Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Sonny Fraser and the Parties at the Old Grist Mill at English Creek

Bob Hope and Sonny Fraser at the Atlantic City Race Track (Circa 1949)

Sonny Fraser and the parties at the Old Grsit Mill at English Creek.

When Egg Harbor Township celebrated its 300th anniversary in 2010, the only thing that they could find still standing from that time was the old grist mill at English Creek.

The home on the hill was owned at various times by the families who first settled the area hundred of years ago, and is now owned by local lawyer Frank Ferry, but its most famous resident was James “Sonny” Fraser, local amateur golf champion and politician.

Golf came natural to Sonny Fraser, the son the golf pro at Clarence Geist’s Seaview Country Club. His mother actually practiced putting on the first hole in front of the Fraser home the morning he was born, and he won Geist a bet with President Warren G. Harding that the five year old Sonny could play a round under 100.

While his brother Leo Fraser went on to become the prototypical golf professional and president of the PGA, Sonny became one of the great amateur golfers in league with Francis Ouimet and Bobby Jones.

Sonny went on to win many more golf bets, became special assistant to Geist until he died in 1938, and then Fraser became secretary to “Hap” Farley, the political boss of Atlantic City after Nucky Johnson went to jail. With Farley’s backing, Fraser entered politics and became a New Jersey State assemblyman and head of the state legislature. With Farley and his golfing pal John B. Kelly, the Olympic champion and Philadelphia building contractor, Fraser purchased the Atlantic City Country Club during WWII.

In 1944 Sonny Fraser invited the best amateur golfers in the country to the Atlantic City Country Club to play in his first inaugural tournament, that he himself won. The following year it was won by Dr. Cary Middlecoff, and among the others to win over the years were Julius Boros, Howard Everitt, Billy Hyndmann III (6 times), Jay Sigel, Duke Dlecher and Billy Ziobro. Ziobro would win the N.J. State Amateur and the Sonny Fraser in the same year, and later became the golf professional at Atlantic City after it was purchased by casino interests.

Sonny Fraser also got legislation passed that created the Atlantic City Race Track and first legal gambling in South Jersey.

With the immediate popularity of the Atlantic City Race course, that brought 30,000 people to the track every night for thoroughbred horse racing, Fraser invited his friends to join him, not only to play golf and enjoy the horses, but afterwards to parties back at his house at English Creek.

In May 1944 Fraser married Madeline Vautrinot of Egg Harbor, a beautiful and talented young artist who set up a studio in the grist mill, which Fraser had outfitted with special window in the ceiling for light.

Complete with a live jazz band playing on the lawn, Fraser’s parties were said to be extravagant, and included such celebrities as Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, John B. Kelly’s daughter Grace (later Princess Grace of Monaco), Doris Day, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack and other entertainers who visited Atlantic City, the Track or played golf at Seaview or ACCC.

Those who were there said that the most popular place at Sonny Fraser’s parties was the grist mill, where the cool, spring water still flowed through the damn and into the grist mill pond where the lobsters were fresh and the champagne was chilled.

Fraser was named head of the NJ legislature and considered running for governor when he was diagnosed with Hodgkins disease, and died at the age of 34 in 1950.

At his wake, celebrated over the lawn of his house, Rev. Gill Rob Wilson, editor of the New York Herald Tribune, said, “Sonny drove deep into the hearts and affections of everyone who knew him. The strong hands he wrapped around a driver gripped the heartstrings of people. He will always be remembered as someone who fought hard for the underdog and for lost causes. No one ever came to him and was turned away. It is appropriate that we pay tribute to Sonny, not in cloistered halls but here in this space in the surroundings he loved. It is here that Sonny must go on and we must turn away.”

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