It was the summer of 1955. I was visiting my Grandmother Christine at her farm in Rockford, Indiana. I convinced my mother to take me to a barber in the nearby town of Seymour to get a “Mohawk” haircut. It was part of my effort at that age to make myself over into an American Indian. However, when my father heard about my haircut (he was on a business trip and did not accompany us to Rockford), he was not amused. He declared that I must stay at my grandmother’s farm for the remainder of the summer until my hair grew back! Considering my fondness for my grandmother and for the adventures that awaited me on her farm, I willingly accepted his “sentence.”
My grandmother’s routine that summer was to go to town each day to run errands and shop for bargains. She’d drive her large Buick automobile the two miles from her farm into Seymour, and I usually accompanied her on these sojourns. Sometimes she’d drop me at the city library or swimming pool to occupy myself while she attended to her business. As I rode with her along Ewing Street towards town seated on the big bench front seat of her Buick, I usually took note of various landmarks along the way. There was Bailey’s Drive-In, Spencer’s grocery store, Riverview Cemetery (where many of my ancestors were buried)—and the Seymour Country Club golf course. The latter was visible through a line of Osage orange trees, which provided a buffer between the course and the street.
I was only nine years old in the summer of 1955; it would be three more years before I began to play golf myself. However, since my house back in my hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana, was located right across from a municipal golf course I was already well acquainted with the sport. So as I passed the Seymour course on our daily sojourns to town, I took note of the golfers playing on the course near the street. It was before the advent of electric riding golf carts so almost all carried their bags, and even a few still used caddies then.
The Seymour course seemed to my young eyes to be nicer than the one across from my house in Terre Haute. So I imagined that the people who played it, and especially the ones using caddies, must be rich—lawyers, doctors, businessmen and the like. I never actually knew anyone then who was a member of the Seymour Country Club, and my grandmother never took me into the clubhouse. I found out later that my mother’s wedding shower was held at the Seymour Country Club in 1941, although I don’t recall her and my father going there to socialize when they visited my grandmother. I also later learned that the clubhouse had been raided during the 1940s and five illegal slot machines were confiscated. I’m sure that aspect of the Club would not have set well with my proper Rockford relatives.
My Uncle John Mitchell sometimes brought his family to Seymour from Arizona in summers during the 1950s. He had been a lawyer in a nearby town before moving to the Southwest and he knew some members of the Country Club. He sometimes even played golf there; he was the only one I knew then who did. Mostly I just considered the Seymour Country Club to be another feature of my childhood landscape—and it remained that way for another fifty-seven years.
The year was 1922—and times were roaring. In New York City a stadium was built for the N. Y. Yankees baseball team and its star slugger Babe Ruth. Down the road in Washington, DC, the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated. On the other side of the country grizzly bears became extinct in California.
Meanwhile in Rockford, Indiana, John and Christine Rapp were putting their lives back together. A devastating fire had destroyed their home on New Year’s Day in 1919, and since then they and their young daughter Margaret had lived in another house until they could afford to rebuild. Christine and John celebrated the birth of their twins, John and Julia, on the first day of 1922; Margaret marked her fourth birthday in June. And two miles south of Christine and John’s farm, there was another beginning: the Seymour Country Club and golf course was established.
Golf was a relatively new sport in the United States in 1922. It had come over from Scotland in the late 1880s as a game mostly for the rich and famous. The first courses were located on private estates of the wealthy in the East. However, after Francis Ouimet became the first American to win the U. S. Open golf championship in 1913, the popularity of the game increased rapidly. The prosperity of the nation during the 1920s further fueled golf’s popularity and many more golf courses were built. Most were private-membership venues, although some were intended for public use. For example, the first municipal course in my hometown of Terre Haute was established in 1920. Named Rea Park, it resembled other public parks of that era and was meant to aesthetically appeal to the city’s population of 65,000 people, golfers and non-golfers alike. The land on which Rea Park Golf Course was constructed had been purchased with funds from the estate of a wealthy local businessman, William Rea. His widow constructed an impressive clubhouse at the course in 1925—and it’s still there. It was symbolic of the fact that private club-quality golf was finally coming to the masses.
In smaller towns like Seymour (population 7300 in 1920) it was another matter. There weren’t many wealthy people, and few of those seemed inclined to underwrite public golf courses. So most courses established during the early 1920s in such towns continued to be private and followed a “golf is for the wealthy” mindset.
Although Seymour Country Club is regarded as having been established in 1922, an earlier club and course existed on the same site at least fifteen years earlier. A 1910 article in the Seymour newspaper notes that this club had just experienced its most successful year since being organized in 1907. The article reads: “The golf links have been improved from time to time until they are regarded as one of the best in the state.”
World War I may have taken the steam out of this earlier country club effort and it apparently diminished. However, in 1922 there was interest in reestablishing a club and articles of incorporation were filed with the State of Indiana. Its purpose was to foster “physical exercise and benefits derived from the golf links and tennis courts.”
The surnames of those behind the establishment of this new country club reads like a “who’s who” of Seymour in the early 1920s—Blish, Elsner, Bollinger, Montgomery, Richart, and Freeman. Perhaps the most significant person in this group was Tipton Shields Blish (1865-1927). He had been involved with the earlier country club and golf course effort, and was also the owner of Blish Milling Company in Seymour. Furthermore, his maternal grandfather was Meedy Shields, the founder of Seymour. By 1922 Blish had come to own his grandfather’s farmland in an area north of town known as Woodstock Gardens. Tipton Blish offered this land to the country club organizers for establishing their clubhouse and golf course. The land, however, continued to remain under the ownership of the Blish family until it was purchased by the Country Club in 1946.
The Country Club golf course established in 1922 probably included some features of the earlier course that had existed on the site. There’s no record whether a golf course architect was employed to lay out the new course, but I think it’s doubtful. There are some quirky features on the course, such as crossing fairways, that would not have been approved by an established architect even in 1922. Perhaps several of the more accomplished golfers in the club just got together and drew up the layout. However it happened, seven of the nine greens on the course were initially planted to grass while two remained as sand greens because water was not yet accessible to irrigate them. Those two were later also planted to grass.
The most distinctive feature of this 1922 course was its “elevated tee” on the first hole. It was situated as part of the roof of the clubhouse! In my almost sixty years with golf, I’ve never encountered anything like it on any other course. This roof-top tee remained a part of the course for many years until that initial clubhouse was later replaced.
Although the Seymour Country Club golf course was not initially intended for public use (for several decades it was a members-only club), the fact remains that as with the Rea Park public course in Terre Haute, it took a benefactor to make the course a reality. In more recent years the Seymour Country Club course has become public.
It was early 2012 when my Uncle John Rapp (my mother’s brother) died; a memorial was scheduled in his honor for the following July. It was to be held at the Rapp family farm in Rockford. My brother Phil, my mother and I agreed to meet in Indiana then and to first revisit our hometown of Terre Haute. It was the first time we’d all been there together since our family moved away almost fifty years earlier. We then planned to drive to Rockford to participate in the memorial for our Uncle John. Since my mother was 94 years old then, we knew that this might well be “the last round-up” for the three of us in Indiana.
After a fulfilling time together in Terre Haute, we traveled to Seymour in time to participate in an evening gathering of family and friends at the Seymour Country Club. The following day, the memorial was held at Hemphill Hill, a significant landmark on the Rapp farm. Afterwards we attended a reception hosted at the childhood home of my mother and Uncle John. It was hosted by the current owner of the house and our friend, Richard Mellencamp, and his family. Following the reception Phil and I made arrangements to meet Richard the next morning for nine holes of golf at Seymour Country Club. Following golf, we would depart and return to our respective homes in New Mexico and Minnesota.
It’s important to understand that Phil and I were always very different from each other. Tracing back into childhood we shared few common interests—except for golf. This timeless game was our most powerful and consistent link. I didn’t have much involvement with golf as a player during the final years of my career at the university, but Phil and I would still often discuss the professional game and other aspects. When I returned to playing golf again in 2010 after my retirement, I asked Phil to be my “coach” and advise me about upgrading my equipment and other improvements to bring my game into the modern era. He accepted this new role with enthusiasm, and during the two years before we came together in Seymour for our uncle’s memorial, Phil had pretty much gotten me back into the flow.
We met Richard early the following morning. Phil and Richard shared one golf cart and I took another. I was amused by their banter during the round as they relived experiences they had shared over the twenty years of their friendship. Phil’s role as my coach also came into it too on one hole when I faced an especially difficult shot:
“You need to hit a ‘flop shot’, Steve,” he called to me from a distance.
“A what?” I replied. I thought he was kidding.
“You know, a ‘flop shot’—like Phil Mickelson would hit,” he retorted.
Still thinking he might be pulling my leg, I didn’t respond. Impatiently he shouted, “Look it up on your computer when you get home, bro. It’s a shot you need to have to play modern golf!”
I hit my shot the only way I knew how. It didn’t go so well. I later did research the flop shot. It does exist—and it was exactly what I needed in that situation. Score one for the coach.
As I recall, we three ended up that morning with similar mid-40s scores for our nine-hole rounds. We parted company in good spirits. None of us could foresee then that Phil would be diagnosed with terminal cancer the following year and would die in April 2014. That July 2012 round with Phil at Seymour Country Club was the next-to-last round I ever played with him. It’s stayed with me as one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. Seymour Country Club is now much more than just a golf course to me; it has become a sacred place.
Since 2012 I’ve continued to play golf at Seymour Country Club whenever I’m back in my Indiana homeland. On most occasions I’ve continued to be joined by Phil’s and my friend Richard. In a way, I guess, it helps keep me connected with my brother and with that special morning of golf we shared together in 2012.
In 2014 we held a simple memorial for Phil at his graveside in nearby Riverview Cemetery; Richard and his daughter Janet participated. During our time of remembering together, I asked Richard to hold one of my hickory-shafted golf clubs in honor of Phil and as a symbol of our shared love for the Royal and Ancient Game. I’ll treasure this memory to my final day.
After my coach was gone, I made the decision to leave modern golf (and the “flop shot”) behind and to begin playing golf solely with hickory-shafted clubs like the ones used at the Seymour Country Club when it first began. This change has invigorated my interest in the game more than anything else I’ve ever done—and it’s deepened my fondness for the Country Club course as one of the most authentic hickory-era venues I know in Indiana.
In a few years, Seymour Country Club will celebrate its centennial. There are few other institutions in town that have remained intact over such a long period of time while continuing to provide the same service to the community. Some churches, the library and the hospital are others that come to mind, but they’ve undergone extensive structural renovations and barely resemble today what they were a hundred years ago.
Not so the Seymour Country Club golf course. If I could bring back Tipton Shields Blish today, hand him a set of hickory golf clubs, and invite him to play nine holes with me at the Country Club course, I think he would still find it to be very familiar.
And like me, I expect he too would regard it as sacred ground.
Steve Robert Simmons wrote this personal essay in 2016. All rights reserved.
Acknowledgement: I wish to express my gratitude to Charlotte Sellers. I met Charlotte several years ago when she served as reference librarian and historian at the Seymour Library. This essay could never have been completed without her assistance. THANK YOU, Charlotte!