The History of the NCC
By the early 1900s, the remote village of Norfolk, highest above sea level of any town in Connecticut, had become a destination for well-to-do New Yorkers. Instead of traveling all the way to the Adirondacks for outdoor recreational pursuits, they could partake of the pure air and pastoral delights of Norfolk via a relatively short train ride from the heat and congestion of the metropolitan area.
A colony of summer people drawn by rustic landscapes dotted with shimmering lakes and ponds and replete with world class musical performances at the Stoeckel estate and Village Hall, built impressive homes on large tracts of land and developed a thriving social milieu of like-minded sophisticates.
Recognizing the need for a central gathering place where they all could all mingle for social events and sporting activities, a committee was formed in 1912 to create a club in the country. At the time, today€™s town hall on Maple Avenue, designed in 1892 by Henry Rutgers Marshall as a gymnasium for the local citizenry, was underused. The officers of the brand new Country Club of Norfolk leased the old gymnasium and turned it into a sumptuous clubhouse overlooking Haystack Mountain where they enjoyed dinner dances, concerts, plays, lectures; and tennis on two courts fronting Maple Avenue.
Something was missing, however. As accommodating as the Norfolk CC clubhouse was, its location in town precluded the addition of a much desired golf course. In 1897, local benefactor, Isabella Eldridge had donated the Norfolk Downs, a municipal golf course on the west side near Tobey Pond, to the townsfolk of Norfolk. Golf-loving members of the Norfolk Country Club contented themselves with playing at the Downs, but being mostly weekenders, they chafed at Miss Isabella’s strict prohibition of golf on Sundays.
Determined to truly be in the country and to be in closer proximity to the Downs golf course, the NCC members acquired a parcel of adjacent land in 1917 and built a new (our present) clubhouse designed by famed architect and Club member, Alfredo Taylor. Two new tennis courts down the hill from the clubhouse became the scene of prestigious state tennis championships and countless spirited matches among NCC members. For the next ten years, Norfolk CC members continued to play on the Downs while itching for a course of their own. Miss Isabella died in 1926 and land she owned bordering the Downs and the NCC clubhouse became available. The Club bought the land and hired famed golf course architect, A.W. Tillinghast (Winged Foot, Baltusrol, Newport, etc.) to lay out 9 short but challenging holes on rolling, undulating hills where sheep formerly grazed on the old Curtiss farm.
On July 1, 1928, the new Norfolk Country Club golf course opened with much fanfare and the goal of creating a convivial club in the country as a nucleus for social and sporting activities among felicitous friends was fulfilled, continuing to this day much as it always has.
Imagine, if you will, a mild, moonlit summer night in 1953 at the Norfolk Country Club. Minutes earlier a mesmerizing sunset sketched the horizon, setting the sky beyond the sixth and seventh fairways ablaze with fulgent colors. A band plays in the great room of the clubhouse. Animated club members exchange pleasantries, while others take a turn on the dance floor. Veils of smoke from ubiquitous cigarettes are visible against a dim backdrop of diffused lighting. Glasses clink as a steady murmur of disparate conversations suffuses the room… and on every table sits a bottle (or three) of intoxicating beverages (with requisite mixers) all brown-bagged to the Club by vibrant members enjoying another evening of country club merrymaking.
A year later, the free-for-all era of free-flowing intoxicating libations was a memory.
Sixty-two years ago, the membership of the Norfolk Country Club voted in favor of installing a bar in the card room (originally an open terrace) at the northeast corner of the clubhouse. One hundred and fifty-three ballots were cast and those in favor prevailed by a substantial 73.8% margin. Those who still wanted to have bottles on their tables had to buy them in house; but cocktails, wine and beer now had to be ordered from the bar.
A special bar committee headed by Winston (Winkie) Childs, was appointed by then Club President Edward Hill (father of Louise Davis). After much discussion and research, the committee came up with a feasible plan to transition from bringing one’s own spirits to the Club to installing a permanent bar with drinks paid for with chits. One member, Charles Garside, was originally opposed to the bar, stating that it would only encourage more drinking at the Club. When it was explained to him that charging for drinks at the bar would actually decrease drinking and also curtail underage drinking which, apparently, was prevalent at the time, he quickly changed his mind.
A significant factor in the overwhelmingly positive vote was the prospect of raising revenue for the Club. To this end, projections were made on profits to be made from the bar during what then was only an 11-week season (as opposed to the 18-week season we enjoy today). Conservative estimates predicted that, based on 100 families signing 4 chits a week, a net profit of $1350 for the season (approximately $12,000 in today’s dollars) could be realized.
It was decided that no more than $1500 would be spent on the installation of the bar and bar equipment. Voluntary contributions to pay for the bar were solicited from those members who voted in favor of having it. A wall was erected to separate the bar area from the card room and a rudimentary bar was installed where long-time steward, Stackey mixed and dispensed drinks from a wooden liquor cabinet.
Much time and effort went into deciding how the drinks would be made, just how much to charge for the drinks and how much profit could be made from each drink. In consultation with the Yale Club of New York and the New Haven Country Club, the bar committee came up with a comprehensive and detailed analysis of drink-making and the portions to be served to maximize profits.
It was common in those days for clubs to mark drinks up anywhere from 400 to 600-per cent! The Norfolk CC committee thought this was “too steep” and opted for a percentage that would result in a net profit of at least 40%.
A copy of the original bar price list from 1954 shows Manhattans and (gin-only) Martinis, popular drinks of the time, were a mere 75 cents and 65 cents, respectively; the equivalent of about $6.50 today. Note the liquor brands that were popular back then, in particular Bellows, a brand that is still around but no longer popular with the social set. Only one white wine was available for $2.75 a bottle and, surprisingly enough, one rose’ — but there was no red wine! A bottle of the white, Hermitage Blanc, can still be bought today, for $25; and a bottle of that same Cote du Rhone Rose’ can still be purchased for just $9.99.
It’s notable that there was no vodka on the original NCC bar list and no wine by the glass. Just sixty years later, vodka is number one in the distilled spirits category and wine by the glass is the go-to choice for a multitude of sophisticates (real or imagined), a revealing reflection of changing American drinking tastes in the last few decades.
For an idea of just how much thought went into serving drinks at the new bar, consider the following quotes from the detailed report of the original bar committee:
“Your committee does not recommend following the proportions indicated for Martinis or Manhattans at the Yale Club. The Martinis there are in a ratio of 8 to 1 and served in
in a 4.5 ounce glass. Manhattans are in a ratio of 6 to 1 also served in a 4.5 ounce glass. I feel that the suggestion by Mr. Tonetti of following the practice that one obtains at the New Haven Club is better, i.e. using a 4 oz. glass with a line a little below the rim indicating 3.5 oz. with a ratio of 4.1. Not filling the glass quite to the brim is a very important factor in keeping costs down.
Mr. Tonetti pointed out that normally one figures on about 25% of the contents of the cocktail arising from melting of the ice as the cocktail is stirred. He stated, however that there is considerably greater melting from ice machines making ice on the premises rather than (as in our case) ice cubes purchased by the bag. He suggested that we provide a Martini with 2 oz. of gin, 1/2 oz. of vermouth, and that with proper stirring this would just about reach the 3.5 oz. mark on the suggested glass… The general consensus among our better bartenders here is that if you stir carefully and stir a little longer than is customary… in Martinis and Manhattans, you should get almost an ounce of water from the ice.”
Fast forward to the Martinis and Manhattans served today at the Club, filled to the brim of those 8 oz. goblets, twice the size of the 1954 glasses. At $8.50 to $10.50 per drink, in retrospect, those who partake of these classic cocktails are getting a bargain. Not to mention the roundhouse to the senses one absorbs from these potent concoctions. Free pouring of mixed drinks at the bar today signifies a more liberal (or enlightened) era; and beer at 3 or 4 dollars for a draught or bottle is considerably less than it might cost at a good restaurant. And, of course, reasonably priced wines by the glass are served country club style, robustly filled almost to the top.
For the first fifty years, a doorway just wide enough for one person led into the bar area causing a bottleneck of sometimes frustrated members waiting to order their drinks. In 1990, Club President, Sue Dooley, decided it was time for a change. Along with the Board of Governors, she hired noted architect Henry Schadler of Farmington, CT to come up with a solution. The wall came down, opening what had become a kid’s room with toys and a ping pong table into a comfortable lounge/bar area; and an inviting five-sided wooden bar with stools replaced the original stand alone bar.
Thirty-three years and many, many drinks later, this bar continues to be the hub of NCC social interplay… a hive of activity drawing us, like bees to its enticing selection of intoxicating nectars.
Michael Kelly – Club Historian