The Henderson Country Club’s first clubhouse met a fiery end 100 years ago with meat all over Elm Street. And, no, it wasn’t a barbecue.
That requires an explanation, of course, but I’ll tell you about the building’s beginnings before I get to its sad end. It had a close link to the 1909 development of the former Municipal Golf Course. (The 110-year-old course at Atkinson Park was closed in 2019 after the city bought the 18-hole Players Club and set up a public-private partnership to run it.)
The country club as an organization has roots as far back as 1899, when it leased land for a golf course from H.F. Turner for $125 a year, according to the club’s records. That arrangement didn’t work out and the club disbanded. In 1909 Dr. W.I. Thompson (who was elected mayor Nov. 2 that year) began trying to revive it and stirred up enough interest to convince the city to allow him to develop a golf course and two tennis courts in Atkinson Park. Work was under way on the course, according to the Henderson Journal of April 15, which noted banker B.G. Witt was the club president. He had also been one of the founders of the 1899 club. The club’s original plan was to use part of the pavilion as a clubhouse. The Journal of July 6, however, reported Witt advising the club to buy 2.6 acres across Elm Street from the park entrance “to put up a beautiful clubhouse in which the club can do as it pleases.” An option to purchase the property, now known as 1800 N. Elm St., was in hand, according to the Journal of Aug. 23. “It is a lofty and beautiful site, commanding a view of the most picturesque part of the park – the lake, the pavilion and environs.” The Gleaner of Sept. 16 reported architect Clifford Shopbell of Evansville had submitted blueprints, which included “a large ballroom for dances and receptions” as well as lockers and dressing rooms. The Gleaner of Feb. 27, 1910, reported the exterior was finished and “as soon as the inside work is completed the building will be ready for use.” The Gleaner of April 7 reported the Elm Street sidewalk was being extended 1,800 feet to the new clubhouse. The Gleaner’s “Booster Edition” of May 4 provided a little more detail about the building. “The Henderson Country Club has erected the most complete clubhouse south of the Ohio River across from the entrance to beautiful Atkinson Park. The design of the clubhouse is rustic, being erected of native logs. It contains 10 rooms and is situated on a high knoll overlooking the park.” The Gleaner of May 25 announced the clubhouse would have its grand opening in a week. That event included a dinner, dancing to Lindstrom’s Orchestra, adoption of a new constitution, and election of officers. The streetcar company agreed to keep cars running until after the dance. The Gleaner of May 31 reported the opening that had occurred the previous evening, calling it “one of the much anticipated events of the season” that “far surpassed all expectations. “The elite of the city began to arrive early in the afternoon. Every (streetcar) out was filled, some driving in carriages and motoring up. “The clubhouse, an artistic bungalow with broad veranda and French windows, demands a magnificent view of the surrounding country and the river through a vista of green. The shelves on either side of the old Dutch fireplace were filled with roses, while vases of field flowers decorated the veranda, where the buffet dinner was served….” Witt was elected president of the club and David Banks Jr. the secretary/treasurer. Members of the board included David Newcomb, John C. Worsham, Dr. Arch Dixon, H.P. Barret and Mayor W.I. Thompson. Nearly 300 people attended the club’s opening, the story said. “The Country Club is one of the most exclusive in its membership, which composes the society contingent of the city, and the opening was in a blaze of glory….”
A blaze of a different kind turned the building to ash 13 years later, according to The Gleaner of Nov. 10, 1923.The fire, which apparently was electrical in nature, began in the northwest corner of the building. Caretaker George Harrington, who had been hired a week before the building opened in 1910, said there had been no fire of any sort in the building all day.
“It appears to be a total loss, only a few of the smoldering logs and timbers left to tell the tale.” Witt said the building cost about $7,000 to erect – twice as much as the initial estimate – but there was only $3,500 insurance on the building and $500 insurance on its contents. Also, between $300 and $400 worth of golf clubs were burned, according to The Gleaner of Nov. 16. The blaze was discovered by the wife of Louis Kleiderer and that couple unsuccessfully attempted to rescue some of the contents. “They were unable to save anything because of the extreme heat and the headway the blaze had made.”
Personnel at the downtown fire station responded to the fire but had no better luck. “The fire had attained such headway that it was impossible to check it.” Fire Chief Harry Stolzy had an accident on the way to that fire. His car collided with a meat wagon owned by Ed Jennings near the corner of Fourth and Elm streets, “tearing off a wheel and breaking the (wagon) shafts. The fender of the chief’s auto was broken off. “The reason of the collision was that Chief Stolzy, in trying to dodge a Ford that was in the way, struck the Jennings wagon and scattered a load of meat along Elm Street. He was of the opinion that if those who got in the way of fire patrol were fined a few times that they would be more careful.”
William H. Stites was president of the holding company that held title to the building and Pleasant J. Lambert was president of the country club at that time, but The Gleaner sought Witt’s comments because he was “one of the moving spirits of the country club.” Witt thought it would be rebuilt.
It wasn’t, of course. Instead, a month after the fire, The Gleaner of Dec. 12 reported the city had sold the club most of Fairmont Cemetery for $5,716 to use as the new country club site. The club planned to invest about $30,000 developing it.
The deed was for 47.64 acres and the city agreed to sell the remaining 9.62 acres once the bodies there had been moved. That didn’t sit well with the relatives of those buried there. In a lawsuit filed Feb. 22, 1924, they maintained the city’s sale “completely destroys” the property’s use as a cemetery, and in essence was a conditional sale of the land where their relatives were buried. The judge not only ruled against the city Oct. 14, 1924, he required the city to pay the plaintiffs’ legal costs. The country club instead wound up buying and converting an old mansion on South Main Street, which was used until the club moved to a site on U.S. 60-East in 1974.
In 2021 the club was sold to the current ownership who continue to improve the facilities and services for members and the community.