Around the Island

History and Gardiner’s Bay Country Club

This summer season we can all celebrate a wonderful achievement for Shelter Island — Gardiner’s Bay Country Club is 125 years old.

Although the club’s early history was a series of challenges, including fire, World Wars and the Great Depression, the club’s current position is one of strength and a future full of promise.

By the late 19th century, at the home of golf in Scotland’s St. Andrews, shepherds had been swinging their crooks at pebbles for over half a millennium. However, golf in America in 1896 was still in its infancy. Following golf’s journey across the Atlantic in the early 1890’s the growth of the game in America was slow. There were few golf professionals in the United States making clubs and balls, creating courses and giving lessons.

One of the first courses on record in 1891 is our neighbor, Shinnecock Hills. More courses began to appear when more Scottish and English golf professionals immigrated to the U.S.A. in the mid-1890s. Toward the end of that decade, new courses proliferated. Professionals were carving out “links” golf courses along the shorelines of America’s east coast.

We can proudly claim our golf course was the first of a handful on Long Island, as well as one of the first couple of dozen in America. To what do we owe this historic place in golfing history? It was the brainchild of the manager of The Manhanset House Hotel, H.D.W. Lawson. His vision was combining the game of golf and the natural beauty of Dering Harbor and Hay Beach.

The Manhanset House , which opened in 1874 on the bluff just east of Locust Point . (Credit: Library of Congress)

Opened in 1874, the Manhanset House was located on a bluff just east of Locust Point and was a spectacular structure. The Hotel was enormous even by 19th century standards. Over 700 feet long, it had rooms for over 500 guests spread out over two buildings. One was four-storeys high, the other five, joined by a dance hall pavilion at its center.

The hotel and its luxurious amenities were the catalyst boosting Shelter Island’s fame and popularity. It became a resort of great grandeur and a hive of summer activity for the social elite of New York and Boston.

The majestic hotel was a port of call for the rich and famous and enjoyed several decades of the gilded age. The Long Island Railroad would deliver guests in Greenport, or large steamers from Manhattan would ferry visitors to the Hotel’s huge pier. A second pier became a New York Yacht Club dock.

In the summer of 1896, play began on the 9 holes laid out and named “Shelter Island Golf Links.” Early descriptions from an 1899 golf guide describe the original 9 holes as follows: “The ground is rolling with beautiful views across land and water …The fairway of this ‘old course’ has a particular fine turf … It furnishes a good lie even in the driest of seasons … Many golfers have said it is the most beautiful lay of land in the United States for a golf course.”

Golfers would travel from nearby Shinnecock Hills, Maidstone Club and Tuxedo Park to play big tournaments such as the Sylvester Cup, presumably sponsored by Shelter Island Golf Links’ member Cornelia Horsford, famous archaeologist and author and member of the Gardiner family. Cornelia Horsford inherited Sylvester Manor in 1900.

Cornelia Horsford (Credit: Shelter Island Historical Society)

On August 13 of the 1896 season, a fire damaged the south façade of the hotel, but by the spring of 1897, the hotel was ready to welcome guests once again. The Manhanset House was booming, as was Shelter Island and the game of golf. In the first few years of the 20th century, the course was expanded to 18 holes and began and ended at the hotel. The golf course name was updated to Manhanset Country Club.

However, after only a decade, disaster struck again. On May 11, 1910, just weeks before the summer season, a lightning strike burned the hotel to the ground. The fire did spare the surrounding “cottages,” which remained intact and seeded the creation of Dering Harbor Village. The Manhanset Country Club also survived the fire. The club owned a casino, a private clubhouse and a public guest house. These buildings facilitated the continuance and prosperity of golf on Shelter Island.

Then five years later, despite the 1916 polio epidemic, the club advertised a new 18-hole golf course layout. Although there are no official documents available, circumstance and remaining course features lead us and many experts to believe the now world-renowned architect Seth Raynor edited and created the bones of the golf course we play today. The president of the Manhanset Club at the time was an advertising pioneer, Artemas Ward, great grandson of Major General Artemas Ward of the American Revolution. The Shelter Island Artemas Ward originally owned Shorewood and Ward’s Point, later acquired by Gardiner’s Bay member and New York Governor, Hugh L. Carey.

With the famous resort burned to ashes and the resulting loss of paying guests, the club struggled. America joined World War I in 1917, and with the advent of prohibition in 1920, the club’s problems multiplied. In 1926, the club separated from the casino, a new clubhouse was built on our present site and renamed the Dering Harbor Golf Club. 

The Great Depression began in 1929, and it was a tough rebirth for the club  By the time America joined the Allies in 1941 for World War II, the club closed its doors and the back nine became a lima bean farm to aid the war effort.  The ridges and troughs for planting the beans are still noticeable today as we play the 13th and 14th fairways.

In 1951, thanks to the work of many Shelter Island Lions Club Members and local investors, the club re-opened as Gardiner’s Bay Country Club. Our recent history is more familiar and names such as Dickerson, Piccozzi, Lewis, Disch and Golf Pro Ollie Wells are still known by today’s families. Long time Gardiner’s Bay Golf Pro Bob DeStefano arrived just 10 years later, in 1961 and his tenure lasted 50 fantastic years. Part of his legacy as head professional is a vibrant junior program, which has continued to be well-renowned throughout the region.

The golf course is continuing to evolve and improve and is much enjoyed by the membership.  We’re fortunate to have engaged members, both young and old, and a spectacular golf course to play. As we begin to emerge out of the global health crisis of last year, we’re hopeful for a promising and bright future, for the game of golf and our historic Gardiner’s Bay Country Club. Happy 125th, GBCC.