Explore Historic Maine Golf Courses
The following is an edited excerpt from Designing the Maine Landscape, by Theresa Mattor and Lucie Teegarden, published by Down East:
Golf may seem an unusual subject in a book about historic landscapes. Unlike parks, for example, golf courses are extremely specialized and regulated for conditioning and public safety. But they require as much planning and manipulation of the land as any of the parks, cemeteries, and private estates featured in Designing the Maine Landscape. By hand or with horsepower, at these historic courses, landscape crews moved massive amounts of soil and boulders, filled large areas of wetland (in the pre-regulatory era), and cleared numerous acres of trees and stumps. They converted stony pastures into smooth, grassy tracts on which to play the new game of golf. And just as ocean views, cool mountain air, and accessibility prompted development of other landscapes, they also ensured that golf as a sport would come to Maine early in its history in the United States.
Poland Spring and Kebo Valley, both public courses, and Megunticook, a private golf club, were some of the earliest courses in Maine, indeed in the country, and were planned by nationally known golf course designers and landscape architects. They represent a significant era in Maine’s history, when out-of-state families spent entire summers at resorts on Mount Desert Island, in midcoast Maine, and in the forested interior.
Golf arrived in the United States in 1888, when the country’s first permanent golf club was formed at St. Andrews in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. Maine was in the forefront in the development of golf in this country, with the opening of Kebo Valley in 1892, Poland Spring in 1896, and Megunticook in 1902. Each was sited to take advantage of stunning views of the surrounding landscape, from the mountains of Acadia National Park, to New Hampshire’s White Mountains, to Penobscot Bay.
Poland Spring Resort and Golf Course
“...on no course can it be said that the wonders of golf are worked in purer air, more inspiring
vision, or under pleasanter influences than on the hillside links at this resort.”
— The Hill-Top Magazine, July 15, 1916
The Poland Spring golf course, in the town of Poland, was the first course built at a resort in the United States. The original six-hole course was designed in 1896 by Arthur Fenn, who is considered the country’s first native-born professional golfer. Today, the site is an eighteen-hole public course located in the rolling foothills of western Maine. Situated near the top of Ricker Hill, 200 feet above Middle Pond and Lower Range Pond, the course offers commanding views of the White Mountains to the west.
In Poland Spring—A Tale of the Gilded Age, 1860–1900, historian David Richards provides an extensive history of the resort. The Ricker family began selling its spring waters in 1845 and operated the Mansion House, a popular inn for guests seeking the curative qualities of the spring water. Business was so successful that in 1876 the new Poland Spring House opened with 120 guestrooms. This inn was enlarged and remodeled over the next few decades, including by architects John Calvin Stevens and Albert Winslow Cobb in 1889. The final remodeling was in 1903 by architect Harry G. Wilkinson, who provided the designs for the inn’s signature features, the elaborate corner and entrance towers. At this time the Poland Spring House, complete with its extensive piazzas, dining rooms, fine Victorian furnishings, and six-story tower capped by a French mansard roof, held 400 rooms.
Over the decades the resort expanded to include the Music Hall (1884), Casino (1887), Photo Studio (1894), the Maine State Building from the Columbian Exposition (1895), a state-of-the-art spring house and bottling facility (1904), and the All Souls Chapel (1912), among other improvements. In line with popular trends, guests enjoyed all types of outdoor recreation: fishing, boating, bicycling, carriage driving, horseback riding, baseball, tennis, croquet, and golf. According to Richards, Poland Spring Resort offered “relief from the modern morass…. Remote from rails and highways and cut off from newspapers, letters, and telegrams, guests could drink pure water, breathe clean air, eat fine food, converse with congenial companions, walk along shaded avenues, exercise with the golf club… and be as happy as it was possible to be. Venturing into the ‘wilds of Maine’ …would make a visitor feel as if a tremendous weight had been removed.”
Following golf’s increased popularity in the 1890s, the Rickers invited Arthur Fenn, one of the country’s leading golfers, to lay out the course at Poland Spring. Fenn spent summers at Poland Spring for thirty years as the resident golf professional and course supervisor. He also flourished as a self-taught golf course designer at a time when Scotsmen dominated the field in this country.
Richards describes Fenn’s design intentions for the course as a combination of scientific outlook, careful study, and emphasis on variety. To achieve the latter, he varied the length of fairways within a range of 125 to 550 yards, gave thoughtful consideration to placement of hazards and bunkers, and observed his guiding rules that “a good stroke should never be punished” and the course should be “neither too hard nor too easy.”
[Fenn’s] annual tinkering with his masterpiece lengthened the course from 2,465 yards with a par of thirty-eight in 1897 to 2,875 yards with a par of forty-one in 1900. All the while, work continued to improve the greens and bunkers. Three years of laying new sod and dumping tons of wood ash, along with careful nursing by human hands, constant tending with horse-drawn lawnmowers, and sporadic unleashing of the groundskeeper’s secret weapon, sheep, finally produced the perfect course—one virtually free of poor lies. Everyone who played the course agreed that no other resort could rival, let alone surpass, the “best hotel links in the country.”
Fenn’s work won acclaim from a popular magazine, Outings Monthly Review of Amateur Sports and Pastimes. “When they first opened two years ago they received little attention, but gradually they claimed favor, till last season they fairly won and held first place. They are a nine-hole links and require delicacy of play rather than strength.”
In the early 1900s Poland Spring enjoyed a reputation as one of the largest resorts in the world. Results of its golf tournaments were published regularly in the New York Times, and The American Golfer regularly included the course in its pages. Tourism declined at Poland Spring Resort, and the Depression ended any significant business. Nevertheless, the golf course continued to thrive, as shown in this 1934 description: “It would be difficult to find a more thoroughly enjoyable and attractive setting than one finds at Poland Spring…. Today its course is a real delight to those who demand the best there is in the way of turf conditions, both on the putting greens and through the fairways.”
A few years later, the Ricker family sold the resort to out-of-state investors who sold it again in the 1960s. Out of the hands of the Rickers, the resort continued to decline. Disastrous fires struck
in the 1970s and destroyed the historic Poland Spring House and the Mansion House. The surviving Maine State Building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, and All Souls Chapel was listed in 1977. The Poland Spring Preservation Society was formed in 1975 to oversee the preservation and restoration of these two historic buildings.
Today, the Poland Spring Resort continues to thrive as a popular seasonal destination, with three inns, eleven cottages, and 800 acres accessible by numerous trails. Within walking distance is Preservation Park, home of the Poland Spring Museum and Spring House. These historic buildings underwent a three-year restoration by their owner, Nestlé Waters North America, and are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. They are open to the public, as are the Maine State House and All Souls Chapel. But the greatest attraction at Poland Spring remains the historic golf course, with its spectacular views of the White Mountains, velvet greens, and beautiful fairways, ponds, and tees.
Kebo Valley Golf Club: The Social Center of Bar Harbor
“Bar Harbor is balancing on the verge of its annual plunge into a Summer’s gayeties.…[The] streets are filled with faces, some strange, some familiar; excursion parties arrive semi-weekly, and tourists daily, and the Kebo Valley links are filled with golfers. Everywhere are evident the signs of a season approaching which promises to be freighted with unusual success in a social way.” — New York Times, July 8, 1900
Kebo Valley Golf Club is an eighteen-hole classic link and parkland course located just one and one-half miles south of Bar Harbor. Nestled between Cadillac and Dorr mountains, the public club shares a border with Acadia National Park. For well over one hundred years, Kebo has served as a major social center for golfers and vacationers in Bar Harbor.
The Kebo Valley Club was incorporated in 1888 under the Acadia Park Company to promote “the cultivation of athletic sports and furnishing innocent amusement for the public for reasonable
compensation.” Landscape engineer Joseph H. Curtis (pp. 66–77) prepared a well-laid out plan of thirty house lots, four tennis courts, a casino, theater, “Base Ball Ground, Concourse,” and a half-mile horse-racing track. The house lots were never developed, but the other recreational facilities, especially the race track, became a major attraction at Kebo. It is not surprising that Curtis’s plan did not include a golf course, since the first permanent course in America was built that same year.
The Kebo club hired Philadelphia architect Wilson Eyre to design the gatehouse and a separate clubhouse, which opened in 1889. The Shingle-style clubhouse was massive at 230 feet by 50 feet and was one of the largest structures built in Bar Harbor up to that time. It included a theater (that doubled as a ballroom) that could accommodate 500 to 600 people, as well as reading and dining rooms. Despite its large size the clubhouse had a “homelike scale,” with fireplaces, cozy nooks, exposed ceiling beams, and warm paint colors.
As was true at Poland Spring, it did not take long for golf to arrive at Kebo after it gained popularity in the United States. The first six holes were designed in 1892 by Herbert Corey Leeds, a talented all-around sportsman, golfer, and course designer, who went on to design Myopia Hunt Club in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. In 1915 Kebo board members voted to enlarge the course to eighteen holes, but their efforts were sidetracked by World War I. The enlarged course was finally built in the early 1920s.
Kebo Valley’s stately clubhouse burned to the ground on opening day of the 1899 season; the
cause was never determined. Golfers were undeterred, however; just one week later, the New York Times reported the results of the first weekly tournament at Kebo Valley. The club immediately made plans for a second, less elaborate clubhouse.
Even with the smaller clubhouse, Kebo maintained its position as the center of Bar Harbor’s social life, as described in 1901: “The season was formally opened here to-night with a dinner and ball at the Kebo Valley Club. There had been no previous entertaining whatever, for the custom is always to wait for the word from Kebo as to when the Summer frivolity shall begin.”
Frivolity was temporarily halted in 1947 when the second clubhouse was destroyed, this time by the fires that claimed over 17,000 acres on Mount Desert Island. Local architect Ambrose Higgins designed the new clubhouse, and architect and club member Robert VanSummern redesigned it for the club’s centennial in 1988. Prior to the 1947 fire, membership was limited to summer residents only; tourists were not welcomed and local residents could play for a modest fee only after 4:00 p.m.
Ironically, this was considered by the Greens Committee of 1903 as the best time of day to play, when “…the later afternoon light with its falling shadows, makes the scenery more beautiful than it is at any other time of day.” Following the fire, when very few summer estates were rebuilt and membership plummeted, local residents were encouraged to join, and day-players were welcomed, as is still true today.
The Kebo Valley Golf Club consistently ranks among the country’s best public courses for its challenging game and stunningly beautiful landscape. Gently rolling hills contrast with the rugged natural scenery of Mount Desert Island, and before the leaves emerge in spring, Frenchman’s Bay is visible from the clubhouse. The granite-exposed mountains of Cadillac, Champlain, Dorr, and Kebo provide a splendid backdrop to another of Maine’s enduring landscapes.
Megunticook Golf Club: Rustic Beauty on Penobscot Bay
“The location of the links is one of great natural beauty, with views of the ocean or mountains from every part of it…. On the wide covered verandas at all times of the day may be found members and their guests, who, while not entering actively into golf or tennis, use the club house as a general meeting place, greatly promoting that informal social life and intercourse which the club aims to foster.” — Scenic Gems of Maine, 1898
Megunticook Golf Club is a nine-hole course on sixty-six acres in Rockport, nestled against the shore of Penobscot Bay. The club is among the oldest surviving private golf clubs in Maine, first organized in 1899, incorporated in 1901, and opened in 1902, and its clubhouse is the oldest golf club building in Maine. Today, about 80,000 properties are listed in the National Register of Historic Places; Megunticook is a rarity as one of only twenty-four golf courses or golf club houses included in this listing. Megunticook is also unusual for its conservation easement with Maine Coast Heritage Trust. The easement prevents this valuable open space from ever being developed for residential or commercial use.
Unlike Poland Spring and Kebo Valley, Megunticook Golf Club was started specifically for golf. The game was introduced in Camden in 1898 by summer visitors who laid out a six-hole course on nearby Ogier’s Hill, where “[the] situation is one of great natural beauty and wide and various views of mountain and sea to be had from Ogier’s hill cannot fail to charm the visitor.”