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In its 80 years of existence the American country club has undergone many changes. Originally a preserve of the elite, it has now spread to the point where there are 3,300 country clubs of all kinds. In the main, the clubs fall into six categories: top-status, middle-class, minority, rural, proprietary and industrial. The top-status club, as we saw last week, has managed to retain much of its remoteness; hence, it is the middle-class club that most Americans know best. The Bellingham Golf and Country Club in Bellingham, Wash. is as typical as any in its development.
The Club, as it is always referred to locally, began in 1912 with a nine-hole course on leased land. The backers were the Very Best Families in town and the surrounding countryside—the Larrabees, the Demings, Woods, Bloedels, Welches, Campbells, Donovans and Goulds; in short, the fish-cannery rich, the lumber-mill rich, the big landowners whose roots reached back to before the turn of the century.
In the '20s the club bought the land and added a second nine holes. Members kept their Canadian whisky, always available through the town's top bootlegger, in their lockers for the entertainment of friends. During the Depression the club operated only occasionally as it struggled under a $20,000 debt incurred in buying the property. Club life was even more bleak during World War II. Food and equipment shortages kept the clubhouse closed, and greenkeepers were either in the armed services or in defense work. On weekends members mowed the course to keep it playable.
The early postwar years brought a change in the membership, finances, and club status. The Very Best Families lost interest: they had discovered a new way to entertain when Charlie, last of the Larrabees, subdivided the family estate into choice building lots. The Very Best Families promptly moved there, exchanging the club for the elegant new home, hi-fi, the powerboat (or, better still, the private plane) and a summer place in the San Juan Islands. Although they retained their memberships in the club, they were seldom present. In their place stepped a whole new middle class, and even lower middle class, who joined to drink at the bar—the state legislature had legalized liquor—or pump quarters into a newly installed battery of slot machines.
By the early '50s the club ran into difficulty. The slot machines, which had compensated for the loss of the big spenders, were outlawed. The members reorganized, selling social memberships for as little as $25 a year and raising the dues. They set out to attract the family crowd, and they did. In the last few years women have had increasing influence on club activities. For example, the men's stags have dwindled. (The club monthly, Divots and Ice, blamed "warmer weather, the longer days and the opening of the swimming pool" for the downfall of the stags, but the fact is the wives didn't like them.) The women have taken over with crazy-hat luncheons, fashion shows, card parties and golf contests in which the players are required to dress in the professional costumes of their husbands. (One winner was Sue Abrahamsen, wife of a deep-sea diver, who played 18 holes in the full gear, including helmet.) There are teen-age dances, tiny tot golf tournaments and a big come-one-come-all outdoor salmon barbecue.
The switch to the family doesn't appeal to everyone—some middle-aged golfers still gripe about the change in the 15th hole caused by the swimming pool—but since the club now breaks even it isn't likely to be changed. Although the club does not discriminate—Bellingham's small Jewish colony belongs—it still has its cliques: the members of the Very Best Families, rarely seen, treated like royalty, ignoring everyone but their own kind; the grumpy golfers; the pulp mill crowd, who come as close as anyone to dominating the club; the professional men and the strivers. A great point is made of trying to represent all groups on the governing boards.
Membership in the club is not as exclusive as it once was, though a great swath of the membership would like to think it is. The club is the center of the lives of many people, who are, all considered, comfortable in its atmosphere, pleased with the ice-cream bar for the kids and content that the menu has not one word of French. They move around as easily as they would in their own backyards.
The third type of American club is the minority club. Usually this means a Jewish country club, but in an older section of the country like New England it may also mean an Irish club or possibly a French-Canadian and Italian club. Springfield, Mass. offers a good cross-section of such ethnic stratification. At the top is the Longmeadow Country Club, whose approximately 400 members are upper-class Protestants, except for a very few Catholics. The Springfield Country Club has about 300 members, more than half of whom are Catholic, mostly Irish. (There are also a few French Canadians and Poles.) It has an Elks Club atmosphere where any member who wants action can find card-playing as well as golfing companions. The Crestview Country Club, the newest and most lavish, has 300 members, all of them Jewish. The Ludlow Country Club is predominantly French Canadian, Italian and Polish, and it is, says an observer, "about as exclusive as a neighborhood bar, drawing heavily from the non-prestige classes who want to get away from crowded municipal links."
In larger cities one sometimes finds two or more Jewish clubs, the top one composed principally of German Jews who tend to find eastern European Jews unacceptable. To many Jews, German or Russian, the restricted country club represents perhaps the sorest symbol of social discrimination. A Jewish community leader in Elmira, N.Y. told Sociologist John P. Dean of Cornell: "They'll call on me to lead their Community Chest campaign or help on the Red Cross. But when it comes to the country club, I'm not good enough for them."
In January, the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith issued the first report ever made on nationwide religious discrimination by social clubs. Of 803 country clubs surveyed, 224 were nondiscriminatory. Of the remaining 579, 505 were "Christian country clubs," 416 of which barred Jews completely. The other 89 had a quota. Seventy-four of the 579 discriminating clubs were Jewish. Seventy-one of these barred Christians completely, and the remaining three accepted them "in small numbers."