Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Clarence "C.H." Geist

Birth of the Birdie 12 - Clarence H. Geist 


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 behind imagination. He was the owner of a number of major utilities which earned him 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 brakeman on the railroad, and dabbing at real estate, his big break came when he met Charles Dawes, of the South Shore Gas Company. While Dawes went o 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. Gimmel, “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, 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 has 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.

Geist hired Wilfred Reid to be the first golf professional at Seaview. He also hired a private Scottish golf professional to teach his wife and daughters how 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, Geist went through a series of golf professionals, though he treated them all with respect.

“Dad told me Gesit 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.”

Leo Fraser also attributes 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 retreated during the winter months.

Leo, who became the Seaview pro 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 ranges, and of course, a golf course.”

“It only cost $100 to join Seaview 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, ‘Your 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 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 of his accomplishments that he deserved. He was a man ahead of his time.” 

                                                     Clarence H. Geist and Nucky Johnson 

James "Jolly Jim" Fraser

Birth of the Birdie – 13

James “Jolly Jim” and Millie Fraser

                                     Ted Ray, Harry Vardon, Jolly Jim Fraser and Walter Hagen 

James Fraser came to America from Aberdeen, Scotland in 1907, obtaining work as a golf professional at Van Courtlandt Park, New York, the first public golf course in America, and at Great Neck. While working in New York he met Millie Leeb, from Albany N.Y. on a Flushing train. They were married and had four children, Sidney, Leo, James “Sonny” and Elizabeth.

According to Mrs. Elizabeth Fraser Jordan, her father was the son of an Aberdeen, Scotland constable who served in Singapore.

“Jolly Jim,” as he was called, came to America on a Silver Quill award scholarship, apparently because of his literary talents. His passion, however, was golf.

James Fraser was named the Seaview’s second golf professional in 1916 when he replaced Wilfred Reid. At Seaview he became associated with a number of great golfers including Mac Smith, Walter Hagen, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray.

The Fraser family lived in a house on the first hole at Seaview that is still there. “In the early days the house had coal heat and an outhouse,” recalls Elizabeth Jordan. “We were a close family; they used to call us a clan.”

With his ten year old son Leo serving as their caddy Jolly Jim Fraser and Hagen defeated Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in a Pottstown, Pa. exhibition tournament in 1920. According to Leo, his father had designed the course where the exhibition was staged and it was one of only two losses the British champions experienced on that tour, during which Ray won the U.S. Open.

Jolly Jim also won the Philadelphia Open, a significant accomplishment at the time.

“My father was a marvelous man,” relates Elizabeth. “He was a fun man who liked to collect and tell jokes, and was a good friend of Harry Lauder, the comedian. He was a bit heavy, talked with a thick Scot accent, drank Scotch naturally, and used to bring home every dog imaginable. He was a great hunter, who often went duck shooting with Dr. Allen, and he used to raise birds and dogs. All the club members loved him because he was such a great joke and story teller. He kept a batch of brandy for the members down in the cellar and going down the first hole they used to stop for a sip.”

Millie also played golf, and practiced on the putting green the morning that Sonny Fraser was born.
The world of the Fraser Clan changed on February 15, 1923, when Jolly Jim Fraser died after an auto accident with a trolley on Shore Road.

Elizabeth recalled, “He was on his way to pick up Sonny and me at school, and to mail somebody some jokes and collided with the trolley. Now the front and the back of the Toonerville Trolley looked the same so you couldn’t tell if it was coming or going, and he died of his injuries.”

Sidney, the oldest son joined the Navy and much of the burden of being the man of the house fell on young Leo Fraser and of raising the family on Millie.

“Mille was a phenomenal woman,” recalls Bonnie Siok. “She was a tiny thing with a charismatic personality. The world loved Millie. Against everyone’s wishes she used to sneak out and play cards with the caddies at the 19th Hole across from the Seaview club. Later she married Flo Ciriano, the only grandfather any of us really knew. Flo worked at Seaview and later a bartender at the Atlantic City Country Club, and was a very handsome man from Spain, who adored Millie ‘til they day she died.”