A peek inside Pine Valley

Ray Bowman, 104, spent years as a steward at Pine Valley. Like a White House butler, he "took care of everything I'd see and some things I didn't see."
Ray Bowman, 104, spent years as a steward at Pine Valley. Like a White House butler, he "took care of everything I'd see and some things I didn't see." (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 19, 2013

It is hardly a wild analogy to compare the Camden County borough of Pine Valley to an old Communist-bloc stronghold.

Located less than 20 miles southeast of the city where this nation's freedom was born and only three miles from a town named Berlin, this foreboding fiefdom is enclosed by barbed- wire-topped fencing and guarded checkpoints.

That level of protection seems incongruous for an 84-year-old borough that occupies barely a square mile just down from Clementon Park & Splash World and which, as of the 2010 U.S. Census, had just 12 residents and 21 structures.

But those people and buildings are all affiliated with the Pine Valley Golf Club, the secretive, ultraexclusive golf course that is the sole reason the borough exists.

Despite the golf course's proximity to Philadelphia and its international renown - Golf World magazine and others have rated it the world's No. 1 course - few here know of it. Fewer still have seen or played it.

"Year after year it gets called the best golf course in the country, but most people in this area don't even know it's here," said Jackie Souders, a South Jersey attorney who has written a history of the club.

Pine Valley turns 100 this year, an anniversary that, unsurprisingly, will pass without much fanfare. As always, the club will admit visitors just one day this year, for the final round of September's Crump Cup tournament.

Through the decades, the course's reputation as both an impregnable sanctuary and a marvelous test of golf have grown stronger.

Early in its existence, the words that welcomed sinners to hell in Dante's Inferno hung above the club's rear entrance:

"Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here."

Not surprisingly, information on this piney paradise is nearly impossible to come by.

"We don't provide any information on membership or operations," said Charley Raudenbush, Pine Valley's general manager.

There are, according to various estimates, between 500 and 1,000 members. Many are from Philadelphia and New York, the rest come from around the world.

Members have always included some of the best-known Americans - presidents, superstar entertainers, industrial giants. But, in keeping with the veil of mystery, how those celebrities played, who invited them to join, or what they did inside the clubhouse remains a mystery.

"It was all private," said Ray Bowman, a waiter and steward at Pine Valley for more than three decades. "And I mean private. I took care of everything I'd see and some things I didn't see."

Bowman's long tenure there provides a fascinating insight into what is both one of the best- and least-known golf courses on earth.

The grandson of a slave, he is, at 104, older than the world-famous layout where he often toiled 18 hours a day, six days a week before retiring in the late 1950s.

"The bar," he recalled, "opened at 6 a.m. And we stayed on until midnight."

Bowman met most of the elite members who were drawn from near and far by the lure of Pine Valley.

"Before he became president, Eisenhower often came down with [New York Gov. Thomas E.] Dewey," Bowman said. "Bob Hope. Bing Crosby. [Gen. William] Westmoreland. Bernard Gimbel. [Bethlehem Steel president] Eugene Grace. Gene Tunney. A lot of DuPonts and Pews.

"One time Mr. [T.E.] Millsop, who ran Weirton Steel, even brought down some of the men who had bombed Hiroshima."

Two golfers in particular he recalled were Crosby - "Did you know he wore elevator shoes?" - and the legendary Bobby Jones.

In 1930, before Jones completed his Grand Slam by winning the U.S. Amateur at Merion, he played a practice round at Pine Valley, where he knew he could do so with a minimum of scrutiny.

When it was over, Bowman drove Jones from Pine Valley to Merion and his date with destiny.

"He was," said Bowman, who is now reading a biography of Jones, "a dapper dresser."

Caddies could play on Mondays. Women guests - then as now membership was believed to be all-male - were permitted only on Sundays. The waitstaff and stewards - most of whom were African Americans - almost certainly would not have been permitted to golf in the years when Bowman worked there, though it wasn't an issue for him.

"I'm not a golfer anyway," he said. "Too busy. But I knew I was working at the No. 1 course."

Clementon was ideal

The dream that is Pine Valley was born in the head of George Crump, a topflight amateur golfer and Philadelphia hotelier.

Crump, whose English grandfather arrived here in 1838 and became an Inquirer editor, hoped to build a course accessible to Philadelphia yet in a location where the winter weather might be slightly more amenable to golf.

Because he often passed there on the train en route to Atlantic City Country Club and because he occasionally hunted in the area, Crump eventually decided that the hilly pinelands near Clementon might be ideal.

According to various club histories, in 1912, paying $50 an acre, he purchased 184 acres from the Ireland family. The property, which now includes a shorter 10-hole course, encompasses 623 acres.

By the following January, three years after Crump sold the family's biggest hotel, the Colonnade at 15th and Chestnut, work was ready to begin on Pine Valley.

Topographical maps were drawn. His design would be marked by large areas of sand and scrub, by deep bunkers, thick clusters of pine trees, and a severely sloping terrain.

That April, Crump sent out letters to wealthy area golfers. Among Pine Valley's 141 original members would be Philadelphia Athletics owner-manager Connie Mack.

In November 1913, with the first five holes finished, Crump and some friends played the initial round there. Two months later, an Inquirer story raved about the still-unfinished links.

"No course in America," it said, "has greater possibilities."

Work on the rugged terrain dragged on. Along the way Crump sought advice from course architects in Philadelphia and beyond, among them A.W. Tillinghast, Hugh Wilson, C.B. MacDonald, and Donald Ross.

But before his masterwork could be completed, Crump, on Jan. 24, 1918, committed suicide in his Merchantville mansion. No note was left and speculation about the reason persists.

After his friend's death, Wilson completed Pine Valley's final four holes - Nos. 12, 13, 14, and 15.

Meanwhile, Bowman's stepfather, who had been a cook in one of Crump's Philadelphia hotels, was hired to do the same at Pine Valley. Sometime in the 1920s - he isn't exactly sure when - Bowman took a job there as a waiter.

"I was in the kitchen first, then in the bar," he said. "Then the old steward who had started with the club died, and I got his job."

His daughter, Alice Bowman-Cropper, said that because the family lived in West Philadelphia, she and her brother often went long stretches without seeing their father.

"We only saw Daddy once a week because he worked those long hours," said Bowman-Cropper, a Mount Laurel resident who operates an educational-consulting firm. "But we talked to him twice a day. He always called."

Despite the status of his employer, it was, in many regards, a lonely life.

"I never had too many friends," said Bowman, a longtime Mason who has been living at the Saunders House nursing facility in Wynnewood for the last year. "Only Masonic friends."

His commute changed over the years. At first, before the Delaware River (later the Ben Franklin) Bridge opened, Bowman traveled to Center City, caught a ferry to Camden, then boarded a train.

"I'd fall asleep often and I'd wake up when I'd hear the conductor shout, 'Pine Valley! Pine Valley!' " he said.

During the week, he and other workers slept in an employees dormitory on the grounds. Visiting members occupied many of the other dwellings.

There were seven guest rooms upstairs in the clubhouse "for the VIPs," Bowman said. The building itself was much more modest than those aware of Pine Valley's lofty reputation might have expected.

There were no tablecloths, but tables were polished to a glossy sheen. There were no rugs on the hardwood floors. In the largest dining room, a pair of murals adorned the walls, one depicting Pine Valley, the other St. Andrews.

Since many members traveled long distances to Pine Valley, the staff was expected to serve them from the time they arose until they retired at night.

They wanted steaks, chops, and lobster to eat, Bowman said, and "high-class, top-shelf" liquor to drink.

"Every Friday I'd go over to the Reading Terminal and buy the food we'd serve," said Bowman. "Sometimes the members would give me personal orders. I remember buying a lot of Bassett's Ice Cream. They wanted the best of everything."

A native of Middletown, Pa., where his grandfather settled after serving in the Civil War, Bowman grew up in South Philadelphia.

He attended Central High, married, and worked a variety of jobs, including deliveryman for a pharmacy. After his first wife's death, he remarried in 1943 and moved to 57th Street in West Philadelphia.

Dignified, unfailingly polite, and tactful - those traits served him well during his long career at hush-hush Pine Valley.

"The club was open 12 months a year," he said. "I got a month's vacation in winter right after Christmas. Never got a summer vacation."

After retiring, Bowman said, he started his own catering business, featuring the snapper soup recipe his stepfather had developed at Pine Valley.

"Snapper à la Bowman, he called it," said his daughter. "It got to be so popular at Pine Valley that Campbell's soup wanted to buy it."

Not being a golfer, he never paid much attention to the famed course itself, other than to observe its natural beauty. ("The flowers," he said. "They always had these beautiful flowers.")

The owner of Philadelphia's famed Freeman's auction house once gave Bowman a set of clubs, but they went unused, he said.

There was, however, one feature of the course itself that interested him.

"There were swans on the lake at the fifth hole," he said, laughing at the recollection. "They used to honk real loud and disturb the golfers. A lot of them would be so distracted they'd hit their balls in the water. Some would throw their clubs in as well. I remember when they drained the lake, in addition to all the balls, they found this great pile of clubs."

Contact Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynewscom. Follow on Twitter @philafitz. Read his blog, Giving 'Em Fitz, at www.philly.com/fitz.

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