CLARENCE H. GEIST – Part 1 Chapter 12
Birth of the Birdie – The First 100 Years of Golf at Atlantic City Country Club
by William Kelly
One member of the Atlantic City Country Club who really stood out was Clarence H. Geist, one of the most eccentric individuals of all time.
A self-made man, “C.H.” was rich beyond imagination. He was the owner of a number of major utilities which earned hi over $2 million a year. With so much money he was paranoid of being kidnapped and was known to take along two caddies, one for his golf bag and the other to protect him with a submachine gun.
Born in LaPorte, Indiana in 1874 of Pennsylvania Dutch ancestry, he refused to go to college because college men were “saps.” Instead he traded horses until he was eighteen when he discovered there was not a lot of money in the West. After working as a breakman on the railroad, and dabbing in real estate, his big break came when he met Charles Dawes, of the South Shore Gas Company. While Dawes went on to become Vice President of the United States and ambassador to the Court of St. James, Geist found his fortune in gas.
According to William A. Gemmel, “Geist aggressively began to acquire utilities. In 1909 he acquired Atlantic City Gas & Water Company and Consumers Gas & Fuel, both serving Atlantic City and vicinity.” Gas was an important commodity and Geist was one of the men who bought and consolidated competing gas companies creating “natural monopolies.” He owned the gas companies and other utilities that served Pennsylvania, Delaware and South Jersey.
Geist maintained homes and offices in Atlantic City and Philadelphia, but spent much of his time playing golf. Geist was the President of the Whitemarsh Country Club near Philadelphia and was a member of the Atlantic City Country Club.
Geist was one of the first to travel to the Atlantic City Country Club by automobile, rather than by train and trolley, or horse and buggy. “Among the automobile parties” one newspaper item noted, “were Clarence H. Geist, who had as his guest A.W. Atterbury, one of the vice presidents of the Pennsylvania lines.”
In 1914, Geist became impatient as he waited to get to the first tee at the Country Club of Atlantic City. With him was realtor Maurice Risley, who had been quoted as responding to Geist’s displeasure by saying, ”Mr. Geist. If I had as much money as you I’d build my own golf course.”
Geist told Risley to find him the land, which he did, just north of Absecon, and it was there Geist build the Seaview Country Club, which opened a year after construction began in January, 1915.
Geist hired Wilfred Reid to be the first golf professional at Seaview. He also hired a Scottish golf professional to teach his wife and daughters to play. Reid lasted less than a year before he moved on to the Wilmington Country Club and was replaced by James Fraser.
James “Jolly Jim” Fraser was the pro at Seaview when President Warren G. Harding played a round of golf there in May, 1922.
After the death of James Fraser in an automobile accident (collision with a trolley), Geist went through a series of golf professionals though he treated them all with respect.
“Dad told me Geist treated his golf professionals like staff executives,” said Jim Fraser, “but it took a long time before golf professionals were admitted to most other club houses.”
Jolly Jim’s son Leo Fraser also attributed the growth and popularity of first class country clubs to Geist, although he didn’t believe it was such a great thing for golf.
Besides the Seaview Country Club, Geist also developed the Boca Raton Country Club in Florida, where Tommy Armour later became the club professional and where many of the Atlantic City golfers retired during the winter months.
Leo, who became the Seview professional in 1935 said, “There was nothing like Seaview in the rest of the country. How many other clubs at the time had an indoor swimming pool, a French chef and liveried chauffeurs who drove Rolls Royces and Pierce Arrows? Every affluent club used Seaview as its standard. There was not a dining room in Philadelphia or New York that could excel Seaview’s. They had horses, squash courts, tennis courts, a trap shooting range, and of course, the golf course.”
“It only cost $100 to join Seaview,” continued Leo, “but it took more than money to get in, and if Mr. Geist heard anyone complain about the price of anything, he’d just go up to that person and say, ‘You’re resignation has been accepted.’ That’s the kind of guy Geist was. He despised dogs, thought airplanes were the product of the devil, couldn’t stand cigarettes and his feet always hurt.”
“I talk so much about Mr. Geist,” Leo Fraser said, “ because he was one of the greatest characters I’ve ever met during my whole life in golf. And he had a lot to do with my career in the early years. But you know, he was also a part of the game’s history in this country with the golf resorts he built.”
“He probably fired me and rehired me a dozen times. I probably argued with Mr. Geist more than I should have. My brother Sonny didn’t argue with him and he got along very well with C.H. They played a lot of golf together, too. Yes, he was a character, but he owned the finest club around and he never got the credit for all his accomplishment that he deserved. He was a man ahead of his time.”