More than a century ago, Louis Edward Kirstein, like many other prominent businessmen from Greater Boston, was fascinated with the growing leisure phenomenon of golf. There were a number of exclusive clubs that embraced the sport, and the wealthy were eager to get into the swing. But Kirstein and a group of friends found the doors to those clubs locked tight, for one simple reason: They were Jewish.
That rejection led to the establishment of one of the most enduring institutions on the North Shore, Kernwood Country Club in Salem, which celebrated its 100th anniversary this year.
“That was the country club culture of those days, and in some respects, it’s the same today,” said golf historian and author Gary Larrabee of Wenham. “Back then, the Yankees, the Brahmins, they had their places to play.”
According to Larrabee, those country clubs reflected the “human condition” of the time, where members who worked together — at law firms, hospitals, successful businesses — elected to also spend time together socially and recreationally. He said the area’s most storied clubs, including The Country Club in Brookline (established in 1882), Essex County Club in Manchester-by-the-Sea (1893), Myopia Hunt & Polo Club in Hamilton (which hosted four of the first 14 US Opens, in 1898, 1901, 1905, and 1908), and the Salem Country Club (1895), had very restrictive membership policies.
“Let’s face it — it was discrimination,” he said.
Laura New of Swampscott, a longtime Kernwood member, agreed. “Way back in the early 1900s, our society was not tolerant, was not accepting,” she said. “And the only way these people could have a place to call their own was to set up their own.”
Undeterred, the Jewish businessmen founded Elm Hill Country Club in Boston as a place to socialize and began looking for a permanent home to play golf. The group, led by Kirstein, an executive with Filene’s Sons and Co., employed the same tenacity and creativity that helped the department store owners become wealthy.
“By serendipity, they found this magnificent piece of property on a peninsula in north Salem, which had been up for sale for four or five years by the Peabody family,” said Larrabee, who as a teenager worked as a caddie at Kernwood. “Francis Peabody had initially found this property back in 1840 or thereabouts, and had a magnificent Gothic mansion built there. That was his escape.
“The Peabodys in those days owned half of what we call the North Shore today. They were a super-successful family, a huge clan. They were like Salem’s version of the Rockefellers or the Carnegies during that time.”
Though Larrabee didn’t uncover any proof while researching his history of the club, the general belief among Kernwood members is that there was some resistance at the time to selling the property to Jewish investors.
“I think it’s just unknown,” said Jim New of Swampscott, like his wife Laura a longtime Kernwood member who served as club secretary for 19 years. “We know that those founders had difficulty and actually weren’t able to join the Greater Boston clubs a hundred years ago, so they actively looked to form their own organization.”
Kirstein and his group were persistent, and eventually got the deal done, purchasing Peabody’s 105-acre estate for $90,000 ($2.1 million in 2014 dollars) in 1914, said Larrabee, quoting a Boston Globe report. The group transformed the parcel along the Danvers River into the Kernwood Country Club, keeping the name that Peabody gave his home, and opening a nine-hole track designed by famed course designer Donald Ross in 1915. Three years later, another nine holes were added.
“The next thing you know, they had their playground, and they had a clubhouse already built in the form of the Kernwood mansion,” said Larrabee.
It was the first Jewish country club in Greater Boston, a forerunner for clubs such as Belmont, Pine Brook in Weston, Ledgemont in Seekonk, and Spring Valley in Sharon.
“This club was founded because The Country Club, Tedesco, Salem, Myopia, Essex — all the clubs around here — did not allow people of the Jewish tradition to join,” said Jack King, Kernwood’s current president. “So these guys went out and found their own property in Salem, and I would argue that they found the best piece of property that exists. There’s an irony there.”
Conversely, and in part because of the persistent prejudice that the founders encountered, Kernwood never made being Jewish a condition of acceptance, said longtime members.
“A hundred years ago, it was predominantly, if not exclusively, Jewish,” said New, who joined the club 42 years ago. “But it has never been a requirement, and it has never been a hindrance, as far as my experience, for anyone to join. Over the last generation, 25 to 30 years, the club has experienced growth from all walks of life.”
King, who took the office of club president during Kernwood’s centennial this year, is the first non-Jewish president in its history. “The brand at Kernwood, in terms of its pillars, it hasn’t changed,” he said. “But in terms of its diversity, it has changed enormously.”
A retired ExxonMobil executive who splits the year between homes in Marblehead and Houston, King joined Kernwood nine years ago. He said the attraction, in addition to a stellar golf course, was “great people, great friendships, great fellowship. We have a membership of enormously good people who are very, very generous to their community.”
Philanthropy “has been a pillar of Kernwood since its inception,” said King, who serves on the board of St. Mary’s School in Lynn. “It’s real simple. For those of us who are so blessed to be able to belong to an institution like Kernwood Country Club, there’s an obligation to share our blessings in the community. In terms of seeking members who want to belong to Kernwood, and members of Kernwood, there’s an expectation that you would be an active participant in the community, with your time, your talent, and your treasure.
“The club is a great source of members who are leaders of so many different charitable organizations on the North Shore,’’ said King. “It’s very much a big part of the spirit and the culture of the club.’’
Peabody’s Gothic mansion is long gone, razed in the mid-1950s to make room for the current clubhouse. But the golf course — and the core values of its founders — remain intact, said King.
“The founders, if they could see Kernwood today, I think they would be very proud of us, that we have been great stewards of this Donald Ross gem of a course, that we continue to fulfill the mission of philanthropy just as they envisioned it. And I think they’d love the friendship and fellowship we share at Kernwood.”Brion O’Connor can be reached at email@example.com.