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A push to move the golf course to the top of a Native American ‘Stonehenge’

NEWARK, Ohio – The third hole here at Moundbuilders Country Club is a tricky par 4: the green is protected by a six-foot-high mound that almost completely surrounds the hole and requires a skillful chip shot to clear if your shot is hit. approach goes awry.

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

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

But now the club, which has rented the land for more than a century, are being asked to relocate so the mounds can be properly embraced as archaeological treasure, a move club members understand – they have preserved the mounds for decades. generations – but one what they say will be difficult for them to undertake unless state officials raise the cost of creating a new golf course.

The $ 1.7 million that state officials have offered under a prominent estate is up from an initial offer of $ 800,000. But the club want $ 12 million. The dispute heads to the Ohio Supreme Court on Tuesday.

The historical import of the site is clear. The US Department of the Interior has already selected the land for nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as part of a broader proposal to recognize some of Ohio’s similar sites, known under the name of Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks.

Many golfers say they embrace this importance as well, even though they have loosely dubbed an eight-foot mound “Big Chief.” The club has an album that traces the history of earthworks, known as Octagon Earthworks, right through to their creation. The clubhouse features a painting and photographs of the mounds. Golfers are not allowed to drive carts on them except on paved paths.

However, if one encountered a ball perched on top of the old earthworks, it is not forbidden to strike it with a 3 iron.

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

There were once hundreds of major earthworks constructed by people of the Hopewell culture, which refers to the mound groups of Native Americans who lived in North America from around 100 BCE to 500 CE, but their value has only been recognized in recent years, and many have been. destroy.

Created one basket of dirt at a time, using sharp sticks and flapper hoes, the Golf Course Mounds are among Newark Earthworks’ larger works and are widely regarded as an astronomical and geometric marvel.

Once every 18.6 years, if you stand on top of the course’s observation mound and look at the line of parallel mounds towards the octagonal area, something spectacular will happen. When the rising moon reaches its northernmost position, it hovers above the exact center of the octagon, less than half a degree. The alignments are no less sophisticated than the stones laid out at Stonehenge, experts say.

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

In 1892, Licking County and the town of Newark, about 40 miles east of Columbus, allowed the state to use the land as a camp for the Ohio National Guard. But after the camp closed, they got it back and rented it to the club in 1910. Renowned 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 old moon markers into stray shooting opponents.

“The former Moundbuilders unwittingly left behind the scenery of a golf course as eerie and sporty as ever, felt the stroke of a niblick,” proclaims an article on the course in the January 1930 issue of Golf Illustrated.

The course itself, with a slope rating of 119, is moderately difficult, although no one would ever confuse it with Jack Nicklaus’ Muirfield Village Golf Club (slope 130), which is 40 miles to the west. Mitchell said the mounds were a more formidable obstacle than they first appeared on the surface.

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

Efforts to fully recognize the importance of mounds, as there are more than unusual golf hazards date back about two decades to a time when an offer to build a new clubhouse, the foundation of which is said to have dug into the hills. mounds, was refused. At that point, a group led by local teachers and Native Americans mounted a protest campaign – and some locals began to question whether the course should exist.

Then, as now, the club’s reluctance to make room for global recognition for the site drew criticism.

“We wouldn’t want a country club on the Acropolis,” said John N. Low, citizen of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians and director of the Newark Earthworks Center, 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 heist is caused by a reluctance to respect the fact that the club also has some history and that it could not continue to exist at the amounts proposed for relinquish his lease.

“Everyone would love to paint us as rich fat cats,” Ralph Burpee, the club’s former general manager at the New York Times in 2005. “Well, that’s Newark, Ohio, which practically excludes the rich fatty cats. .

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

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

The owner of the property today is the Ohio History Connection, a statewide nonprofit that contracts with the state to oversee more than 50 historic sites. The nonprofit has leased the property to the club since its acquisition in 1933 and holds four open houses at the club each year, which before the pandemic included guided tours of the mounds. The establishment is also open to the public on Mondays or when the weather is not favorable for golf. The rest of the year, visitors must view the mounds from an elevated platform near the parking lot.

The History Connection wishes 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, such as the Taj Mahal and the Grand Canyon.

“We feel an obligation on the part of Ohio taxpayers to protect and responsibly interpret the historic value of the site,” said Burt Logan, executive director and CEO of History Connection. “And we hope we can finally do it soon.”

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

The Moundbuilders’ lease runs until 2078. And although Kratoville said the club was ready to move, History Connection and the club were separated by millions of dollars. In 2018, History Connection sued the club in an attempt to acquire the lease via a prominent estate.

Two lower courts have ruled in favor of History Connection, and it is now up to the Ohio Supreme Court to determine 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 a prominent estate about a century ago to acquire several acres of earthworks 100 miles south of the site of the Octagon.

The country club argues that History Connection did not negotiate in “good faith”, which is necessary before a takeover of a prominent field, and that the intended public objective – a broad program of research, services educational and preservation – could be accomplished without terminating the lease of a large employer.

Zachary J. Murry, an Ohio lawyer specializing in matters of eminent fields, said the court might not want to take on the role of deciding which of the competing public goals is better, as political decisions are usually made by other branches of government.

But if the tribunal took on that role, a question would, he said, be whether operating as a public park and the prospect of becoming a globally recognized wonder was sufficient justification to justify taking it now, when the recognition has not yet been made. allowed.

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

If the club moved, Kratoville said he was unsure whether Moundbuilders County Club would keep its name. But he certainly wouldn’t try to recreate the mounds, he said.

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

The Supreme Court is only responsible for deciding the issue of eminent domain. If it turns out that History Connection has the right to take over the lease, the compensation will be chopped at a later date in a lower court – an amount Murry said would likely fall somewhere between the two assessments.

Glenna Wallace, the first female chief of the Eastern Oklahoma Shawnee tribe, who views mound builders as her ancestors, said the dispute goes beyond monetary value. World Heritage recognition for earthworks – and full public access – would play a crucial role in reframing the way visitors think of Native Americans, she said.

“The sophistication required to create this shows that my ancestors were not savages,” she says. “It has to be open to people every day of the week, every day of the year.”

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