Posted by Amy Scattergood
Golf, like alpine skiing and curling, for example, has always been played by predominantly white players. But long before Tiger Woods changed the face of his sport, there was Dewey Brown, widely considered the first African-American PGA professional.
Brown joined the Professional Golfer’s Association in 1928, at a time when the sport was still separate. A very fair-skinned man, apparently Brown’s breed didn’t emerge at the time. It would be 33 years before the PGA removed the “Caucasian only” clause from its statutes.
Born in North Carolina in 1899, Brown made the North Country his personal and professional home when he bought the Cedar River Golf Club in Indian Lake in 1947.
Golfer Dewey Brown in this undated public domain photo.
According to a 2017 PGA Magazine story, Brown bought the property, which he then managed, in response to his difficulty finding a job based on discrimination. By buying the nine-hole golf course and a small hotel that went with it, he was able to run and serve as a resident professional – on his own course. He would own and operate Cedar River until his death in 1973.
“Cedar River was his love,” Brown’s grandson Roland Brown Jr. told PGA Magazine. Brown’s grandchildren worked at Cedar River that summer when they were children. The place was owned by three local men on Dr. Carol Goulet, who also owned the adjoining Cedar River House. It was Goulet who sold the property to Brown.
Brown’s path to the Adirondacks took him from North Carolina to New Jersey, where he became a caddy as an eight-year-old on a private nine-hole golf course in Madison, NJ. It was there that Brown learned not only the game, but also how to make golf clubs. He would eventually do a set for President Warren G. Harding.
Brown worked for a number of New Jersey golf courses over the years as his game and club skills improved. Although he became a member of the PGA in 1928 without incident, that membership was revoked without explanation in 1934 – although many believe it was because his breed was discovered. His application for reinstatement was not approved until 1965.
Cedar River Golf Course in Indian Lake, originally owned by Dewey Brown, the first member of the Black PGA. Photo courtesy of the current owner of Cedar River, Tedd Goldblatt.
Brown lived in the Adirondacks for more than a quarter of a century. After purchasing Cedar River House and the adjacent 9-hole golf course in 1947, Brown built cottages and a swimming pool on the property. He spent the rest of his career playing, teaching, and building clubs in Cedar River. He and his wife, Barbara, raised their three sons, all of whom became avid golfers, in Indian Lake.
Why Brown came to the North Country in the first place, Brown said he was asked that many times. He told a group of 150 friends and colleagues who had gathered at Indian Lake to celebrate its 25th anniversary that the property had originally been offered to him by a real estate company.
“I had been to Lake George and Lake Placid, but never this part of the Adirondacks,” Brown was quoted in a 1972 article in the Hamilton County News.
“Lots of work, but a nice place,” said Brown. “I’ve never seen a nicer course.”
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He retired in 1972, a year before his death, leaving Cedar River to his middle son Dewey Brown Jr. His son sold it in 1976 to Robert Below, also a professional golfer.
His eldest son Ronald served as a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, the group of mostly African-American military pilots and airmen who were the first black aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps, the forerunner of the Air Force, during World War II.
Ronald’s son, Brown’s grandson Roland, would eventually donate his father’s gold medal and uniform to the Adirondack Experience Museum in Blue Mountain Lake, about ten miles northwest of Brown’s old golf course. The Adirondack Experience – closed last year due to the pandemic, the museum will reopen in May – also includes old photos and articles about Brown, as well as one of the wooden golf clubs he made.
Dewey Brown is still in the North Country, buried – in his green golf jacket – in Indian Lake Cemetery near Cedar River Golf Course, where he lived and played for so many years.
“My father tells a story about how he shot a shot from the first hole and it was on Dewey’s tombstone,” recalls Tedd Goldblatt, whose family bought the property in Cedar River in 1986. “I think Dewey wanted to check him out.”
Cedar River Golf Course in Indian Lake. Photo courtesy Tedd Goldblatt
“We haven’t inherited much of his time,” added Goldblatt, just a few items and a plaque on the wall of the pro shop. The hotel is long gone. “We built a new 9th green in the 1990s,” says Goldblatt, “but the space is the same.”
Ernest D. Virgil grew up in Indian Lake and remembers working for Brown as a teenager. Virgil, now a Hamilton County historian, didn’t learn that Brown was the first African-American PGA member until he went to see Brown a few years ago.
“Dewey Brown was a nice man,” said Virgil, who was a greenkeeper at Cedar River Golf Course that summer after graduating from high school. “He was a gentleman in everything he did.”