in the tournament, coming in fifth.
"Most people only think of Tiger Woods, but here was somebody who was just as good over 100 years ago," says Thurman Simmons Sr., the chairman of the John Shippen Foundation. "If he had won that tournament at Shinnecock, we wouldn't even be having this conversation."
Shippen served as the club's golf pro and groundskeeper from 1931 to his retirement in 1960, only four years after the Professional Golfers Association rescinded its so-called Caucasian-only membership rule.
In Barbara J. Kukla's book, "Swing City: Newark Nightlife, 1925-1950," Shady Rest is described by one musician as the place "where all the rich black folks used to go," but many of those who remember the club were too young at the time to be aware of any class division. "There were a number of people that I knew who never went to Shady Rest and looked upon it as, well, something that they were not going to be able to participate in," Whaley says. "I don't know why they felt that."
Roberta Thaxton, 73, of Orange, says that her parents were not that financially well-off, but they were big believers in culture and apparently felt the $15 to $25 annual membership fee was money well spent.
A mounting tax burden, the Great Depression, and conflicts between two groups of investors led to financial problems, and Scotch Plains Township acquired the Shady Rest property through a tax lien foreclosure in 1938. The country club continued as a focal point of African-American social life through the 1940s and 1950s. In 1964, the town took over operations, renamed it Scotch Hills Country Club, and opened it to all.
The second floor of the building has been badly neglected, and the exterior has been so altered -- it's now clad in vinyl siding, the gracious wraparound porch long gone -- that it doesn't qualify for recognition on the National Register of Historic Places. It's also on Preservation New Jersey's list of endangered historic properties because at one point, the town had decided to tear down the building and replace it with a recreation center for seniors.
Richard Bousquet, who runs the Historical Society of Scotch Plains and Fanwood, says that the building may be extensively renovated to house the senior center, with some space reserved for an exhibit about Shady Rest's history and Shippen's legacy, although the project is on hold for now.
"I miss it really," says Whaley, who now lives in Edison. "That was really a time in my childhood that I thoroughly enjoyed. There's nothing like that out there now. You have to understand, I'm 80 years old, so my days of running around and looking and going to find Duke Ellington and Count Basie are practically over. My sister and my brothers and I keep talking about Shady Rest, and my kids say, 'We don't have anything like that.'"
Vicki Hyman may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org