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History's Headlines: Saucon Valley Country Club has links with history

Some sports historians call the 1920s America’s golden age of sports. Baseball and football had its legends, of course, and by that time were well established. But the sport that summed up that era and came into the public’s notice in a big way back then was golf. And in the Lehigh Valley it was the Saucon Valley Country Club that was most closely associated with the game.

Golf of course was not entirely new. Some sources claim golf was being played in Savanah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina as early as the 18th century. And from the start it was a sport for gentlemen. By the late 19th century some venturesome souls had taken up the game. By the dawn of the 20th century popular American illustrators like Charles Dana Gibson and Norman Rockwell were showing golfers, sometimes as caricatures on the covers of popular magazines. But the person who put golf on the Lehigh Valley map was Bethlehem Steel executive Eugene Grace.

As a young man Grace had been an outstanding baseball player at Lehigh University. But after graduation he apparently hung up his glove forever. But he needed an outlet so he decided to give golf a try. So in 1909 he traveled to Pinehurst, North Carolina, already a mecca for those with the time and money to spend on perfecting a sport. Not everyone was impressed. One maid for a wealthy family stepping down the train from New York  in the 1920s was heard to say with a trace of disgust in her voice on first viewing the North Carolina village, “So THIS is Pinehurst.”  Grace had a far different reaction. By the time he left he was hooked on the game and would be for the rest of his life.

When he arrived back in Bethlehem Grace joined several local country clubs. But according to a story that was passed down, by 1919 he was upset about not being able to get a tee-time when he wanted one. According to the memory of the late Lou Buck, son of C.A. Buck, vice president and superintendent of mines for Bethlehem Steel, Grace and his father were having a discussion on this subject one day. Buck had been buying up property in Upper Saucon Township for a dairy farm. “He told Dad he was tired of the wait at the Northampton County Country Club.  ‘It’s so crowded I can never get on the tee when I want to. You’re buying up land out there in Saucon Valley. Next time you come across a farm that looks good buy it and we’ll make it into a golf course.’ ”

Now it is quite possible that there was already movement afoot to get a golf course by Bethlehem Steel employees before Grace brought the subject up. But he quickly became the driving force behind it. On October 1, 1920 Howard A. Lehman, a Bethlehem attorney, acting as an agent for a group of 16 investors including Buck and Grace, purchased a 208 acre farm in Saucon Creek Valley for $25,000. It was known as the Grim family farm, after the family that had owned it from the early 19th century until 1910.

In those early days, the creation of Saucon Valley Country Club was something of a Bethlehem Steel executive family affair. On weekends club members could be found clearing the grounds of rocks. Meanwhile something grander was being planned. An in-ground swimming pool was being installed. This of course had nothing to do with golf. But in a Lehigh Valley where most people still regarded the “old swimin’ hole” as the ultimate in summer bathing, this seemed like something movie stars  of the day like Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin would have in Hollywood.

But the planning of the golf course was not neglected. To take on this task Grace hired Herbert Strong.  A native land of Scotland, the mother land of golf, Strong came to America in 1905. He was already famous for his work on the course at Roslyn, New York.  A golf architect, he said, should, “build natural beauty into every possible feature of play.” Hired at the sun of $125 a day, plus expenses, Strong soon went to work with a will. Looking back on it in the 1940s, founding club member J.M. Sylvester remembered seeing Strong, “as he paced off the eighteen holes through the corn fields, the meadowland, the wheat fields, and clover fields.” Strong would not finish getting the course ready for play until June 17, 1922. But the swimming pool was ready for the summer of 1921. So it was decided to dedicate the club on August 6, 1921.

The day before the press was given a preview of the new club. They were impressed with the changes made to the old Grim farm homestead, complete with wicker chairs and indoor plumbing. Other features included horse shoe pits and tennis courts. “The general makeup of the club was far from complete but … the officers have every reason to be proud of their huge and splendid undertaking,” noted one reporter. Despite overcast skies, a crowd of over 350 gathered to witness the dedication. As the Bethlehem Steel Orchestra broke into the “The Star Spangled Banner,” the American flag and the blue and white club pennant rose on the flag pole. This was followed by a display of swimming by Olympic style swimmers brought from New York for the occasion.

The 1920s were good years for the club overall. But on a cold winter night in January of 1928 tragedy struck when a fire broke out, gutting the clubhouse. Caretaker Franz Malinowski and his family escaped, but despite the best efforts of local firefighters all that could be saved was a few trophies. Wasting little time, prominent Philadelphia architects Verus T Ritter and Howell L. Shay were hired to design a new one, which was completed in 1929.

From 1923 until his death in 1960 Grace was chairman of Saucon Valley Country Club’s greens committee. He hired Vincent J. “Pat” Pazzetti, a former All-American quarterback who led Lehigh University’s 1912 football team, as head of grounds keeping.

Even at the height of World War Grace never missed his regular golf game. Bethlehem police cleared traffic to see to it that he got there on time. “Gentlemen, we are about to make some money,” he said to his usual foursome on Sept 3, 1939 when he heard World War II had begun in Europe.

Today Bethlehem Steel is long gone but in a far different world the Saucon Valley Country Club that it founded continues to thrive.     

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