More on the history of local golf

Published 5:59 am Thursday, September 1, 2016

Third in a series

By Dr. Ray A. Gaskins

Professor Emeritus, H-SC

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Before the Venables, Longwood Estate was owned by the Johnstons. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, one of only eight men to hold the highest rank in the Confederate Army, was born there in 1807. (When Johnston was wounded in 1862, he turned command over to Gen. Robert E. Lee, both men being members of the famous West Point “Class of 1829.”) In June of 1811, Judge Peter Johnston (1763-1831; H-SC 1780), father of Gen. Johnston, sold Longwood Estate to Sen. Abraham Bedford Venable (1758-1811; H-SC 1777), president of the Bank of Virginia in Richmond and Trustee of Hampden-Sydney College. Before the year ended, Sen. Venable was dead — burned to ashes in the tragic Richmond Theater fire of December 26, 1811.

Since Sen. Venable was a bachelor and died intestate, Longwood Estate passed to his oldest brother, Col. Samuel Woodson Venable (1756-1821; H-SC 1777) of Springfield Estate, also a trustee of Hampden-Sydney. The theater fire must have been an omen because, within a year, the main house at Longwood burned to the ground. The house that was rebuilt in 1815 survives to the present and has come to be known as the Longwood House. Col. Venable didn’t need another estate to look after so, on May 11, 1814, he gave the 363-acre estate to his eldest son, Nathaniel E. Venable (1791-1847; H-SC 1808). This is where Nathaniel’s son, Lt. Col. Charles Scott Venable (1827-1900; H-SC 1842), was born.

Late in the evening of April 6, 1865, when Lee’s army was passing through Farmville, Lt. Col. Venable, a member of Lee’s staff, offered the use of Longwood to his boss. Not long after he introduced the general to his widowed mother, Mary Embry Scott (1793-1865), a scout came riding up with the news Gen. Grant was right behind him and would be in Farmville by 7 a.m. Lee and his staff bivouacked on the Longwood House lawn, arose early and were all headed west by first light.

This visit by Lee must have been a somber event, but there were many happy occasions at Longwood. Two of the happiest were the 1834 weddings of Charles’ sisters, Mary Priscilla (1815-1881) and Agnes Catherine (1817-1897), to the sons of their Uncle William Lewis Venable (1780-1824; H-SC 1800) of Haymarket Estate. These girls were real beauties, especially Agnes, and could turn the head of any man, but they loved their cousins, Thomas Frederick Venable (1812-1881; H-SC 1831) and Dr. Nathaniel Abraham Venable (1814-1849; H-SC 1832). Priscilla and Catherine are buried side by side, next to their parents, in the shade of an old cedar tree in Westview Cemetery. It is interesting to note that each sister died the week following her birthday, Priscilla had just turned 66 and Catherine had just celebrated her 80th birthday! (Uncle William and Dr. Nathaniel are buried in an unmarked mass grave in Westview, but that is another story.)

On April 1, 1873, the heirs of Nathaniel E. Venable sold the Longwood House and 200 acres to Wright Barber for $3,000. In 1928, C.B. Barber sold the Longwood Estate to the State of Virginia, on behalf of the State Teachers College (STC), for $20,000. In 1949, the STC officially adopted the name of the estate and became Longwood College, later Longwood University. When Dr. Henry I. Willett Jr., was hired as the president of Longwood College in 1967, he took a keen interest in the restoration of Longwood House, which at that time had been closed for several years. In 1969, President Willett became the first president to live in Longwood House.

The first mention of Longwood in The Rotunda occurred May 17, 1928. In this issue, they claim that the men “of Farmville and Hampden-Sydney are taking their shots at the golf balls on the course at Longwood. Not only have the masculine members of society become golf fiends, but even our own girls take practice shots on campus.” Thus, the earliest golf course at Longwood existed in 1928, but it was actually a driving range, as you will see from the following.

On March 14, 1929, there was a long piece on Longwood in The Rotunda that stated: “Among the recreational advantages, a 9-hole golf course is to be one of the outstanding features.” On Oct. 12, 1932, The Rotunda wrote: “A golf course is being started at Longwood. An instructor will be engaged once a week to aid the girls in improving their game of golf. Although there is only a driving tee at Longwood now, it is hoped that in the near future [we will have] a complete course.”

In the fall of 1932, the Class of 1931 donated the funds to build “a memorial cabin to the STC to be built behind the amphitheater on the 86-acre Longwood estate.” Not to be left out, the Class of 1932 donated the funds to furnish the cabin. This cabin was later used by the golf course and still exists.

On Oct. 2, 1935, The Rotunda wrote: “A regulation 9-hole golf course is under construction at Longwood. Four holes will be ready for use in November, and the fairways, now being seeded, will be in order by spring. It is through the WPA that this project has been made possible.” The plan was to let STC students use the course for free but to charge outsiders a fee. (Golf first appeared in the 1935 STC Catalogue as an addition to the Physical Education curriculum, but it wasn’t until the arrival of Dr. Barbara Smith in 1962 that a golf team was formed. She organized a team in 1966 and coached that team in competition from 1967 until she retired in 1992.)

On Oct. 30, 1935, The Rotunda included a “History of Longwood” in which is stated: “Since our college has come in possession of this old Southern home, a log cabin typical of Andrew Jackson’s days has been built. There is also a large open amphitheater where May Day festivals are held and a nine-hole golf course for use of faculty and college students.” (May Day was held at Longwood for the first time in the history of the college on May 4, 1929.)

However, it wasn’t until May 11, 1938 that The Rotunda headlined: “Golf Course Is Ready For Use.” They explained that it was more than two years in the making but that it was worth it. “It is a full regulation nine-hole course” and “is in better shape than 90 percent of Virginia’s municipal and private courses.” They said that the WPA spent more than $5,000 building it “because of the excellent opportunities offered at Longwood for a course of its kind.” They also stated that the course was laid out by Fred Findley, “one of the best architects of his kind in the South.” To encourage the use of the new course, golf lockers were placed in the Longwood House and transportation provided every afternoon for STC students.

Some of the early courses, such as the 1928 makeshift 6-hole course, used sand rather than grass on their greens. This meant either you or your caddy had to rake the sand smooth after each use. On greens that had grass, reel-type push mowers were used to cut the grass. You can still buy one of these type of mowers today. They haven’t changed much — they are still very labor intensive. The secret to effective use of a reel-type push mower is to not let the grass get ahead of you. This means cutting the grass as often as twice a week and definitely as soon as the grass dries after a rain. In 2014, Lowe’s had what looked like a brand-new reel-type push mower for sale at half-price. When asked what was wrong with it, the manager explained that a customer had found it too difficult to use and had brought it back the next day and traded it in on a power mower.

NB: The majority of sources on Longwood give 1920 as the year that it was purchased by the State of Virginia. Bradshaw (1948/1993) agrees with 1920 but then contradicts himself in Bradshaw (1955) by giving 1924. The state historical marker (2003) at Longwood House gives 1929. Willett (2004) hedges with “1928 or 1929.” Since the front-page of The Farmville Herald on May 18, 1928, contains an article that begins, “C.B. Barber, who recently sold Longwood to the State,” we can rule out 1929. In fact, we can rule out everything except 1928 by simply going to the Prince Edward Courthouse and looking up the deed (deed book 80, p.108). After purchasing the Longwood Estate in 1928, the Longwood House was restored to its original beauty and a formal opening was held on Oct. 5, 1929.