Can Golf and Native American History Co-Exist?

October 10, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

To begin this story, I need to go back about 2,000 years. Native Americans roamed the the river valleys of what is now southern Ohio. Historians today call these ancient Ohioans the Hopewell people, but that name comes from a 19th-century Buckeye farmer named Mordecai Hopewell, who allowed some of the first archaeological investigations of the Hopewell on land he owned. We don't know what the Hopewell called themselves; they left no written records. Archaeologists now understand that the Hopewell had villages, crafts, and art. They supported themselves by hunting, foraging and growing crops. They traded with other Native American groups. And they sculpted enormous, astonishing, geometric, earthworks. These earthworks take the form of circles, octagons and other shapes, extending for miles and enclosing many acres. The earthen walls are from five feet high to 14 feet high. Presumably, they were made with wooden or stone tools. 

The Hopewell people, for reasons unknown, declined and, as a group, disappeared. Maybe climate change had something to do with it. Maybe warfare did. By the time Europeans came to Ohio, the Native Americans they encountered professed to have no knowledge of who built the earthworks or why.  Some early Americans saw the earthworks, which are near the town of Newark, Ohio, and recognized their historical value. Daniel Webster wanted them preserved as a national park. But others saw them as an obstacle in the way of farming or building railroads and canals. As Ohio developed, the Newark Earthworks started to vanish.

That, roughly, was where golf entered the story.  In 1910, the Newark Board of Trade leased 125 acres of earthworks land to a newly formed golf club, which soon named itself Moundbuilders Country Club. The leased acreage contained some of the most intriguing shapes in the complex, including a circle and an octagon.

There apparently was some intent to preserve these key portions of the earthworks by leasing them to a golf club rather than letting the land fall prey to other, more destructive kinds of development. (The club property today is surrounded by housing, suggesting what probably would have happened to the earthworks had they not been enclosed inside a golf course.)

The Scottish immigrant golf architect Tom Bendelow, responsible for some notable American courses, including Olympia Fields outside Chicago, was hired to design the course. He kept the earthworks on the property more or less intact, incorporating them into many of the 18 holes he designed. The picture atop this post shows the third green, set inside an earthwork ring. The picture above left shows how the 10th fairway is abruptly interrupted by portion of the earthworks known as the Observatory Mound. From the tee on No. 10, the golfer has to decide if she can carry the mound and reach the portion of the fairway that lies beyond. If she can, she will have a clear shot with a shortish iron to reach the green. If she can't, she'll have a long, blind shot. On the right at the bottom of this post is the golfer's view of the approach to the first green.

Seven of the par fours have a variation of this theme. The mound surfaces are in play, though playing from them is inadvisable. They function more or less like cross bunkers with high lips. A player needs to avoid them, either off the tee or on the approach shot, calculating the shot required either to lay up short or carry them.  Other mounds are used as framing devices near greens, like the ones near the fourth green, at right. (The steep mound walls require some creative mowing techniques by the club's staff.)

Despite the earthworks, Moundbuilders is not a particularly hard track. It is today what it has been for a century or so, a pleasant, well-kept, small-town American golf club--just with some unique features.

The club traditionally offered some accommodations to people interested not in golf, but in the earthworks. At different times during the year, particularly in winter, the grounds were opened to people who wanted to explore. Year-round, there is an observation post reached by a staircase that allows visitors to peer over an earthen wall that lines the left side of the par-three ninth hole. They can see a few of the complex's walls within the course. But the golf course also obscures some of the most significant parts of the earthworks. Trees that line fairways block views that the earthworks were created to show. And, of course, members of the public who want a closer look are barred most of the time.

Archaeologists took relatively little notice of the golf course earthworks in the early years of the 20th Century. This was because they quickly discovered that the earthworks were not burial mounds, and archaeologists interested in Native American culture in those years liked to excavate burial mounds to find and analyze the artifacts interred with the bodies.  But that began to change in the 1980s.

Modern scientists took a renewed interest in the Newark Earthworks. They came to believe that the earthworks were a site of major astronomical and ceremonial significance for the Hopewell people. They theorize that the circle and octagon structures on the golf course were built and aligned in accordance with phases of the moon. Somehow, those lunar phases were integrated with burial and cremation ceremonies that took place in other parts of the earthworks, miles away. (At left is an artist's rendering of the golf course earthworks and the moon, produced by the University of Cincinnati. It's on a historical marker at the edge of the course.) The significance of the entire complex was compared by some scientists to that of England's Stonehenge.

And with that, the golf course became endangered. People in Ohio started to talk about trying to get the Newark Earthworks declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are a lot of good reasons to do so, beginning with the way a World Heritage Site at the earthworks might help people understand that Native Americans were not the primitive savages portrayed so often in American books and movies. It would lend prestige to Ohio and maybe bring in some tourist dollars.  But UNESCO indicated it was not going to have golfers hitting balls around a World Heritage Site. 

Moundbuilders Country Club had a lease through 2078, but now the state of Ohio is pressuring the club to give it up and leave. The club's position is that it would be happy to go if someone paid it enough to buy land and build a new course and clubhouse on it. Ohio's rejoinder has been to file a lawsuit seeking to take the property through eminent domain. Ohio has won the first round in court. The club has appealed, but, as its pro, Randol Mitchell, told me when I visited recently, the state of Ohio is not in the habit of losing eminent domain suits. It seems quite likely that some time in the future, perhaps the near future, a judge will tell the state how much it has to pay the club, the state will pay, and that will be that.

It seems a shame that the golf course and a World Heritage Site can't co-exist. A golf course laid atop an earthworks would be very educational. All over the world, conquering cultures have built their own monuments on the rubble of those they conquered. But it's only at a few places, like the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, that this very common human process is visually evident. More often, as with Etruscan ruins covered by Greek ruins covered by Roman temples, the process of history is submerged and invisible. It's hard to imagine something that would more graphically illustrate the way Europeans imposed their culture on Native Americans than a golf course laid over a ceremonial earthworks. When the golf course goes, so does that illustration.

And the golf course will go, because it's equally hard to imagine whoever eventually takes over the site spending the money required to maintain greens and fairways. That's probably just. The world has a lot of golf courses. It has only a few sites like Stonehenge and the Newark Earthworks.

But I will remember a lovely, very unusual little small-town American golf club, a warm and sunny autumn day, and the happy round I played there.



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