NEWARK, Ohio – The third hole here at Moundbuilders Country Club is a tricky par four: the green is protected by a six foot hill that almost completely surrounds the hole and requires a skillful chip shot to clarify if your approach shot goes wrong .
“It’s a blind shot,” said Randol Mitchell, the club’s chief golfer, after driving his ball a good portion of the length of the hole. “You have to watch out for these hills.”
The course’s topography is based on the hills prescribed by Native American cosmology, which they created about 2,000 years ago to measure the movement of the sun and moon through the sky.
But now the club, which has leased the land for more than a century, is being asked to move so that the hills can be considered an archaeological treasure that they say it will be difficult for them to do if not representatives of the State increase the stake in the cost of building a new golf course.
The amount of $ 1.7 million proposed by state officials under significant conditions emerges from an initial offer of $ 800,000. But the club wants $ 12 million. The dispute goes to the Ohio Supreme Court on Tuesday.
The historical significance of the site is clear. The US Department of the Interior has already selected the country for nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is part of a larger offering to recognize some similar sites in Ohio known as the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks.
Many of the golfers say they appreciate this meaning as well, even after nicknamed an eight-foot-high hill, the “Big Chief”. The club has a scrapbook that records the history of the earthworks known as Octagon Earthworks up until they were made. The clubhouse has a painting and photographs of the hills. Golfers are only allowed to drive carts over them on paved paths.
However, if you come across a ball perched on top of the ancient earthworks, there is no prohibition on hitting it with a 3 iron.
“Water, forest and sand pose natural challenges on many golf courses,” said David Kratoville, president of the club’s board of trustees. “It’s the hills here.”
There were once hundreds of significant earthworks built by people of the Hopewell culture. This refers to the Native American mound assemblies dating from about 100 BC. Lived in North America until 500 AD. However, their value has only been recognized in recent years, and many have been destroyed.
The hills on the golf course were created with sharp sticks and folding hooks for a basket of earth each and are part of the wider Newark Earthworks. They are widely regarded as an astronomical and geometric marvel.
If you stand on the hill of the observatory of the square every 18.6 years and look up the line of parallel hills towards the octagonal area, something spectacular happens. When the rising moon reaches its northernmost position, it will hover within half a degree of the exact center of the octagon. The alignments are no less sophisticated than the arranged stones in Stonehenge, experts say.
Members of the Hopewell culture likely intended the earthworks, which can only be fully appreciated from above, to show their moon and sun gods that they understood their movements, said Ray Hively, professor emeritus of astronomy and physics at Earlham College in Richmond “Indiana The effort may have been an attempt to connect or communicate with the forces that appeared to control the larger universe,” said Hively, who discovered these alignments with a philosophy professor, Robert Horn, in the 1980s.
In 1892, Licking County and the city of Newark, about 40 miles east of Columbus, allowed the state to use the land as a camp for the Ohio National Guard. After the camp closed it was reclaimed and leased to the club in 1910. A well-known golf architect, Thomas Bendelow, who designed America’s first public 18-hole golf course, Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, laid out a course to match. By 1911, the old moon markings had turned into faulty shooting targets.
“The old moundbuilders unwittingly left the backdrop for a golf course as strange and athletic as never before,” proclaimed an article about the course in the January 1930 issue of Golf Illustrated.
The course itself, with a slope rating of 119, is moderately difficult, although no one would ever mistake it for Jack Nicklaus’ Muirfield Village Golf Club (slope 130) which is 40 miles to the west. Mitchell said the hills are a bigger obstacle than they appear at first glance.
“It’s hard to shoot what you normally shoot here,” he said. “Even if it shouldn’t be that difficult on paper.”
Efforts to fully recognize the importance of the hills as more than uncommon golf hazards go back about two decades when an offer to build a new clubhouse with the foundations dug into the hills was turned down. At that point, a group led by local professors and Native Americans was organizing a protest campaign – and some local residents wondered if the course should even exist.
Then as now, the unwillingness of the club to give way to the worldwide recognition of the website has been criticized.
“We don’t want a country club on the Acropolis,” said John N. Low, a citizen of the Potawatomi Pokagon Band and director of the Newark Earthworks Center, in a recent interview. “We don’t want a country club in the Octagon.”
Club members have long argued that the criticism is unfair, that the delay is caused by an unwillingness to respect, that the club also has some history, and that, in response to the amounts offered to give up its lease, could not continue to exist.
“Everyone would love to portray us as high-fat cats,” Ralph Burpee, the club’s former general manager, told the New York Times in 2005. “Well, this is Newark, Ohio, which pretty much rules out high-fat cats.”
Kratoville described the current approximately 300 members of the club as a “blue collar country club”.
“Our members are people like plumbers,” he said, “and they come out for a day and clean up sand traps and plant flowers.”
The property is now owned by the Ohio History Connection, a statewide nonprofit that has signed a contract with the state to monitor more than 50 historic sites. The nonprofit has leased the property to the club since it was acquired in 1933 and hosts four open days at the club each year that included tours of the hills before the pandemic. The property is also open to the public for golf on Mondays or in bad weather. For the rest of the year, visitors have to view the hills from an elevated platform near the parking lot.
The History Connection aims to turn the site into a public park and submit it for recognition as a World Heritage Site, as a site of “Outstanding Value for Humanity,” along with others such as the Taj Mahal and the Grand Canyon.
“We are committed on behalf of Ohio taxpayers to responsibly protecting and interpreting the historic value of the site,” said Burt Logan, executive director and chief executive of History Connection. “And we hope that we will finally be able to do that soon.”
However, without unrestricted public access to the site, federal officials have stated that nomination as a World Heritage Site would be impossible.
The Moundbuilders lease runs until 2078. And although Kratoville said the club was ready to move, the History Connection and the club were millions of dollars apart. In 2018, the History Connection sued the club in court for the lease of a major domain.
Two lower courts ruled in History Connection’s favor, and it is now up to the Ohio Supreme Court to see if the nonprofit has the right to buy out the remainder of the lease. The History Connection, formerly known as the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, last used a significant domain about a century ago to purchase several acres of earthwork 100 miles south of the Octagon property.
The Country Club argues that the History Connection did not negotiate in “good faith” what is required prior to a takeover under significant conditions, and that the public purpose – an expanded program of research, educational services, and preservation – could be achieved without the lease a great employer.
Zachary J. Murry, an Ohio attorney who specializes in major domain cases, said the court may not be ready to take on the role of deciding which of the competing public ends is better, given that political decisions tend to be the rule be hit by other branches of government.
If the court were to take on that role, one question, he said, would be whether operating as a public park and the prospect of becoming a globally recognized wonder is sufficient rationale to justify the takeover now, if recognition has not yet come is granted.
“This ‘conditional’ need seems problematic,” he said.
If the club moves, Kratoville said he wasn’t sure the Moundbuilders County Club would keep its name. But it certainly wouldn’t try to recreate the hills, he said.
“You can’t do that,” he said. “It would be a different course.”
The only job of the Supreme Court is to rule on the important domain issue. If the History Connection turns out to have the right to take over the lease, the compensation will be handed down in a lower court at a later date – an amount Murry said would ultimately likely be somewhere between the two ratings.
Glenna Wallace, the first chief of Oklahoma’s Eastern Shawnee Tribe to consider the mound builders her ancestors, said the dispute was beyond monetary value. World heritage recognition for the earthworks – and full public access – would play a vital role in transforming the way visitors think about Indians, she said.
“The sophistication it takes to create this shows that my ancestors weren’t savages,” she said. “This must be open to people every single day of the week and every single day of the year.”