Willow Brook Country Club celebrates 90 years

Willow Brook Country Club celebrated its 90 year anniversary this weekend with a four-day celebration.

 

Willow Brook Country Club was formed in Tyler before the famous East Texas Oil Field was discovered and before Lake Tyler was created. It was a time when the city had a population of 12,100 and radio was sweeping the nation.

The oldest country club in Tyler, Willow Brook is celebrating its 90th anniversary. The club hosted a four-day event this weekend to celebrate the anniversary, the opening of the new swimming pool and Memorial Day.

In August 1922, Tyler community members signed a charter to create and maintain what would later become Willow Brook. But its history goes back 16 months earlier.

"The most enthusiastic crowd of the year (numbering 63 persons) met in the county courtroom last night and entered into a permanent organization to build a modern country club with golf links, tennis courts and everything that goes to make up a modern country club," an April 29, 1921, Tyler Morning Telegraph article stated. "The organization … will be known as the Tyler Country Club."

The charter was signed by 11 men. There were 112 charter members, and the membership was closed at 150 people in 1923. Willow Brook now has about 870 members and continues to grow.

 

ONLY GAME IN TOWN

"For years, it was the only game in town," John Deibel, a 40-year member, said of Willow Brook. "The core membership has remained the same."

Deibel, 85, grew up in St. Louis and moved to Dallas in 1955 when he was transferred by the building materials company he worked for. He also married his wife, Dolly, in 1955.

In 1962, he began working as a job superintendent for a real estate development group in Dallas. He founded Deibel Companies Inc. in 1982 and co-owns it with his four sons. He developed Bullard Place, as well as several other subdivisions and apartments in Tyler, Athens and Jacksonville.

Deibel became a Willow Brook member in 1973, served on the board of directors three times and was president in the early 1990s.

"To be the president of your club is probably one of the highest social honors a guy could have," Deibel said. "To be elected president of your club, I couldn't have a better memory."

Deibel's son, Tom Deibel, and grandson, John F. Deibel, are active at Willow Brook. As three generations of Deibels have been a part of the club, he sees many other generations of families there.

"I'm a Willow Brook fan; always have been; always will be," Deibel said, adding that he is not as active anymore but still enjoys spending time there in the Men's Grill and restaurant, as well as attending parties and events there.

Initially, 87.5 acres were purchased for the club on West Erwin Street, then known as Dixie Highway. A neighboring 35-acre tract was added in 1941. The name Dixie Highway Country Club was adopted, but it was later changed to Willow Brook.

In 1923, dues were raised from $40 to $60 a year to help build the clubhouse, which was completed along with a nine-hole golf course, according to earlier reports.

The facility included a wooden building with a "ballroom," a dining room and a "cool" porch under electric fans. Gradually it grew. The basement room for the golf shop outgrew its purpose and a proper pro shop was built, and in 1935, golf pro Ralph Morgan moved in to stay. He was there 45 years, until he retired in 1982.

The golf course grew to 18 holes in 1961.

Construction of the current clubhouse, a Georgian Colonial design made of brick and white columns, was completed in 1962, replacing a much smaller wooden facility constructed in the 1940s.

It was built with the help of local architect Shirley Simmons, and director of interior design, Millard Sheets, of California, an internationally renowned designer and decorator.

Sheets also designed a mosaic tile mural, which remains in the facility. The entrance floor was made from travertine marble from a quarry in Italy.

In the main bar, the wood-paneled bar and brick floor is original from the 1960-61 construction, as well as the chandeliers in the adjacent wooden-floor ballroom.

General Manager Ray Rocha said the spaces are used nearly every other day for business and organization luncheons and meetings, weddings and other events.

 

MEMORIES

Chad Hanna Sr., 89, a Willow Brook member since 1947, recalls "spending time with family and friends, playing golf and just enjoying life."

Hanna, a lifelong Tyler resident, has been in the home building and realty business for 60 years.

He joined Willow Brook primarily to play golf and served as president of the club in the mid-1990s.

Hanna still goes to Willow Brook for lunch once or twice a week and is a member of its Super Club, which meets monthly. He also spends time in the Men's Grill and celebrates special occasions with his family there.

"It has been real good from a family standpoint," Hanna said.

Through the years, his wife of 65 years, Jean Hanna, swam, golfed and played Mahjong at Willow Brook while he golfed. His son, Chad Hanna Jr., is a social member there, and his daughter, Laura Waits, is a member and former tennis pro. Hanna also has grandchildren who have grown up swimming at Willow Brook.

"I'm very proud of Willow Brook," he said." It's been a real asset to my family and a lot of other families."

Henry Bell III, 59, said his favorite memories of Willow Brook were his childhood summers — "those long days spent out there bonding with friends. That was our lives."

Bell recalls being dropped off at the club in the mornings and spending his days there with friends golfing, swimming and eating.

His grandfather, the late Henry Bell Sr., his father, the late Henry Bell Jr., and his brother, Allen Bell, served as presidents of the club.

Bell is still a member at Willow Brook but doesn't have time to golf anymore. He spends his time there eating and taking his three grandkids to swim.

A.J. "Trigger" Triggs, 83, moved to Tyler from Dallas and joined Willow Brook in 1955.

"When I moved to Tyler, Willow Brook was the club," he said. "It was a good, well-established club with a wonderful, very challenging golf course."

Triggs started playing golf for the then North Texas State University team when it won four national championships. He played in the semi-finals NCAA tournament in 1954 and won about 50 golf tournaments, mostly in East Texas, throughout his golfing career. He has been club champion at Willow Brook seven times and runner-up at least seven more times.

One of Triggs' fondest memories is the three years he and his son battled for the club championship. After Triggs won the first two years, his son, Mark Triggs, "ran over me like an 18-wheeler," he said.

His two sons and daughter grew up at the club and his son, Byron Triggs, is still a member. His wife of 62 years, Lessley, played golf until a few years ago.

Triggs said he doesn't have much golf game left, but he still spends time at the club hitting balls and eating there three or four times a week. He said he still shoots under his age most of the time.

"I'm going to do it until I drop the soap," he said of playing golf.

About 18 years ago, fellow golfers formed the A.J. Triggs Cup, a tournament played each year between Willow Brook and Hollytree Country Club members.

"That really is quite an honor for me," he said.

Triggs, who was an agent with the New York Life Insurance Co. for 40 years, served as president of Willow Brook in the 1990s and has served on the board of directors three times. He has been active in the Texas Golf Association for 40 years, serving twice as its president and on the board of directors for 30 years.

 

MEMBERS ONLY

Despite the downed economy during the last several years, Triggs said, "Willow Brook is healthier now than it's ever been. That's due to good management and sticking to your values … We're probably in better shape all the way around since I've been a member."

He said Willow Brook is one of the only member-owned country clubs in East Texas.

Rocha said most clubs are investor owned or corporately owned.

"Membership is everything," he said. "The membership here always has the club's best interest at heart."

Rocha said the 870 members are made up of all age groups and include stockholders as well as junior, social, young professional and non-residential members.

Since 2001, Willow Brook has undergone major renovations.

The Men's Grill and locker rooms were remodeled and the front of the facility was repainted and dressed, Rocha said.

The greens and irrigation also were redone in 2001. He said it was the first major upheaval the club had in recent history and cost about $3 million.

In 2010, a 3,000-square-foot addition was made to the 26,000-square-foot club for The New Grill, Rocha said. Also that year, the tennis shop was razed and rebuilt.

The swimming pool and surrounding area recently underwent renovations. The original pool was included in the movie, "Strike it Rich," filmed in 1946, Rocha added.

Deibel has been a member of Brook Hollow Golf Club, as well as Brookhaven and Canyon Creek country clubs in the Dallas area, but Willow Brook remains his favorite.

"Willow Brook is my club because of its membership," he said. "I don't know of a place I've ever been where a membership is more supportive that it is at Willow Brook."

Rocha, 53, has been general manager for nine years and has been working at country clubs for 32 years. "It's been fantastic," Rocha said of working at Willow Brook. "I think I've been a good fit for the club and the club has definitely been a good fit for me."

 

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