Monday, January 27, 2014

Cheshire Country Club

One of the fun aspects of historical research is the way new discoveries emerge from seemingly unrelated topics. You start out looking for one thing, and wind up finding something else entirely.

While looking for biographical information about James E. Kefford, the general manager of Waterbury's Negro Business League during the 1910s and '20s, I stumbled onto a reference to the Cheshire Country Club, established in 1917 as an African American country club.

After doing a little research, I realized that the Cheshire Country Club might very well have been the first country club to have been owned and operated by and for African Americans. This statement is likely to cause some controversy. The Shady Rest Country Club in Scotch Plains, N.J. is widely considered to have been the first such club, but it didn't open until 1921. The Cheshire Country Club had two hundred members as of October 1917, placing it decidedly ahead of Shady Rest (sorry, New Jersey).

You might be wondering what this has to do with Waterbury, since the club was in Cheshire. As it turns out, the Cheshire Country Club was a Waterbury venture, owned and operated by members of Waterbury's African American community.

The idea for the club originated with Johnson L. Haile, formerly a head waiter at the Scoville House Hotel in Waterbury and, at the time, steward for Harriet B. Thorpe, who lived on Hillside Avenue in Waterbury. According to account in the Hartford Times, later reprinted on the front page of The New York Age (11 October 1917), Haile frequently passed by the Cheshire property (which was on the New Haven-Waterbury trolley line, now Route 70, near Mountain Road) and considered purchasing it as a home for himself and his wife. Instead, he decided to buy the property and turn it into a country club for African Americans. He purchased the property, which included 22 acres and a house, from Minnie S. Stanwood of Hartford in January 1917. After making some alterations, the Cheshire Country Club opened in July 1917. Tennis courts and a five-hole golf course were added that year.

I don't know why Haile, who lived in Waterbury, chose Cheshire for the country club, other than the nice newspaper story about seeing it frequently. Cheshire was a dry town in 1917, preventing the Club from serving alcohol until they obtained a special license. There was plenty of land in Waterbury, but as a black man in 1917, Haile might have had a difficult time finding a white property owner willing to sell to him.

The Club was owned and operated by Johnson Haile, with a Board of Governors who oversaw memberships and finances. Founding Waterbury members of the Board were Johnson L. Haile, J. Edward Jones, James E. Kefford, Dr. P. F. Anderson, Dr. B. B. Costa, Henry A. Hatcher, Col. Fabian McKinney, and W. A. Bradley. Other founding Board members lived in Ansonia, Meriden, New Haven, Bridgeport, and Hartford.

Since the Cheshire Country Club was quite possibly the only African American country club in the country, it immediately attracted members from as far away as Washington, D.C. and Knoxville, TN. Other members lived in New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. An inaugural clambake was held on Labor Day, 1917 and was attended by more than 300 people.

I have not found any images of the Club, but here's a description from The New York Age (11 October 1917):

It is located on a slight terrace which extends back from the road about 150 feet to the house. The lawn in front presents a fine appearance. The clubhouse is well arranged for the use to which it has been put. A wide veranda extends across the front and the length of one side. The main entrance opens into a large parlor or ballroom which can be used for dancing, card parties or other functions. There is a billiard room and other small rooms.

The Cheshire Country Club was used for social gatherings both large and small, from clambakes to dances. One of the first events (at least, one of the first to mentioned in the social pages of a newspaper) was a dance held in August of 1917 (The New York Age, 23 August 1917). On February 16, 1918, sixteen couples gathering for dinner, dancing, and singing (The New York Age, 2 March 1918). The party was hosted by Waterbury's Arnold Munn and L.S. Munn in honor of Lillian Taylor.

On September 26, 1919, the club hosted a "dinner and smoker" at which sixty-five of Connecticut's leading African American men honored Charles W. Anderson, former Collector of Internal Revenue, who had delivered a speech about Theodore Roosevelt earlier in the day at Waterbury's Republican Club (as described in The New York Age, 4 October 1919). Anderson dined with Waterbury's James E. Kefford, and Dr. & Mrs. P. F. Anderson; after the meeting, Anderson returned to Waterbury to visit with the Cheshire Country Club's found, Johnson L. Haile and his wife. The committee that organized the event at the club included Johnson L. Haile, James E. Kefford, J. E. Jones, J. E. Hatcher, Emmet Evans, Dr. P. F. Anderson, Otis Tisdel, Col. Fabian McKinney, and Dr. R. B. Costax.

The Cheshire Country Club, as one of the only African American country clubs in the nation, attracted groups from far and wide. During the Club's first summer, the Sonora Wohelo Camp Fire Girls from New Haven spent a week camping at the Club; meetings were held at the Club by the Grand Lodge of the Household of Ruth and the St. Elmo Club of New Haven; a Bridgeport club came up for an evening of whist and dance; a group of high school students from New Haven held a dance; and the Nemberolic Club of New Haven held a clambake in a grove of trees at the Country Club (The New York Age, 11 October 1917). Later, in 1921, Bridgeport's Phyllis Wheatley branch of the YMCA rented the club for an all-day picnic (The Bridgeport Telegram, 8 August 1921).

In August of 1931, the Cheshire Country Club held a dinner in honor of Judge James S. Watson of the New York Municipal Court (as reported in The New York Amsterdam News, 5 August 1931). Judge Watson was one of the first African Americans to be elected a judge in New York. During the 1920s, working as an attorney, Watson represented Marcus Garvey. His wife, Violet Lopez Watson, was one of the founders of the National Council of Negro Women. The dinner at the Cheshire Country Club featured local speakers as well, including William Pape of the Waterbury Daily American and Republican, John F. McGraw, senior judge of the Waterbury Municipal Court, and Waterbury probate judge D. J. Slavin. Following the dinner, Judge and Mrs. Watson traveled to Waterbury with Albon L. Hosley, executive secretary of the National Negro Business League.

Although dinners featuring well-known luminaries brought the most press for the Cheshire Country Club, golf and tennis were an important aspect of the club and its 22 aces. Members competed against a team from New Jersey's Shady Rest for the Cockburn Trophy in 1929 (The Afro American, 8 June 1929).

In 1933, the Mechanical Department of Naugatuck's U.S. Rubber Company Footware Plant rented the Cheshire Country Club for a golf outing (reported in the Naugatuck Daily News).

I have not found any information about the closure of the Cheshire Country Club, but it appears to have happened during the 1940s or '50s. New Jersey's Shady Rest, while no longer able to claim to be the first African American country club, can at least claim to be the longest operating.

Short Biographies Related to the Cheshire Country Club

(If you have more information, please share!)

Johnson Leroy Haile (1865-1923) was born in Florida. He came to Waterbury in 1890 to work as a waiter at the Scovill House Hotel. Haile quickly rose to the position of head waiter, and was highly esteemed by staff and patrons. He was, according to newspaper accounts, tall and handsome, and was known for dating numerous women, black and white. One of his girlfriends, Izetta Alexander, did not appreciate his philandering. She threw acid in Haile's face in 1900 to punish him for breaking her heart. The Bridgeport Herald ran the story with the headline "His Handsome Face is Spoiled" (30 December 1900). Haile refused to press charges. His luck worsened in 1902, when the Scoville House Hotel burned down and he lost his job. Undaunted, Haile found a new job and found a wife for himself. Haile married a woman from Tennessee named Nannie; their daughter Sibyl was born in 1904 and later attended Knoxville College. Johnson Haile purchased the property for the Cheshire Country Club in 1917 and oversaw its operations for at least two decades.

Henry A. Hatcher (1870-1922), originally from Virginia, married Nettie Dubois of New Haven in 1893. Dubois was a cousin of W.E.B. Du Bois, although they most likely did not know each other very well (see Gwendolyn J. Hatcher's book, Souls, for more details). The Hatchers were married at St. John's Episcopal Church on the Green, near their home on Bishop Street (they later lived on Bronson Street). Henry Hatcher appears to have arrived in Waterbury during the 1890s; his first job was as a waiter at the Scovill House Hotel, where he would have worked with Johnson Haile. In 1900, Hatcher was working as a janitor; by 1920, he owned his own cleaning business. Hatcher was an active member of the Waterbury and National Negro Business Leagues, as well as a founding member of the Cheshire Country Club.

James E. Kefford (c. 1871-1940), born in Virginia, was the secretary and general manager of the Negro Business League (NBL) of Waterbury. His office at 95 Bank Street was used as the main office for the NBL. Kefford was also the recording secretary for the National Colored Republican Conference League. Kefford was president of the J. E. Kefford Advertising and Distributing Agency, and he worked as a real estate, loans, and insurance agent. During the early 1930s, Kefford became president of the Cheshire Country Club, of which he was a founding member.

Kefford's wife, Mary E. Kefford (1860-1932), originally from Virginia, was a successful businesswoman. In 1917, she owned the only African American hair salon in Waterbury, employing five people (The New York Age, 23 August 1917). The Keffords lived on Pearl Street.

Fabian McKinney (1873-1961) was a Waterbury real estate agent and founding member of the Cheshire Country Club. He served during World War I, eventually being promoted to Colonel. After the war, McKinney, along with Edward F. Johnson and George Wilson, established the G.K.P. Association, an exclusive men's club for Waterbury's leading African Americans (Hartford Courant, 10 December 1919).  McKinney and his wife, Ella, lived on Easton Avenue during the 1910s and '20s. Both came to Waterbury from Virginia. The 1920 census listed them as sharing their home with two nieces, Alice McKinney and Hattie Lacey, and an adopted daughter, Ruth Newlin.

McKinney made frequent business trips to New York City. During one such trip, traveling with George Washington, a barber who worked on Brook Street in Waterbury, McKinney and Washington were mugged by a gang of thugs. McKinney refused to hand over his money, and the pair managed to escape unscathed (Hartford Courant, 10 December 1919). Their misadventure became part of the public record in 1912, when a corrupt NYC police officer, Charles Becker, was on trial for the murder of Herman Rosenthal. George Washington was called to the stand to testify that he and McKinney had been accosted by a "strong arm squad" working directly for Becker.


Bonnie said...

That is fascinating!

Tammy Bloomfield said...

Good to know where to come to read about Waterbury!

Anonymous said...

Amazing! I was born (1964) and raised in waterbury and I never knew this information Thanks