Valleybrook's Past And Future

Friday, August 9, 2013 - by John Shearer

One of the great examples of the suburban life that characterized Chattanooga in the mid-to-late 20th century was the Valleybrook Golf and Country Club and the subdivision that surrounded it.


As young post-war couples married and began raising baby boomer children, many looked for comfortable residences in the suburbs away from any factories, mills or noise.


And many found that ideal lifestyle at Valleybrook, which was one of only a few developments in the country at the time to feature the new concept of a golf course running through planned home sites.


Considered nice but never overly exclusive, the Valleybrook subdivision and course became a big draw primarily for the town’s burgeoning upper middle class.


The course opened in 1962, the first homes began being built about the same time, and for decades Valleybrook remained a popular place to live and play golf.


However, although the development has recently reached the half-century mark, the general mood has been more blue than golden among course patrons anxious about its future.


As has been in the news, owners David Drake and his sisters, Nancy Donelson and Carolyn Sneider, have been going through court to break up the corporation that operates Valleybrook and go their separate ways financially.  As part of that process, the course will be sold at auction on Aug. 22 at 10 a.m. at the clubhouse.


One potential buyer, Henry Luken, has announced a meeting for Tuesday evening, Aug. 13, at the clubhouse to get potential feedback from Valleybrook members and residents interested in the club’s future.


Although some have wondered if Valleybrook has to remain a course due to any conservation easements or restrictions, Mr. Drake said no. He also said the potential future uses for it have varied, adding that he has heard proposals ranging from turning it into a daily greens fee course, to bulldozing the land for condominiums and housing.


“There’s a lot of possibilities,” he said.


Being involved directly and indirectly with the club since its early days, Mr. Drake is admittedly somewhat melancholy over its uncertain future.


“I’m sad,” he said. “I hope it stays a golf course, but there’s a good chance it won’t.”


Mr. Drake’s father, the late Carl Drake, was one of the original founders.


According to the first announcement about the project in the Chattanooga newspaper in December 1960, the company heading up the development was called DASAC. It came from the initials of the group members – secretary and treasurer Carl Drake Jr., director Pete Austin, Dr. Stewart Smith, director Clyde Abernathy and president and engineer Ed Chobot.


Burton Pierce, Dr. Houston Price and Lewis Card Sr. also became involved early on, although Mr. Drake eventually became the sole owner.


The area that became Creeks Bend was also initially eyed as part of the planned development as an additional, different kind of course, but Mr. Austin later built Creeks Bend separately.


Mr. Austin had apparently been the initiator of the idea for the Valleybrook development.


The late Don Nicholson, who helped run the Austin Feed and Seed store for Mr. Austin and was his business partner/confidante, recalled a few years ago that when Mr. Austin was trying to put together a team for the project, he said he needed a real estate person who could hustle and sell the lots. So Mr. Nicholson suggested Carl Drake, and that is how he evidently became involved.


Mr. Drake was evidently quite enthusiastic about the project and soon played a major role in its development.


Mr. Austin and the others decided to try to get Mr. Abernathy involved because he ran the recreation program at Dixie Yarns, was a customer at Austin’s and knew a lot of people. However, it took some convincing to get him to come there, Mr. Nicholson recalled.


Dr. Smith had been the Austin’s family doctor, and that is how he became involved. The Austins were also acquainted with Mr. Chobot.


Mr. Austin already owned some land in the area, and David Drake recalled that his father and Mr. Austin started buying additional land from such related families as the Swingles, Hixsons and Heaps. One piece of property even had a moonshine whiskey still behind a house, he said, indicating how far out in the country that area seemed at the time.


“The Rocket Drive-In (right near Hixson Pike and Middle Valley Road) was the turnaround place,” he said. “Not many people then went up to Chester Frost Park or out farther.”


Mr. Drake said his father in 1959 went to a homebuilders convention in Dallas, Texas, where a Radburn plan of putting houses around a golf course was presented, and that is where he thinks the idea of the Valleybrook layout originated.


Also, David Drake’s mother, Ruth, was looking at a Scholz house plan book about that time and saw a home called Valleybrook, and she thought that might be a good name for the development.


Another story involves the late Helen Austin, wife of Pete Austin, who recalled in an interview a few years ago that her family was trying to come up with a name. They thought about the brook running through the valley where the development was to sit, so they figured Valleybrook was a good name.


Whether that was after Mrs. Drake had seen the house plans name and suggested it is apparently lost to history. Regardless, the name was popularly received.


David Drake recalled that the course opened in May 1962. According to an old newspaper article, some kind of official opening dedication or ceremony was apparently also held on Oct. 11, 1962, when Tennessee Gov. Buford Ellington, Scotty Probasco, Lew Boyd, and Nashville club pro Melvin Deitch played in the first foursome.


The course architect was Charles “Chic” Adams, whose other designs included Fox Meadows in Memphis, Pinetree in Atlanta and courses throughout the country, including several in Florida. His Chattanooga course early on was known for its numerous dogleg-shaped holes and its massive-sized greens.


Valleybrook originally had the same numbering system for its holes as today, but for a period within a few years after the par-71 course opened until about 1981, the nines were switched. As a result, what is now No. 1 was No. 10. The current back nine has traditionally been thought of as the more difficult nine.


The clubhouse, which is considered one of the best examples in Chattanooga of the modernism style of architecture popular around 1960, was designed by architect Jim Franklin of the Selmon T. Franklin firm. He also drew the plans for the 1969 brick clubhouse addition on the west end.


The first home was built about the same time for Hager Odom at 118 Valleybrook Road, a residence that has been added onto and remodeled somewhat in recent years. By the late 1960s, most of the homes in the initial Valleybrook residential layout had been built.


The streets were originally to have such names as Colonial Circle and Burning Tree Road after golf courses, but were later changed to even more familiar golf-related names such as Masters Road and Baltusrol Road.


One person who was quite familiar with playing in the Masters and in the U.S. Open at Baltusrol was Arnold Palmer, who was talked into buying a couple of lots near the current No. 6 tee as an investment. According to David Drake, the club corporation handled the loan for Mr. Palmer and would yearly receive a check from his company until it was paid off.


Eddie Davidson later built a house where the lots were.


Zack Coley, the grandson of Mr. Abernathy, who was involved along with Mr. Drake in getting Mr. Palmer to buy the lots, started working at the Valleybrook club as an 11-year-old during its early years.


He continued working there regularly until the age of 19 and remembers that it was the happening place.


“It was one of the best golf courses in the Southeast,” he said, adding that early greenskeeper Arlen Grant and his son, Jimmy, kept it immaculate. “It had the biggest greens in the Southeast. That’s what drew all the members and all the players. Who’s who in amateur golf was coming there to be a member.”


He added that the club – which was an early developer of Champion Bermuda grass -- was somewhat different in that it had a good cross section of people. While most of the golfers from the established families of Chattanooga remained at courses like Chattanooga and Lookout Mountain, Valleybrook did draw a few people with money, as well as those who had regular incomes but simply wanted to play a nice course with a smaller initiation and monthly fee.


 “This was a place a common golfer could come and be a member,” he said. “Valleybrook was new age.”


Among the early good young golfing members, he recalled, were Coy and Mickey Mabry, Gary Chazen, and Hunt and Wes Gilliland, among others. They and some of the area’s other good golfers would play in the club’s Red Bud Invitational, which quickly became one of Chattanooga’s marquee golf tournaments.


Mr. Coley said the early Valleybrook staff included people like his grandfather, as well as Mr. Abernathy’s red-headed British assistant, Ms. Betty, and the easy-going pro Ed Myers. Mr. Myers, who had come from more of a working-class background, was known for tweaking with people’s golf swings but not over-analyzing or over-correcting them.


And in his dealings with people, he also knew how to handle them in a more-restrained way.


“Ed Myers was just a gracious gentleman,” he said. “He was a thin guy who knew how to strike a golf ball. He was an all-around good guy. I learned a lot about how to be around people from Ed Myers.”


Mr. Coley also remembers that his grandfather helped the club greatly during its early years.


“He knew golf,” he said. “He knew how to get lowballs and dogfights started. He knew how to sell lots. And he was a good manager.”


Mr. Coley, who went on to enjoy a successful working career in sales for Heil, said he learned a lot about business from his years working at Valleybrook. And he even gained a little extra business there in an unusual way.


Card and dice games became popular, and they would often run late into the night. As a result, a club employee would have to stay there late and close up, and Mr. Coley often spent the night on a small bed in the men’s locker room. But it worked out well for him, as the winner of the games had to give him a nice tip of $100.


As the 1970s arrived and the club became known for its junior golf program headed by Jack McKenna, Mr. Drake began running the club pretty much exclusively with the help of his son, David. A smart and successful businessman, the older Mr. Drake became the legendary face of Valleybrook with his unique personality.


In 1977, the club was leased to Jerry Norman, Dr. Robert Demos, Dr. Harry Jones and Dr. Charles Portera.


In 1981, Rob Landham, a former pro at the club during its early years, began leasing the club for nearly 20 years. An innovative person, he helped bring a PGA men’s tournament to the club from 1983-91.


He also made some subtle changes to the course, including reversing the nines, and building a lake near where the current No. 4 green is. Before that, the hole had been a fairly simple par 4, other than another lake near the tee.


About the time Mr. Landham began leasing the club, a Tennessee football player named Reggie White was working out on the course during the summers.


Valleybrook early in its history had also hosted the Rock City Open for women, bringing such notable golfers as Betsy Rawls, Mickey Wright and Kathy Whitworth.


The two Gibby Gilberts later leased the course for several years before David Drake took over day-to-day operation of the club in early 2011 while working with his sisters.


The younger Mr. Drake said getting to operate Valleybrook after being involved with it in various ways over the years was on his bucket list of activities to do.


“My family and my people had put a lot of sweat equity in that place,” he said.


He said he has great memories of growing up at the club, and has developed numerous friendships from all the members and people who have worked with him and his family there over the years. And with often having to spend seven days a week there, many of these people became like family, he said.


He still loves the Valleybrook club and course and wishes it well, he said, even though he does not know what the future holds now that it is being auctioned to settle the wishes of the court.


“It’s a special place,” he said. “I would hate to think it’s going to die, but if that’s what the future holds, there’s not much I can do about it.”

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