Shoreacres stands as one of the finest golf courses in the United States, and has held that position since it opened in 1921.
Its early agronomic story is unique.
The club, on the shores of Lake Michigan and roughly 35 miles north of downtown Chicago, was founded in 1916. Its architect, Seth Raynor, had been to the site by mid-1917, at the latest.
After a delay because of World War I, land clearing began in 1919. It would be some time, though, before there would be grass. Someone involved with the project, perhaps Raynor or the man charged with growing in Shoreacres, made the decision that the sandy soil needed improving.
This was no quick-fix approach. According to a surprisingly in-depth article that ran in the November 1919 issue of Golfers Magazine, getting the ground to acceptable grass-growing standards involved cultivating two crops.
“The work of transforming what has recently been a forest into golf course is proceeding rapidly and this fall it is expected to be seeded to rye, which will be plowed under in the spring. Then a crop of cowpeas will be sown, which will be harrowed under in July, after which in September of next year, the whole course will be seeded down to red fescue grass and the course will be open for play in the early summer of 1920,” reads the article. “The work is being carried out in a very able manner under the superintendence of the engineer in charge, Mr. R.D. Cameron.”
Imagine nowadays asking an owner for a year to naturally improve the soil?
I was intrigued at this plan so I contacted my erudite, mildly humorous, surprisingly short friend Brian Silva for an explanation of this technique. Before he was a successful golf course architect, Silva taught agronomy at Lake City (Florida) Community College and was an agronomist for the USGA Green Section.
“While the name of the game has been overpowering a site, Shoreacres let Mother Nature be an active participant in the development of the golf course,” he wrote in an email. “A planting of rye was established and then turned in as a green manure to help the organic matter content for better water and nutrient retention, and then cowpeas were established to allow their nitrogen-fixing ability to fortify the soil. Sounds like a variant of the old commercial: ‘We will establish no golf course before its time,'” Silva concluded.
So the cowpeas, it turns out, converted atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia that was then released into the soil via nitrogen-fixing bacteria living in the root nodules of the legume.
Man, cowpeas are a super plant. Look what Wikipedia has to say: “A drought-tolerant and warm-weather crop, cowpeas are well-adapted to the drier regions of the tropics, where other food legumes do not perform well. [Cowpeas] also have the useful ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen through their root nodules and grow well in poor soils with more than 85 percent sand and with less than 0.2 percent organic matter and low levels of phosphorus.”
According to the New Mexico State University website, “Nitrogen fixation by legumes can be in the range of 25 to 75 pounds of nitrogen per acre per year in a natural ecosystem, and several hundred pounds in a cropping.”
If the two-crop method was Cameron’s, he was not there to see the finished product. According to an item in the Sag Harbor Express (New York), Cameron died in Lake Forest, Aug. 18, 1920, with no cause of death given. “Mr. Cameron … only recently left to go as an engineer in the employ of Seth Raynor, who was a contractor to lay out a golf course at Lake Forest, Chicago.”
The cowpeas would have been tilled about a month before Cameron died.
Then again, the agronomic magic might have been attributed to C.H. Neal, a Waukegan, Illinois, native who also worked on the Shoreacres project, most likely growing grass. That possibly makes Neal the first-ever grow-in superintendent.
That title is worth more than a hill of legumes.