Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Brief History of the Seaview Country Club

 
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A Brief History of the Seaview Country Club

– By William Kelly (billkelly3@gmail.com)

Clarence H. Geist decided to build the Seaview Golf and Country Club in 1914 after he got tired of waiting to get on the first tee at the Atlantic City Country Club.

A self-made man, “C.H.,” as he was known, was rich beyond imagination. He was the owner of a number of major utilities which earned him over $2 million a year.

Born in LaPorte, Indiana in 1874 of Pennsylvania Dutch ancestry, Geist refused to go to college because college men were “saps.” Instead he went West and traded horses until he was eighteen when he discovered there was not a lot of money in doing that.

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 (in From Humble Beginings, Consolidated Press, 1987) “Geist aggressively began to acquire utilities. In 1909 he acquired the Atlantic City Gas & Water Company and Consumers Gas & Fuel, both serving Atlantic City and vicinity.” Since most street lights on every Main street were gas lit, it 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 as the President of the Whitemarsh Country Club near Philadelphia and 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 (railroad) lines.”

In 1914, Geist became impatient as he waited to get to the first tee at the Country Club of Atlantic City, as it was then known. With him was local 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 built the Seaview Country Club, which opened a year after construction began in January, 1915. Originally designed by renown architect Hugh Wilson (Merion Golf Club), the course was completed by Donald Ross, who added his distinctive sand bunkers.

Geist hired Wilfred Reid to be the Seaview’s first golf professional and hired another 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 another Scotsman, 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. Harding was said to have been a friend of Geist and visited Seaview on more than one occasion. Harding was also a gambler, often wagering on every swing of the club, and losing a bet with Geist that Fraser’s youngest son, five year old Sonny Fraser, couldn’t round the course in less than a 100, which he did handily.

As a fabulously rich man, Geist was paranoid of being kidnapped and held for ransom, and when it was known that Al Capone was in town, hi caddy also served as a body guard, carrying a Thompson submachine gun in his golf bag along with the mashies and niblicks.

At a time when most golf clubs considered their golf pros employees in the service staff, who weren’t permitted in the clubhouse with the members and guests, Geist treated them better. “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.”

Jim is the son of Jolly Jim’s oldest son Leo Fraser, who 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 was the club professional and where many of the Atlantic City golfers retired during the winter months.

In 1927 Geist had Howard C. Toomey and William S. Flynn design the scenic Pines Course in the woods to the west side of the clubhouse, originally a nine hole course that opened in 1929, and expanded in 1957 by Flynn mentor William Gordon.

But it wasn’t just the world class golf courses, it was the service and facilities that made Seaview a complete experience. Leo Fraser, 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.”

According to Leo Fraser, “Mr. Geist wanted me to play with him all the time. Then he wanted to take me out of the golf shop and join the gas company, and that’s the reason I left. The only reason he wanted me to work for the gas company was so that he could play golf with me whenever he wanted. Mr. Geist insisted I work for the gas company. I wasn’t fixin’ to do that, so when I was sixteen years old I went to Detroit to visit my favorite aunt.” Leo worked as a club professional in Michigan and won some tournaments there before returning to Seaview to be the club professional.

Leo’s younger brother “Sonny” Fraser however, was more inclined to work for Geist’s gas company and play golf with him, often playing hooky from school to do so. Sonny later said that Geist promised to leave him an endowment in his will, but when Geist died in 1938, there was no such endowment in the will, and Sonny sued the estate and was given some money. Sonny moved briefly to Philadelphia to work for a Sugar company, but then returned to Atlantic City to be the private secretary to “Hap” Farley.

With the death of Geist, control of Seaview Country Club was taken over by a group led by Elwood Kirkman, who had been the Georgetown college room mate of Hap Farley, who became the political boss of Atlantic City when Nucky Johnson went to prison.

A tournament was held at Seaview in 1940 that brought together celebrities like Bing Crosby and Bob Hope and top flight golfers including Ben Hogan, Jimmy Demaret and Gene Sarazen. The golfers all returned to Seaview for the 1942 PGA championship, won by Sam Snead over Jimmy Turnesa (2-1) in match play, with a spectacular 60 foot chip shot on the 37th hole, Snead’s first major.

After winning the match, Snead enlisted in the military, as did Leo Fraser, who went on to serve in combat, getting a battlefield promotion to Major, which became Leo’s nickname.

While Sonny Fraser was not accepted into the military because of failing health, he became a popular politician, New Jersey State legislator, helped raise money for war bonds and founded the Atlantic City chapter of the American Cancer Society. Sonny Fraser also bought the Atlantic City Country Club and refurbished it to its former pre-war grander.

In the legislature, Sonny Fraser rose to the position of Speaker of the House, and got every bill and law passed that he introduced, including the passage of the bill to bring horse racing to Atlantic City and Garden State (Camden Country), the first legal gambling in the state.

Fraser not only got the law passed, but he was part of the group that built the Atlantic City Race Track, which also included John B. Kelly, the Philadelphia contractor and father of actress and princess Grace Kelly, who celebrated her sixteenth birthday in the Oval Room of the Seaview Clubhouse.

Sen. Frank Smathers of Florida objected to horse racing in New Jersey however, considering it competition to the Florida tracks, and charged Sonny Fraser and his group with having illegal slot machines in the Atlantic City Country Club clubhouse. Instead of getting rid of the slot machines however, Sonny Fraser sold the Atlantic City Country Club to his brother Leo, the returning war hero. Leo went on to become President of the PGA, a major promoter of women’s golf and helped start the Senior’s Tour (now the Champion’s Tour).

While bringing the US Women’s Open to the Atlantic City Country Club three times, Leo Fraser introduced the area to women’s golf, and beginning in 1986 the LPGA established one of its premier events at Seaview, the ShopRite Classic (1986-87, 1998-2006, 2010)

President Eisenhower visited Seaview in 1953, and enjoyed it enough to return on a fairly regular basis, especially after leaving office, sometimes mingling freely with staff and guests, and signing one dollar bills that he gave away as souvenirs.

Elwood Kirkman, who headed the group that controlled Seaview, also owned the Boardwalk National Bank, a mortgage and title company, and the Flanders Hotel on the boardwalk in Ocean City, where he lived in the Penthouse apartment.

As the former Georgetown college room mate of political boss Hap Farley, Kirkman had a tight and powerful business connection and was unscrupulous in nature. Kirkman had many partners in many businesses, including restaurants and motels and hotels, and if a partner died, he took over completely, often excluding the proper heirs from their inheritance.

When the State of New Jersey decided to build Stockton State College, Kirkman sold them much of the land, mainly pinelands, the ownership of which was questionable, and deeds provided by Kirkman’s title company proved to be falsified. Although this scandal didn’t break until the 1980s, when it did make news, Kirkman was forced out of his control of Seaview, though his other interests were untouched, and he was never tried, convicted or did jail time for his misdeeds.

After Marriot purchased the Seaview in 1984 it was opened it to the public, but after decades under Geist and Kirkman, it maintained its first class status, so much so that when the Rolling Stones came to Atlantic City for their Steel Wheels Tour in 1989, they stayed at the Seaview rather than at any of the Atlantic City casino hotels. After two shows at the Boardwalk Hall (Then Convention Hall), the Stones took a day off to celebrate guitarist Keith Richard’s birthday, with a party held in the Seaview’s basement game room.

In 1998 Marriot sold the Seaview to LaSalle Hotels and golf course architect Bob Cupp, Jr. was brought in to restore the Bay Course to its original state as one of the finest links courses in America.

After a brief layoff, the LPGA Classic returned to Seaview in the summer of 2010, and in September of that year, Seaview was sold to Richard Stockton State College, with plans to upgrade and maintain it as a first class golf resort.

Some thought it ironic that the Stockton trustees would purchased the land for their college with false deeds provided by Seaview President Elwood Kirkman, now own the Seaview, and have plans to upgrade the facility and use it to help educate a new generation of students in the business, service and maintenance of a such a first class facility.

[William Kelly is the author of “300 Years at the Point – A History of Somers Point, N.J.” and “Birth of the Birdie,” a history of golf. He can be reached at billkelly3@gmail.com ]

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