CHEBEAGUE ISLAND — Landing on the island from the ferry puts visitors in the middle of a 1920s era golf course. In fact, there is a lot of history at the landing. The stone wharf was built in the 19th century, there are houses dating to the 18th century, and the bright yellow, three-story Chebeague Island Inn that looks down from the hill across the golf course also dates to the 1920s.
It’s not a theme park of replicas. Everything is original, almost exactly as it was nearly 100 years ago.
And that golf course clubhouse is considered among the oldest in the nation.
The Great Chebeague Golf Course recently was declared eligible for the National Register of Historic Places by the Maine Historic Preservation Commission.
Just off the wharf is the tee for the course’s signature seventh hole, looking across 140 yards of Casco Bay to an elevated, steeply-sloping green. By 1930, this hole already had been called “undoubtedly the finest water hole on the Atlantic Coast” by a visiting golf course designer. All the holes look or play over the ocean, unlike any other golf course in Maine.
But the scenic golf course, six holes at first then nine, was not a “designer” course like most Maine golf courses, but a “people’s course.” It was created by two men out picking blueberries who said, Why not build a golf course here on Casco Bay’s largest island?
In less than two months they had founded a golf club, leased and bought farmland around the stone wharf, plowed fields and played their first game, hitting over ravines and streams and eight cows in a pasture. The farmer asked only that they didn’t hit the cows with golf balls.
Tees were stakes in the ground; the greens were also stakes. No cows were hit.
Chebeague, one of only three golf courses on Maine’s off-shore islands, was once an island resort of Passamaquoddy and Penobscot Indians, Chebeague’s first summer vacationers. They were still pitching tents in fields near the stone wharf when the club was founded. Golfers played around Native American tents on the fairways until the mid 1930s when the club leased them land on the edge of the golf course for $1 a year because it was afraid Indian children would be hit by golf balls. There, Passamaquoddy families pitched tents and sold beautiful, sweet-grass baskets to passersby until the mid 1950s. The other off-shore Maine island golf courses are the private 1895 Tarratine Club on Islesboro and the 1932 North Haven club.
Only four of Maine’s more than 100 golf courses, all from the early hey-days of American golf, are on the National Register (Megunticook in Rockport, Cape Arundel in Kennebunkport, both private clubs, and York Country Club and Poland Springs, open to the public).
The register is the prestigious list of what states and the federal government consider the nation’s most historic and beautiful places, America’s historic treasures. Maine has 1,632 “listings” among the more than 85,000 listings on the National Register.
Maine was one of the leaders in golf course construction in the nation in the late 1800s and early 1900s, despite a short, somewhat Nordic summer golfing season. People came from as far away as Virginia to play, mostly by train and boat and then by car. Scenic new golf courses, like the Great Chebeague Golf Course, became Maine’s and America’s early parks, bucolic settings where you could walk, admire the scenery and play, for a small fee, as long as you had little balls and sticks with you.
Paul Hodge is a retired editor and reporter at The Washington Post whose family has had a house on Chebeague for about 50 years. He lives on a small farm in Middleburg, Va., with his wife, artist Avis Fleming Hodge, two Border Terriers and one aging Connemara pony.