Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Farm in a Day and WPA Golf


In mid-September we went on a driving trip across the state to Spokane, stopping in Moses Lake one night for a great meal with a friend and then heading out the next day to Spokane.  But we meandered some, off the freeway to the south, for breakfast in Othello, near the center of the Columbia Basin Reclamation Project.  The first part of that trip led to a posting last week about the origins of that amazing water project. Read the post.

Vernetta and Don on the right
Bureau of Reclamation
One of the people we learned about while researching the Bureau of Reclamation was Donald Dunn, whose family was the recipient of a promotion cooked up by the bureau to create a farm in a day.  For 24 hours 300 or more people built a farm house, outbuildings – chicken coop, chickens included, shop and the equipment to go with it.  The swarming workmen planted crops, herded the cows and horses onto the site and filled up the refrigerator and cupboards.  There was a cat and a dog, though the dog, Skipper, ran off with the coyotes.  Additionally, the Dunns got a gift from each state and territory.  Texas airlifted a special heifer.  The governor of Guam sent a case of coconuts. 

Dunn was the winner of a competition conducted by the Veterans of Foreign Wars for the Bureau of Reclamation who the VFW called “the most deserving World War II veteran with a farm background.” 

Columbia Basin land before irrigation.
Courtesy Bureau of Reclamation
In addition, the Bureau made it known that veterans who wanted could submit their names to a drawing that would give them a chance to buy property that was now desert but scheduled to be irrigated.  Four such drawings were held throughout 1952.  The last, held in Othello, selected 42 individuals.  I’ve been in contact with the daughter of one of those veterans who won the land lottery and she said her parents dashed to the Columbia Basin land once they had won to see the property they would buy, the plans for their new home in the car.  The wife took one look at the desert country, returned to Oregon City where they lived out their days.  Their daughter has the plans still. 

I’ve spent the last week finding out more about Donald Dunn and what happened to him after his new place was built on the day of May 29, 1952 and a little man-made finger of the Columbia River flowed right up to his 122 acre farm a few miles outside of Ephrata and made the crops the bureau planted bloom. 

First hole at Indian Canyon, 1935
Spokesman Review
The reason for our trip was to play golf at some of Spokane’s terrific public golf courses, including Indian Canyon, one of 103 golf courses built during the Great Depression by the Works Progress Administration, part of a stimulus strategy that provided work for millions of out-of-work Americans.  It seems odd that one focus of the WPA was the construction of golf courses, but it makes sense.  So many of the WPA workers did not have top shelf job skills and what was needed for a golf course --  moving rocks, trees, dirt – was muscle power, the one thing within reach of people who’d never had much access to education.  Also, the game of golf was turning from a rich man’s game to a game for everyman and, in the twenties, public courses were springing up everywhere.

Chandler Egan
Waverley Country Club
Indian Canyon is a lovely piece of work on a tough, hilly site.  What caught my eye was that it was designed by H. Chandler Egan, a golf course designer whom I knew designed courses I had played in Puget Sound and in Portland and who also was one of the greatest amateur players of his time.  He had a significant hand in the design of one of the temples of American golf, Pebble Beach, when he was hired to make it better for the 1929 US Amateur Championship, which he also played in and damned near won at 45 years of age.  He paid the price of staying an amateur, disappearing from the game for many years so he could make some money, a game he wasn’t very good at.  An international class golfer, he left his home in golf crazy Chicago in mid-career and started raising pears in Jackson County, near Medford, Oregon – 300 miles from the nearest competitive golf course.  Along with Don Dunn, I thought I’d learn a bit more about Chan, as his friends called him.

Let’s start with Dunn, driving a tank through France and into Germany in 1944 and, in the dark, pushing over the border into Germany, past several German towns, racing toward his objective without resistance, thinking that the bulky shapes behind him were American tanks like his, but he was wrong about that.  And soon the shapes closed in so close that the men got out of their tanks and tried to kill one another on the ground.  It was the third longest night of his life.

The second was seven years later when the flood hit his successful farm in Marion, Kansas, on land next to the family farm he had quit school to run at 14 after his Dad got sick.  Twelve inches of rain fell that day in 1951 and Cottonwood Creek put six feet of water in his house, even though the building  was on the highest point on the land.  The death of a twin son, at three months in 1947, was the first.

Donald Dunn Testifies in Washington, DC
At left is Congressman Henry M. Jackson
Bureau of Reclamation
After the flood, he and his wife sold everything that they could salvage and headed out to the Northwest, renting land in Yakima, Washington, starting up again where they felt it didn’t flood so bad and where, after five or so years, they hoped to have enough money to buy their own farm.  He saw about the contest for ‘the most deserving veteran’ and felt the bumps in his life were big enough and rough enough to make him at least competitive and he wrote the excellent winning essay.  He knew there was something up when he got a call from one of his brothers in Kansas telling him that the FBI was asking questions about him there. Then he got the call.

Egan had an easier row to hoe.  Born in 1884, his parents were wealthy, lived in a fine Chicago suburb, Highland Park, home today to many Frank Lloyd Wright homes and an eclectic group of A and B list names -- Michael Jordan, basketball player, Gary Sinise, actor, Billy Corgan, lead guitar of Smashing Pumpkins.
National Amateur Champion, 1904


When he was twelve, his uncle introduced him to golf while on a family vacation in Wisconsin and he must have been a fantastic teacher.  Egan’s cousin, Walter, his Uncle’s son, also played golf and for years they traded first and second place in the Western Amateur, a big tournament then.  Later, his family joined Exmoor County Club in Highland Park and Egan became the best player there.  As the Scots say, “he could golf his ball.”  On to Harvard where he is captain of golf team that won three Intercollegiate golf championships in a row, Egan becoming the individual champ as a sophomore.  At 20, in 1904, he wins his first US Amateur championship and then finishes with a silver medal in the Olympic Games in St.  Louis.  He repeats as champ at the 1905 US Amateur, something only a handful of players have done – Tiger Woods, Bobby Jones (twice), Lawson Little among them. 

When Egan was playing the US Amateur, it was considered a major championship and drew the best players.  There were professional golfers then, but the purses were ridiculously low.  The professional Willie Anderson won four US Opens between 1901 and 1905 and earned $800 – for all four wins!  Egan, with his Harvard education and Chicago country club relationships, tried selling insurance as a way to earn a living and keep his golf skills, but he didn’t do well and both his golf and finances suffered.  His daughter put Egan’s dilemma this way:

“He was torn between duty and pleasure.”

He moved to Louisville, Kentucky and started work in the railroad business but was not ultimately happy there.  In 1911, with his new wife Nina McNally -- yes, those Rand-McNallys -- they took a train to Medford, Oregon where he had purchased an apple and pear orchard.  Egan would not enter another national class golf tournament until 1929. 

Jackson County Historical Society
There was a fruit boom going on in Jackson County.  Refrigerated railroad cars made possible the movement of fresh fruit over long distances.  New irrigation projects allowed more orchard land to come into play.  Land owners and speculators reached out across the country for investors and what was happening in southern Oregon caught Egan’s eye.  The population of Jackson County would double between 1900 and 1910 but Egan’s timing was poor.  The fruit bust followed the fruit boom and the gentleman farmer idea didn't quite pan out. 

Egan's home in Medford, now on the
US Register of Historic Places
Jackson County Historical Society
Egan’s house was not far from a small nine hole track, owned by the Medford Country Club, an organization that formed about the same time as Egan was moving in.  In 1912, members asked him to work with them on improving the course. He designed a second nine and helped improve the first, but the club was on and off broke.  That same year he was asked to help design the back nine at Tualatin Golf Club.  He began playing regional golf, entering the Pacific Northwest Golf Association Amateur Tournament first in 1914, a kind of Cincinnatus bringing out the old weapons once again.  He completely dominated golf in the Northwest, winning the tournament five times over 18 years, finishing second twice.

Golf is exploding across the American landscape now, courses going up everywhere for both recreation and real estate.  In 1917, Egan designs Eastmoreland in Southeast Portland and, for the first time, gets paid for his design work.  As a thirteen year old, I remember teeing off on Eastmoreland’s first hole, unable to get my breath, as older players looked on and wouldn’t shut up. 

University of Washington Libraries
Don’s wife, Vernetta is pregnant and uncomfortable and has no idea what to do with the visitor in their new living room, Congressman Henry Jackson of Washington’s Second District, who is running for the Senate and on an eastern Washington swing. 

Thankfully, Don has the ability to talk with anyone and the girls love all the attention and try to sit still and be completely normal while the photographer stalks around them.  Barefoot, they’ve never seen a pair of shoes like the Congressman is wearing.  Dunn, Vernetta and the kids will appear in a campaign ad printed in most dailies across the state on October 26, 1952.

The Congressman is telling Don that the United States Department of Agriculture is telling him that the cash crops in the ground -- potatoes, beans and corn -- will likely gross about $12,500, a good start, while other crops will help build the soil for the future.  Don doesn’t quite believe him but, as the harvest plays out, the USDA experts are right.  He’s just a couple of hundred dollars under that estimate.  Soon he’s talking to another farmer, President Harry Truman, who is in Ephrata campaigning for Adlai Stevenson.  Dunn gives him a bag of beans from his by now completely famous ‘farm in a day.’  As Dwight Eisenhower’s campaign train pauses in Ephrata on October 6, 1952, Dunn presents the general with a sack of potatoes from his first crop, receiving a thank you letter from Ike later that week. 
While a modest man, he likes the attention and can handle it.  By now he’s getting pretty good on his feet and makes a report to the Wenatchee Chamber of Commerce summing up his experiences on the new farm.  He testifies in Congress.  He said, in a visit to the farm in 2002, that he was speaking twice a week.
Later, in an interview after he died, one of his sons says what Don would never mention outside the family.  There were some problems.  Much of the equipment gifted to Dunn was antiquated stuff farm implement companies wanted to get rid of.  Dunn had to buy a lot of new gear.  And that irrigation water was expensive, even though it was deeply subsidized.  And something else was going on.  Clearly, Don was a good communicator.  His essay on why he should be ‘most deserving’ is extremely well done.  All the attention made him more confident and outgoing, and the lure of the farm less strong. 

 "The farm helped me hone skills for my second career, selling farm implements," he told the Wenatchee World. Blaine Hardin's book, "River Lost," says that three others failed to make a go of the farm after Dunn left. When Dunn visited in 2002, it was primarily a dairy operation. 

"I was a PR Man, not a moneymaker," is how Dunn described it in 2002.
He had created some new horizons that extended beyond the land.  So, he sold the farm after four years, erased $60,000 in debt, clearing $10,000.  He and Vernetta moved to Rifle, Colorado to run a farming cooperative.  Later, he went back home to Kansas, first to be a top salesman for the Carey Salt Company and later the best sales performer for the Hesston Farm Machinery Company.  He made real money and needed it.  Over the years, he and Vernetta added seven more children to their family for a total of nine.  His son says he won every sales incentive the company offered and that he and Vernetta travelled frequently and well, sometimes with the kids and sometimes not.

Vernetta died in 1999 and Don in 2005.  She was 77 and he was 83.  They had 21 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. 

A young man who caddied for Egan at Rogue Valley Country Club said that Egan rarely played with anyone, but would go out alone, playing three or four balls, hitting some shots over and over again.  He would put down his ever present pipe close to the ball before hitting his shot and the young man feared many times that the club would strike the pipe, but of course it never did.

Egan had a wide stance and didn’t get cheated on his swing.  His caddy said he had tremendously powerful wrists which he battled all his career.  Strong wrists are a friend of the snap hook.

In 1916, Nina and their daughter go back to life in Chicago ending what was likely an unhappy five years.  He sells the orchard but continues living in the house they built when they arrived.  A bit less encumbered, he now remakes himself as a golf course architect and a competitive golfer.

During the twenties, Egan is a very busy man, playing excellent golf as the premier amateur player in the Northwest and its busiest golf course architect.  From 1920 to 1925 he was working on the designs for courses in Hood River, the Eugene Country Club, Reames Country Club in Klamath Falls, Watson Golf Ranch south of Coos Bay, Seaside.  He also maintained informal relationships with Waverley Country Club in Portland, where members described him as ‘guiding Waverly’s hand’ as the club made changes to its layout.  The golf club in Medford had gone broke again and the organizers of the new Rogue Valley Country Club asked him to help shape the course in a way that would attract new members.  He did the Rogue Valley project for free. 

Seventh Hole at Pebble Beach with the sand dune
design created by Chandler Egan
In 1926 Egan played in the California Amateur Championship, winning at the old Pebble Beach layout.  He was completely smitten by the Monterey Peninsula, bought a house in Del Monte and began his work on the remodel of Pebble Beach with famed designer Alister Mackenzie, the designer of Augusta National and Cypress Point.   

The management at Pebble Beach wanted to make the course attractive to the professional tour that had been growing in importance throughout the decade and who would be passing through the peninsula on its way to the second Los Angeles Open in 1927.  A second objective was to make the course a showcase for its biggest tournament yet, the upcoming 1929 US Amateur.

Seventh at Pebble today
Wikipedia Commons
They would be deeply disappointed when the biggest golfing star in the country, Bobby Jones, got beat in the first round.  But they were thrilled when Egan marched through the preliminaries, though he lost his semi-final match.  He was on the map as a golfer once again.  On the basis of this performance, he was invited to be a member of the Walker Cup Team -- the best amateurs in the US against the best in Great Britain -- chosen by team captain Francis Ouimet.  He also received an invitation to and played in the first Masters Tournament. 

In between, he was designing courses in northern California, Oregon (helping with improvements to Gearhart by the Sea) and in Washington state, often working with Alister Mackenzie.  Frequently, he worked with swarms of WPA workmen at West Seattle, Indian Canyon and Legion Park in Everett.
In the spring of 1936 he caught pneumonia while working on Legion Park.  He had just finished clay renderings of the greens for West Seattle and checked himself into the hospital after a wet day on the Everett site.  He died a few days later on day three of the third Masters Golf Tournament.  He was just 51.  Perhaps the pipe he had in his hand or in his mouth for hours each day played a role in his inability to clear his lungs of the infection.


The Spokane Parks Department has done a good job with Indian Canyon.  It feels lush, even after the dry summer.  What I like about Indian Canyon is that the drive on the first hole takes you into the canyon and you don't come out until 18.  All the golf, its comedy and magic, takes place on the undulating, distant canyon floor.  On this day, the course wins.  Trudging up the hill on 18, my knee hurting, I give the match and the day to Chandler Egan.  

Compared to today's sports culture -- professional, select, heavyweight, international, big ticket -- Egan is an anomaly, the gifted amateur, someone for whom the game is just that, even when played at the highest level. 

Bobby Jones, who also aspired to be and was a gifted amateur golfer and who admired Egan, invited him to his first golf tournament, then called, less pompously, the Augusta National Invitational.  Egan begged off, saying it was just too expensive to get there.  However, Jones was a big supporter of the WPA and had serious stroke with WPA Administrator Harry Hopkins.  He knew that the WPA was about to start a project in North Atlanta and figured out a way to have Egan supply a design.  North Fulton is the only Chandler Egan design east of the Rockies. 

 Donald Dunn's story, in his own words

Chandler Egan's Golf Courses

Bobby Jones and others at Medford, Oregon memorial to Chandler Egan

4 comments:

  1. The story about Don was intriguing and appreciated. I understand how the farm must have ended up feeling like a curse once he had to start dealing with shoddy equipment, expensive water, inclement weather, unstable commodity prices. These are the blight of the farmer.

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