Members Only

While the history of the clubs in this town is important, it’s the significant members of those clubs that are interwoven in the fabric of the city.

by Jennifer Casseday-Blair and Paul K. Harral

(complete slideshow at bottom)

Back in the 19th century, we were a nation of joiners. A man was largely defined by what fraternal organizations he belonged to,” says local historian Rick Selcer. “Every organization of any importance was just another glorified boys club sans the tree house.”

Aside from the countless perks offered by many of the clubs in Fort Worth, such as pristine golf courses, resort-style swimming pools, tournament-quality tennis courts, state-of-the-art workout facilities and gourmet meals, the benefits really come down to the camaraderie and personal relationships formed after joining.

That need for camaraderie is no new notion. Since the establishment of the city’s first club in 1906, Fort Worth clubs have churned out many of the most interesting and vital characters in local society.

The Fort Worth Club
founded in 1906
The Fort Worth Club is the oldest and arguably the most important, although a statement like that tends to provoke heated discussion among members of other clubs. It traces its history to June 10, 1885, when the Commercial Club of Fort Worth was chartered by the state of Texas. It became The Fort Worth Club in 1906.

No story about clubs in Fort Worth would be complete without recognition of the power wielded by men who were members of The Fort Worth Club. More properly the Citizens’ Committee and then the Good Government League, it will always be remembered as the Seventh Street Gang. It’s often associated with Amon G. Carter, but in truth, it rose to power only after his death.

There are two kinds of power — the power to make things happen and the power to stop things from happening — and the Seventh Street Gang possessed both. In those days, the Seventh Street area was a bastion of local and nationally prominent businessmen, and The Fort Worth Club was their hangout. Open meeting laws and a switch to single member districts for City Council members loosened the group’s grip on Fort Worth politics. 

Don Woodard, a local insurance man who got his start as a landman in the oil and gas business and spent many years with the Texas & Pacific Coal & Oil Co., was a close observer of those days. “These were all good citizens interested in the future of Fort Worth,” Woodard said. “And that’s what they were, every damn one of them. They were city builders. They were for Fort Worth.”

River Crest Country Club
founded in 1911
River Crest Country Club opened in 1911 with a barbecue for 500 guests, a golf tournament and a sale of the surrounding home sites. River Crest was the first country club in Texas to include a residential housing development on its acreage. Amon G. Carter was chairman of the opening tournament, and by the end of that first year, the club had 221 members.

The polo field at the club doubled as a runway for the area’s first charter airline and flew wildcatters to the oil fields. However, the families that formed the nucleus of River Crest made their money in cotton, cattle and the conveyances that transported their goods to market. Many of the club’s charter members were self-made men.

As a who’s who of Fort Worth, River Crest had such members as Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Don Looney. Other notable members were pianist Van Cliburn, movie star Fran Bennett, Heisman Trophy winner Davey O’Brien, and Major League ball player and manager Bobby Bragan.

As a child, golf legend Marvin Leonard’s daughter, Marty, played River Crest mainly because she grew up nearby. “I learned to hit the ball pretty straight because if you don’t, you’re out of bounds all the time,” she says.

River Crest members founded the Women’s Texas Golf Association in 1916. The club’s history also notes that “Olympic superstar Babe Didrikson Zaharias took golf lessons at River Crest and became such a fixture that the ladies created a tournament for her — the Texas Women’s Open, which brought top competitors to River Crest from 1935 to 1955.” Member Aniela Goldthwaite played on the U.S. Curtis Cup Team in 1934 and 1936 and won the Texas Women’s Open in 1937.

Glen Garden Country Club
founded in 1912
Mr. H.H. Cobb of the O.K. Cattle Company, Glen Garden Golf and Country Club founder, was denied entry into River Crest Country Club and decided he would take his land and build his own course. In the early days of the club, members would arrive by horse and buggy or by use of the Cleburne interurban.

Glen Garden began as a nine-hole golf course with sand greens, but a few years later nine more holes were added. Course designer, John Bredemus, was the same architect who designed Colonial Country Club.

It was at Glen Garden Country Club that two of the greatest names in golf, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson, began their golf careers as caddies in the early ‘20s. In 1927, 15-year-old Nelson had a one-stroke victory over Hogan in the annual caddy tournament, which is one of the most revered moments in Fort Worth’s golf history.

LPGA great Sandra Palmer also developed her golf game here and went on to win 19 tournaments, including the 1975 U.S. Women’s Open.

Fort Worth Boat Club
founded in 1929
Fort Worth clubs have a long history with water. The Fort Worth Boat Club was established in 1929 and moved from Lake Worth to the newly impounded Eagle Mountain Lake in 1934, located on just more than 13 acres of land that are still its home.

As one of the oldest yacht clubs in Texas, the Fort Worth Boat Club was established by a group of businessmen who all had a desire to sail.

“The club today is made up of members who sail and partake in all aspects of water sports along with a large number of social members who just enjoy the gorgeous view, fine dining and camaraderie the club offers,” says Commodore Philip L. Schutts.

For nearly 40 years, the Fort Worth Boat Club has held annual regattas and races such as the Ol’ Man of the Sea Regatta. Amenities include a full-service restaurant and bar, a swimming pool, tennis courts and a harbor and boathouses for sail and power vessels. Sailboats are available to resident members.

“But, we also offer the best sunset views in all of Fort Worth from our dining room, pool or beautiful lawn,” Schutts says.

Colonial Country Club
founded in 1936
Colonial Country Club was founded in 1936 by Marvin Leonard of Leonard Bros. fame.

“Colonial is a championship golf course. It was built to be a championship golf course, and, as you know, hosted the [U.S.] Open, which had never happened in this part of the U.S. before until Daddy got it here in ’41,” Marty Leonard said. “That’s what attracts people mostly I think — somebody who wants to play that kind of golf course.”

Colonial, of course, brings national television exposure to the city every year with the PGA tour.

"The private clubs in Fort Worth have played a major role in the history of golf and the prominence the game holds in North Texas,” says Kevin Long, the executive director of The First Tee of Fort Worth, a program aimed at promoting golf and its values to youngsters with a stress on diversity.

In April of 1991, Colonial accepted the applications of the first six black members in its history, solicited with the assistance of the Metropolitan Black Chamber of Commerce after the PGA of America adopted a no-black, no-tournament rule. Club officials thought the separate PGA Tour might adopt the same rule, threatening the long-running Colonial Invitational.

Club officials said that Colonial did not have an exclusionary policy and had admitted Hispanic, female and Jewish members. But cost of membership — $25,000 for a golfing membership or $5,000 for a social membership at the time — was a financial barrier for many.

Dee Jennings, head of the Black Chamber, says that private clubs without minority members “were seen as being very significant in the early years because they actually were where the powerful and the promised met in a casual setting which lead to business and civic opportunities.”

That has changed somewhat over the years, he says, because other venues for meetings have become available, and while private clubs “are still very useful for social and civic endeavors, I do not think that they are seen as the exclusive place where big decisions are exclusively made any more.” Black churches became significant meeting places in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement because minorities had no other places where they were welcome to hold meetings.

“However, here in Fort Worth, things began to open up more freely because of compromises versus confrontation,” Jennings said, citing the decision by Leonard Bros. to remove white and colored signs in Leonard’s Department Store in the early 1960s before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Petroleum Club of Fort Worth
founded in 1953
In non-golf clubs, the Petroleum Club of Fort Worth opened in 1953 in response to similar clubs in other Texas cities and because of a perceived need for a place for younger men in the oil business who might not be able to afford the more expensive Fort Worth Club.

Woodard was around for the founding of the Petroleum Club and is still a member there. “We had all these young oilmen here, landmen, geologists, engineers and so forth. They didn’t have the money to belong to the great Fort Worth Club. So a few of us got together and the idea came up that we’d have our own club. And we put it together,” he says. “We had our first club there in the old Blackstone Hotel.”

Ridglea Country Club
founded in 1954
Ridglea Country Club property was once owned by Bernie L. Anderson and his partner Morris E. Berney. They operated it as a public golf course and had dreams of expanding it into a recreation center for the Ridglea area.

The Luther Group bought the course from Anderson and Berney, and Clayton Luther vowed that he would build the finest country club that could be built.

Originally to be called Western Hills Country Club of Ridglea, the club’s name changed to Ridglea Country Club before opening in 1954. The Luther Group contacted Hank Green and the Western Hills Group to help promote the country club and sell memberships. It took the Western Hills Group about a year to sell enough memberships to the point where they could get a mortgage. They took the membership money, the mortgage money, and the initiating fee, and built the clubhouse.

A teenage room was added, then a nursery, then they wanted many private dining rooms, a mixed foursome room, and a men’s grill, and so on. Burton Schutt produced plans for a gorgeous sprawling one-story country club. The course opened officially on September 1, 1954. It measured 6,138 yards from the back tees and played to a par of 71.

One of the things that stands out most at Ridglea Country Club is the family atmosphere. From the very beginning, the clubhouse included both a nursery and a teen room. Christina Toups, Ridglea general manager, stressed that founder A.C. Luther “wanted to make sure that Ridglea offered something for the entire family, especially providing an environment where mothers and fathers could enjoy themselves knowing their children were safe and welcome. We continue that focus today by hosting family- and children-friendly events throughout the year.”

Shady Oaks Country Club
founded in 1955
Shady Oaks Country Club’s founder is Marvin Leonard, one of Fort Worth’s best-known businessmen. With the advice from his doctor to get out of the office and enjoy the outdoors and fresh air, Leonard took up golf.

It was during a round of golf at Glen Garden Country Club that Leonard made friends with a young caddy, Ben Hogan.

In 1934 Leonard purchased 157 acres on the southwest side of Fort Worth and began to build a golf course. The Colonial Golf Club officially opened on January 29, 1936. After redesigning the course, Leonard persuaded the United States Golf Association to hold the 1941 United States Open at Colonial. From this tournament grew the Colonial National Invitational, with which Leonard was long associated. In December 1942 he sold Colonial to its members.

Leonard quickly became restless to build a new country club, and he bought 1,220 acres of farmland in the Westover Hills residential area in 1955. Before signing the papers, Leonard asked Hogan to walk the course with him and discuss his future plans. Hogan advised that Leonard not move forward because the site was hilly and too rugged.

Hogan’s comments did not deter Leonard. After commandeering many bulldozers, they set to work moving earth and leveling the land. Leonard was beyond particular. Some holes were laid out two or three times before he gave his approval.

Leonard turned his attention to the club. He was so meticulous in meeting that standard, he ran the club for a year before inviting any members to join. The membership now consists of the cream of Fort Worth golfers, most of whom belong to at least one of the city’s other golf clubs.

Member Larry Autrey says, “I also wanted a great golf club where it was not difficult to get a tee time and one that was well run with little to no debt and a waiting list for members buying, not selling. Shady Oaks with no debt, a great set of facilities and staff and challenging golf course that I can always get on to play was the answer.”

Diamond Oaks Country Club
founded in 1961
Diamond Oaks Country Club was built on Diamond H Ranch, part of the 3,600 acres jeweler G.W. Haltom owned a century ago. It is perhaps one of the most interesting pieces of land of any local golf course since legend says the land was a favorite shortcut for the notorious Texas bandit Sam Bass as he headed for South Texas looking for banks to rob.

The course has hosted USGA qualifying tournaments four times since 2005 but had faced financial difficulties and was bought in 2003 by Washington, D.C.-based private equity firm The Carlyle Group. Last year, longtime member and Dallas businessman George Sanders bought the club. “You could see the downward trend,” Sanders told the Star-Telegram. “I felt the club was just going to go away. I didn't do this to get wealthy.”

City Club of Fort Worth
founded in 1984
Owned by the Bass family, City Club of Fort Worth is now located in the D.R. Horton Tower downtown. The Bass brothers opened the club because they knew it would be a great amenity for their twin office towers, especially if it was a first-class operation.

City Club General Manager Peggie Muir says, “The Basses never do anything that is not first class. They felt like Fort Worth needed a fine dining restaurant that was similar to what they could find in New York.”

“Our saving grace here at City Club is our fitness center. The youth like the fitness, and they like what they get here because you get everything provided to you.” And it is affordable, she says.
“We all three [downtown clubs] have different things that people like about their club versus our club,” she said. “That’s how we survive. If we were all the same, it wouldn’t work.”

Mira Vista Country Club
founded in 1987
Mira Vista Country Club — built as the centerpiece of a gated, up-scale housing development — opened in 1987, the first new country club to open in Fort Worth in 15 years. It became member-owned in 2008.

Since 1908, Elbert George Rall had successfully raised his own cattle on his sprawling ranch in southwest Fort Worth. Rall would provide feed for the herds passing on their way to the Fort Worth Stockyards around the turn of the century. Rall Ranch was reminiscent of the Texas Hill Country, with rolling hills, wildflowers and live oaks. In 1985, the Rall family sold the land to the group who would create Mira Vista.

Mira Vista membership director Shauna Fenn notes that the club — as the name implies — is known for “its spectacular views from the clubhouse. Members enjoy the 150-foot elevation changes throughout our world-class golf course and practice facilities, which are also enjoyed by many area PGA Tour pros.” It is also known “for its relaxed, casual and family-friendly atmosphere.”