Tuesday, July 12, 2011

TOP STORY >> Sherwood course has rich history

Leader staff writer

The “tour” of the historic Sylvan Hills Country Club golf course, now known as The Greens at North Hills, was an indoor presentation at the clubhouse because a tournament was being played Friday afternoon.

Rachel Silva of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program began her talk by welcoming everyone to another stop on the program’s “Sandwiching in History” tour.

In 2010, the golf course was listed on the National Register of Historic Places for being part of the development of recreation in the Sylvan Hills community and the city of Sherwood. The course contains roughly the same land area and basic layout today as it did when it opened 84 years ago.

During the presentation, one attendee, Ann Beck, asked if Silva had a picture of the little house her grandfather, Bert Mead, used to live in. The house was located near the entrance to the course. Mead was the golf pro, Beck said. He used to do much of the caretaking and sell things out of the pro shop.

After the presentation, Silva found a picture of the house Beck’s grandparents lived in, and Beck was astonished.

“Oh my gosh, it gives me chills,” she told Silva. “This just means the world to me.”

Silva spoke about visionary Justin Matthews Sr., who built the course in 1927 as a draw for homebuyers to purchase houses in his 1920s residential developments, Park Hill and Sylvan Hills. “Golf communities” didn’t become popular until the 1970s.

Matthews made the fortune that allowed him to invest in real estate from Rose City Cotton Oil, which he owned. As a businessman and a member of the state’s first highway commission, he also had a hand in improvement districts in North Little Rock, the paving of the Arkansas-Missouri Highway (Sylvan Hills Highway, Hwy. 5 in the 1940s, Hwy. 107 and JFK Boulevard), Lakewood subdivision and the Old Mill.

After giving a brief overview of the Sylvan Hills community that would become Sherwood, Silva continued, highlighting all that the country club has been used for.

Matthews gave ownership of the course to the Sylvan Hills Improvement Corp., which sold it during the Great Depression to executives who began operating it as a nightclub.

The clubhouse was destroyed by fire in 1935. Milk cows grazed on the course in the mid-1930s and it was used as a quail and bird hunting operation from 1941-45.

Then a group of original club members returned as war veterans, purchased the land, built a new clubhouse in 1946 and restored it. To generate financial support, slot machines were placed in the clubhouse.

The audience laughed when Silva related that individuals buried those slot machines when they were tipped off that the club would be raided after Gov. Sid McMath took action against illegal gambling in the state.

The machines were found and confiscated anyway although a few were kept in the clubhouse’s basement until the second fire in 1961.

Firefighters broke the machines, newspapers reported their existence and the gambling was stopped.

On a side note, Silva mentioned the Miss Sherwood Contest held to raise money for the city of Sherwood’s first budget. The women who competed collected one penny per vote. Together they earned $525.

In 1956, the name of the club was changed to North Hills Country Club. The second clubhouse burned down in 1961, when owned by Metropolitan Trust Company. The current clubhouse was completed in 1963.

In the late 1970s, Robert Trent Jones Sr. redesigned the golf course to better handle the increased golfing activity it had received. It is the only Robert Trent Jones Sr.-designed course in the state.

The north nine holes were changed the most because they had played against the contour of the land. Although the holes were changed, they are located in about the same place now.

The success of the golf course was up and down from the 1980s into the 2000s. It closed in May 2007, but when an offer was made to develop it as a residential neighborhood, Sherwood residents fought for its preservation. The city bought the property in July 2008 and opened it as a public course, The Greens at North Hills. The clubhouse is available for special events and meetings.

Mayor Virginia Hillman, who was in attendance, said, “It’s an attractive golf location. I hear a lot of positive comments about it. It was an interesting presentation. I learned a lot.”