By Amy Scattergood
Golf, as with the sports of alpine skiing and, say, curling, has historically been played by predominantly white players. But long before Tiger Woods changed the face of his sport, there was Dewey Brown, widely credited as the first African-American PGA Professional.
Brown joined the Professional Golfer’s Association in 1928, a time when the sport was still segregated. A very light-skinned man, apparently Brown’s race didn’t come up at the time. It would be 33 years before the PGA removed the “Caucasian-only” clause from its bylaws.
Born in North Carolina in 1899, Brown eventually made the North Country his home, both personally and professionally, when in 1947 he bought the Cedar River Golf Club in Indian Lake.
According to a 2017 story in PGA Magazine, Brown purchased the property, which he then managed, as a response to his difficulty finding a job due to discrimination. By buying the nine-hole golf course and a small hotel that went with it, he could manage and serve as resident professional — at 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 when they were kids during the summer. The course had been built in 1932 by three local men on property owned by Dr. Carol Goulet, who also owned the adjacent Cedar River House. It was Goulet who sold the property to Brown.
Brown’s route to the Adirondacks took him from North Carolina to New Jersey, where he became a caddy at a Madison, N.J., nine-hole private golf course — as an eight-year-old. There, Brown not only learned the game but also how to make golf clubs. He would eventually make a set for President Warren G. Harding.
Brown worked for a number of New Jersey golf courses over the years as his game and his club-making skills improved. Though he became a member of the PGA in 1928 without incident, that membership was revoked in 1934 without any explanation — though many believe it was because his race was discovered. His application for reinstatement would not be approved until 1965.
Brown lived in the Adirondacks for more than a quarter of a century. After buying the Cedar River House and adjacent 9-hole course in 1947, Brown built cottages and a swimming pool on the property. He spent the rest of his career, playing, teaching and crafting clubs at Cedar River. He and his wife Barbara raised their three sons, all of whom became avid golfers, in Indian Lake.
As for why Brown came to the North Country in the first place, Brown said he was asked that a lot. He told a group of 150 friends and colleagues who gathered at Indian Lake to celebrate his 25 years there that he’d initially been offered the property by a real estate company.
“I’d been to Lake George and to Lake Placid, but never to this part of the Adirondacks,” Brown was quoted in a 1972 piece marking the occasion in The Hamilton County News.
“A lot of work, but a lovely spot,” Brown said. “I have never seen a more beautiful course.”
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He retired in 1972, a year before his death, and left Cedar River to his middle son, Dewey Brown, Jr. His son would sell it in 1976 to Robert Below, also a golf professional.
His oldest son Ronald would serve in World War Two as a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, the group of primarily African American military pilots and airmen who were the first Black aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps, the precursor to the Air Force.
Ronald’s son, Brown’s grandson Roland, would eventually donate his father’s Congressional Gold Medal and uniform to the Adirondack Experience museum in Blue Mountain Lake, about 10 miles northwest of Brown’s old golf course. Adirondack Experience — closed for the last year due to the pandemic, the museum will reopen in May — also holds old photos of and articles about Brown, as well as one of the wooden golf clubs he made.
Dewey Brown is still up in the North Country, having been buried — in his golfer’s green jacket — at the Indian Lake Cemetery near the Cedar River golf course where he lived and played for so many years.
“My dad tells a story about how he shanked a shot off the first hole and it was at Dewey’s gravestone,” recalls Tedd Goldblatt, whose family bought the Cedar River property in 1986. “I guess Dewey wanted to check him out.”
“We didn’t inherit much of anything from his time,” added Goldblatt, just a few articles and a plaque on the wall of the pro shop. The hotel is long gone. “We built a new 9th green back in the ‘90s,” said Goldblatt, “but the course is the same.”
Ernest D. Virgil grew up in Indian Lake and remembers working for Brown as a teenager. Virgil, who is now the Hamilton County Historian, only learned that Brown was the first African American PGA member when he looked Brown up a few years ago.
“Dewey Brown was a nice man,” said Virgil, who worked as a greenskeeper at the Cedar River golf course the summer after he graduated from high school. “He was a gentleman in everything that he did.”