The first movie night in the history of Essex County Country Club—the oldest country club in New Jersey, 125 years old this month—took place one evening in 1913. The members were quite excited, and for good reason. The projectionist was Thomas A. Edison, a distinguished member of the club who was about to show off his new invention, talking motion pictures.
But Edison was hardly the only august member of the West Orange club. In the early years after Essex was incorporated in 1887, its founding fathers included W. Emlen Roosevelt, a railroad developer and a cousin of Teddy Roosevelt; U.S. senator Joseph Frelinghuysen of the famous New Jersey political family; Colonel August Colgate of the Colgate soap family; Edward D. Duffield, president of Prudential Insurance; and George W. Merck, president of what was then called Merck Chemical. A club legend has it that several influential members, at a private luncheon with Woodrow Wilson, then New Jersey’s governor, first suggested he should run for president, and Wilson replied that he would consider it.
Today, ECCC boasts one of the finest golf courses in the state, its vistas restored by a recent removal of clogging trees. “It’s like stripping away years of oxidation and dirt off a master painting,” says member Joe Bargmann. “All classic golf courses are dictated by the natural contours of the land, and that is really true at Essex.”
Over the years, famous golfers including Bobby Jones, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson have played at Essex, not to mention celebrities like Babe Ruth, Cecil B. DeMille and President William Howard Taft, a skilled (if rotund) amateur. For all that history, in the club’s early years golf wasn’t in the picture at all. Fox hunting was the rage, along with polo, lawn tennis, squash and trap shooting. The latter eventually was dropped after neighbors objected to the noise.
For many years strictly WASPy, Essex is now diverse. “The de-WASPification started kind of late, coincidental with or just after the civil rights movement in the ’60s, but it has made the club stronger,” says Bargmann. “We’ve got every hyphenated thing you can name, and that makes you feel glad to be a member.”