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Country Club Celebrates Centennial

April 27, 2006 By:
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The original Philmont clubhouse, circa 1909
Way back in the early days, just arriving at Philmont Country Club - located in what was then the underdeveloped suburb of Huntington Valley - could prove to be a chore.

"To get here was a problem," recalled 83-year-old Robert Rosenau, a longtime member of the club who served on the board for more than 50 years. "There were very few roads, and we had to borrow our parents' car or meet at the train station."

A full century after the club's inception in 1906, Huntington Valley has gone from dirt roads and farmland to become a prosperous and integral part of the region. Still, Philmont - one of the area's first Jewish country clubs - has remained constant.

With its 36-hole golf course, indoor and outdoor tennis facilities and large banquet halls, Philmont is a thriving entity hosting golf tournaments, weddings and other social activities.

To celebrate Philmont's 100th-year anniversary, the club has planned a Centennial Day for Saturday, Oct. 7, where members young and old will take part in golf and tennis tournaments using equipment from the early 1900s. That evening, Philmont will host a black-tie gala.

Since the country club straddles the border between Philadelphia and Montgomery counties, Philmont coined its very name by combining - and shortening - the two municipalities. The club's logo shows the shield of Philadelphia on the left, and Montgomery County's on the right.

Philmont was founded by the "crème de la crème of the Jewish community," said Cary Sandler, current president of Philmont. "Their first president - who was president for 40 years - was Eli Gimbel, the owner and founder of Gimbel's department store."

That sense of high society could be why Rosenau recalled the old days at the club as being much more formal. "We used to have Sunday-night movies on the porch," he related, shortly before hitting the links last week. "The men had to be in coats and ties, with no air-conditioning because you're sitting outside. It could be 100 degrees, and it didn't make any difference."

Along with showing "talkies" on the porch, over the years Philmont held concerts featuring the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Glen Miller.

The club was exclusively German-Jewish from the outset, perhaps because these folks migrated to America earlier than other European Jewish groups.

"It was probably because the German Jews came before the Polish and Russian Jews," said club historian Andy Karff.

In 1938, explained Rosenau, the club opened its doors to anybody who wanted to join; today, it remains mostly Jewish.

Rosenau's friend, Robert Blumenthal, 81, has been a member his entire life, and is, in fact, the longest running member at the club. Blumenthal fondly recalled old Saturday-night dances, where everyone did the jitterbug.

"It wasn't a question of where you were going on a Saturday night," he said. "It was automatic that those in the Jewish community were coming here."

As with many social institutions, the club fell on hard times during World War II when many of its members went off to serve in the armed forces.

"All the men were excused from dues while they were serving," said Karff, "which was most of the members. The club lost all that dues revenue and still managed to survive."

Karff, 45, added that Philmont housed 1,500 soldiers wounded in the war. Such an effort, combined with a loss of revenue, put the club into $150,000 worth of debt.

But even with such financial troubles, members were still able to raise significant amounts of money for the war effort.

"One evening at a party, they raised $600,000 for war bonds," said Karff. "So I think, whatever the cause is, this club steps up to the plate."

In recent times, Philmont has been committed to donating to organizations like the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the United Way.

"It's something the members are encouraged to do," said Sandler. "Not just to get in, but to continue to do once they're in the club. It's part of our heritage and tradition here."

The pride and joy of the club is its golf course, designed by golf architect William Flynn.

"It's pretty much the same course that he designed for us in 1924," said Karff. "It's been preserved and maintained."

Sandler feels that the amount of detail put into the design helps it to stand out: "It has the best greens in the area, traditional in that they are tiny and subtle. And our fairways are tight."

Perhaps the most dreaded hole on the course is the ninth - a horseshoe-shaped par 5.

"It's very difficult," said Karff. "It's wrecked many a round and frustrated many a golfer."

The club gears itself toward families by offering golf and tennis clinics for young children.

Sandler is hoping that the various attractions will keep folks coming to the club.

"I see it starting to change back to [the popularity of] the country club," he said, "as a place to eat, socialize, play golf, tennis, swim. We have a little more than the shore, without the drive."

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