August 7, 2014 at 12:57 AM
SCOTCH PLAINS, NJ – If Scotch Plains Township posted a Facebook status for the relationship with the Shady Rest Golf & Country Club, it would be “It’s Complicated.”
The Ephraim Tucker Farmhouse was built in the mid 1700s on a 31-acre lot of rural property outside of Westfield. The property twice changed hands in the 1800s before it was transformed in 1900 into the Westfield Golf Club, a nine-hole golf course for which the farmhouse served into a clubhouse.
Shortly thereafter, African Americans moved into the area around the golf course. In September 1921, a group of prominent black investors known as the Progressive Realty Company, Inc. purchased the property. The investors established Shady Rest Golf and Country Club to “provide and maintain a Country Club for the recreation for young and old; where respectable men and women can come and enjoy the real and outdoor life, and indulge in wholesome, healthful sports, as golf, tennis, croquet, horseback riding and shooting.” It became America’s first black-owned golf course.
Henry Willis, Sr., who assumed control of Shady Rest in 1925, transformed the Shady Rest into “one of the best known clubs for golf, tennis, and social affairs for colored people in the United States” (according to a 1932 report).
Shady Rest was more than just a golf course, however. It was a popular venue for a wide broad range of cultural events that attracted middle class and well-to-do blacks during the Jazz Era that began in the 1920s. Among the long list of legendary entertainers who performing at the club were Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway and Sarah Vaughn. It was the site of after-parties for many of these great musicians after their gigs at the Cotton Club and other venues where they were not welcome to stay after their performances concluded.
Additionally, the Shady Rest was the headquarters for the American Tennis Association (ATA), and it became a regular stop on the tennis circuit. Two-time Wimbledon champion Althea Gibson won the mixed doubles championship at the club with her coach Sydney Llewellyn.
In 1938, Scotch Plains Township acquired the property through tax lien foreclosures and maintained it as Shady Rest until 1964. For the past half-century, the municipality has overseen the operations, renamed the club Scotch Hills Country Club, and turned it into a public golf course. Generations of local golfers have had their first experiences with the sport at what is now known as Scotch Hills.