A push to move the golf course that sits atop a Native American 'Stonehenge'
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A push to move the golf course that sits atop a Native American 'Stonehenge'
The third hole, which features a green almost entirely encircled by a six-foot ancient Native American mound, at Moundbuilders Country Club in Newark, Ohio, April 4, 2021. Historians hoping to preserve the ancient Octagon Earthworks in Newark, Ohio, as a UNESCO World Heritage site face a problem: the golf club that leases the property. Seth Moherman/The New York Times.

by Sarah Bahr

NEWARK, OH (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The third hole here at the Moundbuilders Country Club is a tricky par 4: The green is protected by a 6-foot-high mound that almost completely encircles the hole and requires a deft chip to clear if your approach goes awry.

“It’s a blind shot,” said Randol Mitchell, the club’s head golf professional, after driving his ball a good chunk of the hole’s 435 yards. “You have to watch out for those mounds.”

The topography of the course is built around the mounds, which were prescribed by the cosmology of the Native Americans who created them approximately 2,000 years ago as a way to measure the movement of the sun and the moon through the heavens.

But now, the club, which has leased the land for more than a century, is being asked to relocate so that the mounds can be properly embraced as an archaeological treasure, a move that club members understand — they have preserved the mounds for generations — but one that they say will be difficult for them to undertake unless representatives of the state kick up the ante for the cost of creating a new golf venue.

The $1.7 million amount that the state’s representatives have proposed under eminent domain is up from an initial offer of $800,000. But the club wants $12 million. The dispute heads to the state Supreme Court on Tuesday.

The historical import of the site is clear. The U.S. Department of the Interior has already selected the land for nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage site, as part of a larger proposed bid to recognize some of Ohio's similar sites, known as the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks.

Many of the golfers say they embrace that importance, too, even if they have indelicately nicknamed one 8-foot mound “Big Chief.” The club has a scrapbook that tracks the history of the earthworks, known as the Octagon Earthworks, back to their creation. The clubhouse features a painting and photographs of the mounds. Golfers are barred from driving carts over them except on paved paths.

Still, if one were to encounter a ball perched atop the ancient earthworks, there is no ban on whacking at it with a 3-iron.

“On many golf courses, water, woods and sand create natural challenges,” said David Kratoville, president of the club’s board of trustees. “Here, it’s the mounds.”

There were once hundreds of major earthworks built by people of the Hopewell culture, which refers to the moundbuilding groups of Native Americans who lived in North America from about 100 B.C. to 500 A.D. But their value wasn’t recognized until recent years, and many were destroyed.

Created one basketful of earth at a time, using pointed sticks and clamshell hoes, the mounds at the golf course are part of the broader Newark Earthworks and widely embraced as an astronomical and geometric marvel.

Once every 18.6 years, if you stand atop the course’s observatory mound and look up the line of parallel mounds toward the octagonal area, something spectacular happens. When the rising moon reaches its northernmost position, it hovers above the octagon’s exact center, within one-half of a degree. The alignments are no less sophisticated than the arranged stones at Stonehenge, experts say.

Members of the Hopewell culture probably intended the earthworks, which can only be fully appreciated from above, to show their moon and sun gods that they understood their movements, said Ray Hively, a professor emeritus of astronomy and physics at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. The effort might have been an attempt to connect with or communicate with the powers that appeared to control the larger universe, said Hively, who discovered these alignments in the 1980s with Robert Horn, a philosophy professor.

In 1892, Licking County and the city of Newark, about 40 miles east of Columbus, allowed the state to use the land as an encampment for the Ohio National Guard. But after the camp closed, they reclaimed it and leased it to the club in 1910. Noted golf architect Thomas Bendelow, who designed America’s first 18-hole public golf course, Van Cortlandt Park, in the Bronx, laid out a course that by 1911 had turned the ancient moon markers into errant shot adversaries.

“The ancient Moundbuilders unwittingly left behind the setting for as strange and sporty a golf course as ever felt the blow of a niblick,” an article about the course in the January 1930 issue of Golf Illustrated proclaimed.

The course, with a slope rating of 119, is medium difficult, although no one would ever confuse it for Jack Nicklaus’ Muirfield Village Golf Club (slope 130), which sits 40 miles to the west. Mitchell said the mounds are a more formidable obstacle than they at first appear.

“It’s hard to shoot what you normally shoot here,” he said. “Even though, on paper, it shouldn’t be that hard.”

Efforts to fully recognize the significance of the mounds as more than unusual golf hazards date back roughly two decades to a period when a bid to build a new clubhouse, whose foundation would have dug into the mounds, was denied. At that point, a group led by local professors and Native Americans organized a protest campaign — and some residents began questioning whether the course should exist at all.

Then, as now, the club’s unwillingness to make way for worldwide recognition of the site drew criticism.

“We wouldn’t want a country club on the Acropolis,” John Low, a citizen of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians and the director of the Newark Earthworks Center, said in a recent interview. “We don’t want a country club on the Octagon.”

Club members have long argued that the criticism is unfair, that the holdup is caused by an unwillingness to respect that the club has some history too, and that it could not continue to exist at the amounts being offered to give up its lease.

“Everyone would love to portray us as rich fat cats,” Ralph Burpee, the club’s former general manager, told The New York Times in 2005. “Well, this is Newark, Ohio, which pretty much precludes rich fat cats.”

Kratoville described the club’s roughly 300 current members as belonging to “a blue-collar country club.”

“Our members are people like plumbers,” he said, “and they come out for a day and clean up sand traps and plant flowers.”

The owner of the property today is the Ohio History Connection, a statewide nonprofit organization that contracts with the state to oversee more than 50 historic sites. The nonprofit has leased the property to the club since acquiring it in 1933 and hosts four open houses at the club each year, which before the pandemic included guided tours of the mounds. The property is also open to the public on Mondays or when the weather is unsuitable for golf. The rest of the year, visitors must view the mounds from an elevated platform near the parking area.

The History Connection would like to convert the site into a public park and submit it for recognition as a World Heritage site, as a place of “outstanding value to humanity,” alongside others, including the Taj Mahal and the Grand Canyon.

“We feel an obligation on behalf of Ohio taxpayers to responsibly protect and interpret the site’s historic value,” History Connection executive director and CEO Burt Logan said. “And we hope we’ll finally be able to do that soon.”

But without full public access to the site, federal officials have said a World Heritage nomination would be impossible.

The Moundbuilders’ lease runs through 2078. And although Kratoville said the club was willing to move, the History Connection and the club were millions of dollars apart. In 2018, the History Connection took the club to court in a bid to acquire the lease via eminent domain.

Two lower courts have ruled in the History Connection’s favor, and now it is up to the state Supreme Court to consider whether the nonprofit has the right to buy out the remainder of the lease. The History Connection, formerly known as the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, last used eminent domain about a century ago to acquire several acres of earthworks 100 miles south of the Octagon site.

The country club is arguing that the History Connection did not negotiate in “good faith,” which is required before a taking under eminent domain, and that the public purpose being served — an expanded program of research, education services and preservation — could be accomplished without ending the lease of a major employer.

Zachary Murry, an Ohio lawyer who specializes in eminent-domain cases, said the state Supreme Court may be unwilling to take on the role of deciding which of the competing public purposes is better because policy determinations are typically made by other branches of government.

But if the court did assume that role, one question would be, he said, whether operating as a public park and the prospect of becoming a world-recognized wonder was a sufficient rationale to warrant the taking now, when the recognition has not yet been granted.

“This ‘conditional’ necessity seems problematic,” he said.

If the club does move, Kratoville said he was unsure whether the Moundbuilders Country Club would keep its name. But it would certainly not try to re-create the mounds, he said.

“You can’t do that,” he said. “It would be a different course.”

The Supreme Court is tasked with deciding the eminent-domain issue. If the History Connection is found to have the right to take over the lease, compensation would be hashed out at a later date in a lower court — an amount Murry said ultimately would probably fall somewhere between the two appraisals.

Glenna Wallace, the first female chief of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, who considers the moundbuilders her ancestors, said the dispute goes beyond monetary value. World Heritage recognition for the earthworks — and full public access — would play a crucial role in reframing the way visitors think about Native Americans, she said.

“The sophistication required to create this shows my ancestors weren’t savages,” she said. “This needs to be open to people every single day of the week, every single day of the year.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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