Sunday Favorites: The First Golf Course

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SARASOTA — Golf courses today speckle the state, expertly cut out of just about every possible Florida terrain one could imagine, but did you know one of the first courses in the U.S. was located right here in Sarasota?

Built in 1886 on a 110-acre tract bordering Main Street, the nine-hole course was the start of golf in Florida, and the U.S., as we know it.

John Hamilton Gillespie poses under a large palm. Photo: State Archives of Florida
John Hamilton Gillespie poses under a large palm. Photo: State Archives of Florida

Scottish people claim to have invented the game of golf. I say ‘claim’ because the fact is based on a quote by a Royal and Ancient Golf Club spokesman who famously said, “Stick and ball games have been around for many centuries, but golf as we know it today, played over 18 holes, clearly started in Scotland.”

Whatever the case, it was definitely a Scot who first brought the game here. John Hamilton Gillespie, who was elected first mayor of the Town of Sarasota in 1902, is credited with building the first golf course in the U.S., according to the State Archives of Florida.

Back in the late 1800s, when Sarasota was just beginning to take shape, Gillespie had a crazy pipe dream that included the course, a clubhouse and a five-star hotel. Lucky for us, the dream actually came to fruition in 1905.

Gillespie was an aristocrat and the son of a man by the same name except J.G. Senior sported the title “Sir,” an honor conferred by royalty. Both Gillespies were lawyers as well as members of the Royal Company of Archers, an organization that served as bodyguard for the queen.

However, in 1885, John Gillespie Junior was one of several Scottish immigrants who boarded a steamer departing Glasgow, Scotland that was bound for Sarasota. They were promised a trip to a new land filled with, well, promise.

What they found when they arrived was a freezing barren landscape with no crops, no housing and no dock for the boat to pull up to!

So why were these immigrants duped into crossing an ocean for a budding town not quite ready for habitation? According to historian Janet Snyder Matthews, it was all part of broadside settlement enacted to help some wealthy politicians get out of debt after the Civil War.

In 1881, Governor William Bloxham crafted an agreement with former Union officer Hamilton Disston, basically allowing him to drain the Kissimmee River Valley, south of Lake Okeechobee, in order to provide millions of acres of fertile soil for grazing cattle and farmland. Disston of course would get half of the acreage. He ended up paying $1 million for four million acres; talk about a good investment!

Disston sold half his land to Edward J. Reed, an international land developer from England. Towns soon popped up across the state donning English and Scottish names.

Those Scottish immigrant families boarded a steamer bound for a place the clever land developers designated “Ormiston Colony,” a rebranded version of Sarasota, itself a modern version of its former Spanish name Zarazote. The colony was described as a brand new town with profitable citrus groves and vegetable fields that grew during the winter, a luxury Scotland did not provide.

Imagine the surprise when the weary travelers had to wade ashore only to find they needed to build their own shelter out of something called ‘palm fronds’ or stay with a family they didn’t know. When snow began falling the next month, most of the Scots packed their belongings and headed back home. You can read more about their experience here.

But young Gillespie stayed. He smelled potential.

Matthews describes the next few years in her booklet, “Sarasota Over My Shoulder.”

“Some (of the colonists) stayed and worked while the developer’s plans took shape. They described it as ‘the busy place with a ring of axes and the crash of falling pine trees, accompanied by the songs of Negroes and smell of burning brush.’ Homes, stores and a dock went up. Roads were cleared and graded. Avenues were named for fruits exciting to the 1880s European — Mango, Lime, Lemon, Strawberry, Pineapple, Orange, Coconut and Banana.”

Gillespie was considered a construction manager of the undertaking. In 1886, he cleared woods along Main Street and laid out a long fairway. By 1905, he had completed a nine-hole course and clubhouse on the 110-acre tract.

At the time, golf was just emerging in the U.S. Although the Savannah Golf Club can be traced back to 1794, the majority of clubs opened in the late 1800s, with the first official U.S. Amateur Champion taking place in 1895.

Probably inspired by his own disappointing arrival, Gillespie also built the Desoto Hotel, which he placed at the foot of Main Street to serve as accommodations for those visitors and investors arriving by ship.

Gillespie died playing the game he loved, suffering a heart attack on his course in 1923. While Gillespie’s life was cut short, his legacy is still apparent today. Aside from Florida being one of the world’s top golf destinations, his Scottish heritage is still present locally. Up into the 1990s, the Riverview High School band wore kilts and engaged the “Highland Dancers” who regularly performed Scottish ditties during football games.​

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