This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Law Olmsted and the 150th of Donald Ross and celebrations of the two are planned in tony locations such as Boston, Brookline and Pinehurst. While their concepts of design and open space coalesce in various ways, there are not many examples where they and their associates worked on the same site. One, however, is Cohasse Country Club in Massachusetts.
Cohasse is a private club located two miles south of Southbridge, a town known as the ‘Eye of the Commonwealth’ for its association with the lens-making industry on the banks of the Quinebaug River that drove the town’s wealth in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Wells family, which owned American Optical, at the time the largest manufacturer of optics in the world, hired Ross in 1916 to design a nine-hole golf course for their employees. The course, named Cohasse – a Nipmuc word meaning land of tall pines – was turned over to the membership by the Wells family, an arrangement that exists to this day. It is also listed by Anthony Pioppi as eighth best in The Finest Nines: The Best Nine-Hole Courses in North America and the 37th best nine-hole layout in the world by Golf Magazine.
For club president Chris Dono, 37th is good but he is striving to achieve more. “We have invested a lot in infrastructure to keep the course as it was envisioned by Ross more than a hundred years ago,” he says.
Dono also notes that the course is maintained with a love of tradition. “We have three full-time employees and during the summer we have about 30 temps. But the course – as it always has been – is run by member volunteers. This might have seemed natural 100 years ago, but it comes with its challenges.”
Club historian, Matt Davol, says that the membership is as high as it’s been in some time (although some full memberships are available), and sees the upkeep as part of keeping the town’s traditions alive. Davol’s grandparents were actually some of the club’s original members.
There’s more than golf at Cohasse. Travelling south out of the neighbourhoods of Southbridge’s triple deckers, just past Eastford Road School and Cohasse Brook, you come to rock walls, roadside gardens, natural stands of tall pines and adjacent lines of shaggy bark elms. Golf is backgrounded by the Olmsted Brothers’ design, an acreage that flows around Wells Pond and the ridge rising above Cohasse Brook. And then the clubhouse and hints of a course. The combined designs define a spirit of place as having stepped out of the twenty-first century and into a world where links and open space bring us to consider the values of trees, clean air, open space and civic life.
The club opened in 1918 and after a few years of play, the Wells family hired the Olmsted Brothers to design the landscape around the club and the nearby estates. At the time, the Olmsted Brothers and Ross would have had offices adjacent to each other in Brookline, though it appears they did not consult on the work (the busy Ross was noted for not returning letters or calls). Either way, the result is a sterling country nine surrounded by gardens and rock walls, diverse forests and natural water features that speak of a past when industry, public space, golf and civic life were interconnected.
Decorated greenkeeper Paul Veshi came to Cohasse from nearby Dudley Hill, another 1920s nine designed by Devereaux Emmet and created by early industrialist Samuel Slater for his employees. Can you imagine Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos building a golf course for their workers?
Veshi considers Cohasse an outstanding layout, for a number of reasons. Three of the holes lay across the scenic Eastford Road such that daily commerce might be interrupted by pedestrians and golfers on a walkabout. Veshi doesn’t imagine many designers would sound the holes in the way Ross did. There are typical Ross features such as the six elevated greens, lateral hazards, and a need to use every club in the bag. Veshi also notes the back-to-back par threes: one has 190 yards of pure carry and the follow-on is a 125-yard par three over water.
“You can’t rest on this course,” Veshi notes, even at a par 35 and 3,000 yards. “As far as a home golf course goes, this one prepares you for golf anywhere.”
Sitting on his tractor, Veshi points out another creation of note: tucked behind the pines just off the sixth fairway, George and Ruth Wells built, in 1932, the northeast’s first home with an international design. Boston architect Paul Wood created an east-facing steel and glass structure, which won design awards from House Beautiful in 1933 and is now on the National Registry of Historic Houses.
Covid has notably brought golfers back. Veshi says that for the first time in a long while there is a waiting list to join Cohasse. This is all to the good, though – for this writer – renewed interest in golf calls for further discussions.
As has been well documented, as a young American journalist Olmsted visited Birkenhead Park – known as the People’s Garden – in Merseyside in 1850, three years after its opening. He was on a tour of English estates, eager to learn about their gardening practices. But here was Birkenhead, the world’s first public park, built and maintained by the town. As would be imitated by Wells and Slater in America, the goal of the 120-acre park was fresh air and a taste of the countryside to industrial workers. This is considered the moment when Olmsted realised recreation and natural beauty were not commodities for the elite, but places where each person is of equal intrinsic value, each having personal dignity. Olmsted observed: “Five minutes of admiration, and a few more spent studying the manner in which art had been employed to obtain from nature so much beauty, and I was ready to admit that in democratic America there was nothing to be thought of as comparable with this People’s Garden.” He returned to spark a revolution in egalitarian and democratic design, not to mention laying the foundation for the national parks.
What’s vexing about the visions of both Ross and Olmsted, though conceived in a spirit of beauty and egalitarianism, is that they now define some of the country’s most exclusive neighbourhoods and clubs. In an age of rising threats to democracy, not to mention a Saudi-backed challenge to the professional golf tours, might the anniversaries of the births of Ross and Olmsted return us to a discussion not only on civic investments on behalf of the public good, but also of returning golf to its democratic roots and values?
From Olmsted’s birth in 1822 to Ross’s death in 1948, the world went through what historians call the first and second waves of democracy. Constitutional democracy spread in Europe and Latin America and independence movements worldwide threw off the mantle of colonialism. While naive to think landscape design and the rise of popular golf were central to these historical movements, at the same time the celebrations of Olmsted and Ross should not underplay the roles public space and recreation play in ideas of democracy and an ‘aristocracy for all’.
Mark Wagner is a golf historian and the founding director of the Binienda Center for Civic Engagement at Worcester State University
This article first appeared in the July 2022 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.