How I See It: Corsets to country clubs, Fairfield's 'Book of Golf Genesis'
Updated 5:19 pm, Friday, March 27, 2015
The snows are receding from the land, and Fairfield's golf zealots are readying themselves for their annual pilgrimage to the first tee. For most, this rite will take place on a public course, but for a privileged few, it will be beyond the pearly gates of one of Fairfield's private clubs.
The creation of private golf in Fairfield is an interesting story, yet still unfinished thanks to ongoing controversy.
In the late 19th century, a physician named Lucien Warner left his successful upstate New York practice to give lectures on women's health, particularly about the health hazards of the steel-boned corset. Clearly, he was onto something, but Warner and his physician brother Ira went one step further: they invented the revolutionary Health Corset. The abdomens and lower chests of fashionable Victorian ladies were still scrunched, but the innovative and forgiving fabric construction spared them from being impaled by their underwear. The Health Corset was a blockbuster success. Lucien and Ira moved their manufacturing to Bridgeport, where 1,200 workers made 6,000 corsets every day. The Warner brothers became very, very wealthy. Their company eventually gave birth to the apparel conglomerate Warnaco.
In 1895, the transplanted Bridgeporter Dr. I. De Ver Warner (Ira now preferred a more patrician version of his name), was the force behind establishing a sporting club for, as a local newspaper put it, "the best social element of Bridgeport." As Warner searched Bridgeport for a location, a new trolley line was going in from Bridgeport into the sleepy Stratfield section of Fairfield. This led Warner to purchase very suitable Stratfield farmland a short trolley ride from Bridgeport. With Dr. Warner as its first president, the Brooklawn Country Club was born, and helped catalyze the development of the Stratfield area. How would Fairfield history have changed if the Health Corset flopped, leaving the Warners to live out their lives somewhere between Ithaca and Syracuse?
Most early Brooklawn members were from Bridgeport, but inevitably it attracted wealthy Fairfielders, most notably the Gilded Age scion Oliver Gould Jennings. Mr. Jennings loved golf, but hated competing for tee times and slogging around the course behind other golfers. He had a revelation: with a few local pals, he would create his own club for the uncluttered enjoyment of golf by those fortunate few who qualified to be in his presence.
But where should it go? The old Bronson estate in Greenfield Hill, now the site of Fairfield Country Day School, was considered, but rejected -- mainly because the hilly terrain might prove too challenging.
It is written in the Country Club of Fairfield's 75th anniversary yearbook that Oliver and his son Lawrence were horseback riding on Sasco Hill when the elder Jennings stopped suddenly, transfixed by the salt marsh stretching to Southport Harbor and the Long Island Sound. Just as Moses viewed the Promised Land from Mt. Nebo, Jennings envisioned his golf course from Sasco Hill. --¦only a man with a vivid imagination plus powers of divination could have pictured a golf course there," the yearbook teaches us. It also helped that he was as rich as Croesus.
"Let there be golf," spake Jennings.
Jennings easily snapped up the inland farms he needed, but it was even easier and cheaper to gain control of the 58-acre lowland parcel to which the town of Fairfield claimed ownership. In 1914, Jennings made Fairfield an offer it couldn't refuse. Jennings would be granted a 200-year lease at the price of $1 per year. Those are not typos. At the time, salt marshes were considered "wasteland," so the town was only too happy to do a little favor for its leading citizen and benefactor.
The salt marsh was without form and void, so Jennings caused a million cubic yards of fill to rise from Southport Harbor and smother it. He called forth a locomotive to tow countless loads of Long Island topsoil into the site for distribution. Finally, he summoned the noted golf architect Seth Raynor to sculpt the course. Jennings beheld his Elysian fields on the Long Island Sound and dubbed it the Country Club of Fairfield.
He saw that it was good, and on the seventh day he rested.
There always were rumblings about the club's secretive and exclusionary membership policies -- only a few hundred handpicked families belong -- but the sweetheart lease rubbed many people the wrong way. In 1984, title searches in relation to a coastal erosion project seemed to show that the town never actually owned the land it was leasing to the club, and that the owners were in fact members of the Perry family and -- get this -- Meadville General Hospital in western Pennsylvania.
Hoping to put an end to this annoying problem, the club quickly purchased the land from the Perrys for $50,000. Sorry, but what were the Perrys smoking when they gave up 58 acres on the Long Island Sound for a pittance?
At any rate, the problem was far from settled. Those 1980s title searches begat more title searches, and even more questions that to this day remain unanswered, to wit: did the Perrys own that land after all? Is Fairfield still getting its annual buck from the club? Who owns Sasco Beach? Do the federal and state governments have claims? And why aren't we hearing from Meadville General Hospital, 450 miles west of here?
We can only hope that a Great Sage will come soon and bring us enlightenment.
Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "How I See It" appears periodically. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.