Highland Country Club, Inc.
931 Alexandria Pike
Fort Thomas, Kentucky 41075
Highland and the History of Golf in Greater Cincinnati
Samuel Bigstaff incorporated the Highland Park Land Company in 1890. After building homes in the Cote Brilliant area of Newport in the 1880's, he wanted to encourage construction in the District of the Highlands, where he was a large land owner. With his influence, the military barracks and Army post were moved from its former flood prone sight in Newport (at the confluence of the Ohio and Licking Rivers) to a ridge top along the Ohio River. The unincorporated area was called the District of the Highlands. Several early votes of the residents to incorporate failed. Bigstaff constructed the street car line from Newport to the District of the Highlands and the military post. Bigstaff was a native of Scotland. He gave several streets Scottish names and planned a golf course in the development. The Inverness Country Club was laid out and built in the 1890's. It was the first course in Northern Kentucky, a charter member of the Cincinnati Golf Association and contained nine holes on less than 25 acres. Current streets near the old Inverness course included Memorial Parkway (then the location of the street car line), North Fort Thomas Avenue (then Mt. Pleasant Avenue), and Southgate Avenue. By 1903 a newspaper recorded that the club had 400 members. When a post office was built and the city was finally incorporated in 1887, a debate began about naming the city. It was resolved to use the name of the military fort and not the District of the Highlands. The fort was named for civil war General George Thomas and is the only city in the nation named in his honor. He died in 1870.
Several problems with the Inverness golf course surfaced by 1908, mainly the course was small. One hole required golfers to hit over the street car tracts. The course was surrounded by development. The club did not own the land and developers saw greater potential with home sales. A new 40 acre location near the old site was chosen and plans were developed to have a new golf course, clubhouse and baseball field built by 1910. Financing difficulties hindered the plans. The Inverness golf course was closed in 1909. A fire then destroyed the Inverness clubhouse on New Year's Day 1910. Many Inverness club members joined the new Ft. Mitchell Country Club. By 1913 plans began again for a new club. A 40 acre site adjacent to the old club and 200 feet from the street car line, owned by Captain Gottlieb Hartweg, was seriously investigated as the new site. Architectural plans were drawn up for a new clubhouse. However, these plans also fell through. Finally in the spring of 1915, 70 acres north of the Metcalf homestead were purchased. The Highland Country Club was established on April 24, 1915. The Atlamont Hotel was the location of the first meeting to elect a board of governors. Harry Stegeman was elected president, Hugh L. Head as vice president, and Frank Stegeman as secretary. The club had 78 members, but projected 200 members, and had $200,000 in capital.
The land site was considered country and was at the end of the street car line on Alexandria Pike. On April 29, 1915, the sale of the land was complete. About 100 acres were purchased from B.F. Graziani and Harry Geiskemeyer for $9750. Much of the land was planted as orchard. The southeast parcel consisted of pear trees. In the valley where hole number 2 was built, cherry trees grew and were enjoyed by the golfers until the 1960s. Along Blossom Lane were rows of Apple trees, with the last apple tree dying in 2006. The tennis courts were finished and several golf holes were laid out for an informal opening on September 4, 1915. Bill Diddle designed the 9 hole course. A few years later he designed Kenwood Country Club and over 200 courses in the Midwest. A Labor Day newspaper account said the club had 112 members. The completed golf course opened on April 15, 1916. Alex Baxter was hired as the first golf instructor. Baxter was the former pro at East Hills Golf Course in Cincinnati and Little Falls Country Club in Utica, NY. On July 4, 1915 the clubhouse opened. A reporter said the frame building featured a large fireplace, ballroom, shower and locker facilities, a kitchen, bowling lanes, billiard tables, and a large veranda that overlooked "an expanse of the most beautiful, graceful and rolling country anywhere."
In the 1920's many people did not play golf and the sport was only in its infancy in Greater Cincinnati. Lawn bowling was played on the grass next to the clubhouse. The club was low on revenue and a concrete oval was poured on the lawn so that dances could be held outdoors at the club and to raise some revenue. These dances, usually costing less than $1 were held for many years.
The first couple to operate the clubhouse dining facility was the parents of future hall of fame baseball player and Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning. In 1928 Alex Baxter left Highland and served as golf professional at Twin Oaks in Latonia, KY, Kenwood Country Club, OH and Ft. Mitchell Country Club, KY. Highland hired Elmer Gerth who was the golf instructor at Avon Field Golf Club in Cincinnati. He also made golf clubs and several are currently on display in the clubhouse. Gerth expanded Highland's annual invitational tournament that was started in 1924. "The Highlander" is the Midwest's oldest invitational tournament. The 1929 Highlander was won by Johnny Fisher. Fisher won the Kentucky State Amateur in 1930, the NCAA Championship in 1932, and the Big Ten Championship in 1932, 1933 and 1935. Fisher went on to win the US Amateur in 1936 played at the Garden City Golf Club on Long Island, NY. In a 2000 article by the USGA's Golf Journal, Fisher's victory is considered the Number 1 Fabulous Finish. Fisher was down 1 with 3 to play against Scotland's Jack McLean. Fisher birdies the 35th hole for a half, birdies the 36th hole to square the match, and birdies the 37th hole (the first extra hole) to win the championship. The victory was captured in a photo that was enlarged as a mural in the lower level lounge of the clubhouse. Later in life, Fisher played on 3 Walker Cup teams, was captain in 1965 and became a pin setter for the Masters Tournament at Augusta National.
In 1931, club member E.O. Robinson planned to give the Club land on the north side of Blossom Lane for an additional 9 holes. Robinson owned large expanses of land and was in the lumber business. Several holes were laid out and irrigation pipes were installed. The day before the paperwork was to be signed and delivered to the Club, Robinson drove to Louisville on business. Usually his chauffer drove the car, but Robinson drove himself so that the chauffer could help his wife clean-up after a party that was held at his home the night before. On the return trip, Robinson's car left the road and he was killed. It is speculated that Robinson may have suffered a heart attack while driving. Because the paperwork was never signed, his heirs did not recognize the gift of the land to the Club. His estate offered the land to Highland for only $35,000. However at the height of the depression, the Club could not raise the funds. The course would remain 9 holes for another 50 years. Elmer Gerth moved on to be golf professional in Richmond, IN, then Coral Gables, FL. His caddy master, Harry McAtee, succeeded him in 1944.
A fire beginning in the kitchen, swept through the clubhouse building on March 14, 1968. Club manager Howard Schwartz and golf pro Harry McAtee attempted to control the fire with extinguishers. Bookkeeper Marty Hunter escaped the second floor offices by going out a window. A ladies' bowling league was holding a banquet, but luckily, no one was injured. The mural photo of Johnny Fisher's US Amateur championship was destroyed. Three local fire departments fought the flames but were hampered by a lack of hydrants. Damage was estimated at over $250,000. Plans to rebuild were immediately started. The new clubhouse was constructed by Mel Schlueter on the original foundation. Late that year the new building was opened.
Harry McAtee was known throughout Northern Kentucky, especially as an excellent golf instructor. He lived with his wife Ade in a two story white frame home behind number 3 green for over 30 years. Their son Denny grew up in the house and he was also an excellent golfer. Retiring in 1980, the lower level lounge is renamed in his honor. Harry McAtee was inducted into the Northern Kentucky Golfers Hall of Fame. The white frame cottage that served as the golf professional's residence was raised in 1981. McAtee's assistant, Jay Lumpkin, became head professional.
In 1983 the course planned to expand from 9 holes to 18. Land on the north side of Blossom Lane was finally purchased. By 1985 the new nine holes, laid out by Arthur Hills, were complete and a condominium complex was being built off Blossom Lane. A new 25 meter pool with diving well was built in 1985 to replace the smaller pool that was located just behind the clubhouse.
The clay and slate soil of the hills around Highland make the land susceptible to slippage. In an effort to correct several landslides and to improve the course, new tees were constructed for holes 12, 13 and 17 in 2000. Holes 12 and 16 were determined to be too close and number 12 green was moved 100 feet, allowing for a pond between the holes. Golf Course architect Jodi Kinney from Columbus, OH designed the new hole and tee complex. An elevator at the main entrance of the clubhouse was added in 2001. It was designed by Jack Schlueter, the son of the clubhouse architect.
In 2007, 14 acres of land south of number 6 tee were sold for another condominium development. The two old barns, complete with stalls for mules that once pulled grass cutting reels, were torn down. A new maintenance building was built. Construction of new homes off the main driveway began, with the first home completed in 2008. The pro shop was completely rehabbed and enlarged with new porches facing the golf course and the pool. The old 1915 clubhouse had a deck to enjoy outdoor dining. A deck overlooking the course was added to the west side of the new clubhouse in 2011.
Social events, weddings, and golf tournaments have been held at Highland throughout the years. The Club has hosted many memorable events and is still a center for activities in Northern Kentucky.
Kentucky Post, July 18, 1990
Pieces of the Past, Jim Reis
Audio tape on the history of Highland Country Club with Vinton Stegeman, Harry McAtee and Morris Garrett, 1980
Kentucky Post, April 15, 1938
Cincinnati Post & Times Star, March 15, 1968
Cincinnati Post, November 28, 1980
Golf Journal, August 2000
Club Newsletter articles 1997-2000 Dan Demmerle & Dan Schlarman
Kentucky Encyclopedia 2002 Dan Schlarman