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Paradise found but suddenly lost

Nowadays, if you want to create a legitimate golf course, you hire a golf course architect for at least $150/hour. Then you hire a construction team to actually build the course. Well, the Garden of Eden Country Club near the Burlington/Wilmington border had a very different birth. A dairy farmer with an eighth-grade education looked across his land, envisioned a successful golf course, and started moving earth.

His name? Millard Pipes, from Easton Maine, on the Canadian border. His unusual last name traces back to roving bagpipe players in Scotland. He had trekked all the way from Easton to Wilmington during the Great Depression, in search of work — and he found it at the dairy farm of Wisdom Evermond Bell in Wilmington, near the junction of Chestnut Street and Hillside Way (becomes Mill Street in Burlington). He then acquired the farm when Bell died suddenly. More on that later.

The Bell farm was historically known as the Garden of Eden. Bisected by Green Meadow Drive today, it once hosted wonderful and rare flora, including black birch trees. It also contains the oldest street in town, Mill Road, home of the area’s first European settler around 1665, a Scotsman named William Butter. Yes, he goes back so far in history, his surname was singular. His descendants added the “s” to make it Butters, as in Butters Row.

Here’s the Garden of Eden area in modern guise. That’s Chestnut Street across the bottom, Mill Road moving vertically on the right, and Green Meadow Drive splitting the middle, still under construction in this photo.

Garden of Eden location Wilmington MA

And here’s the same area when it was the Garden of Eden Country Club, the product of Millard Pipes’ handiwork. If you compare the images, you’ll see that some of the old fairways are still open areas today, especially the sixth, seventh and eighth fairways. The little pond near Green Meadow Drive, and its attached stream, fittingly form the shape of a golf club!

Garden of Eden golf course layout, Wilmington MAPipes opened the nine-hole course in 1962 and enlisted some investors, including his own grandson Barton, who had driven a tractor on the farm at age 10. After a few years, this homespun golf course was accepted into the local golf circuit. The local Rotary Club held their annual clam bakes there. Yes, Millard Pipes had built himself a legitimate golf course using only Yankee ingenuity.

Local golf courses 1971
1971 Lowell Sun ad

The club tried for some winter revenue by opening a ski area on the property, with an old tractor operating a rope-tow system that yanked skiers to the top of the hill. It didn’t last very long because it wasn’t very profitable. Besides, Millard and wife Ruby wanted to go elsewhere for the winter, like their home in Dundee, Florida.

Elaine Bertwell skiing at Garden of Eden in Wilmington, MA
Lowell Sun photo

So what went wrong? Ironically, it was grandson Barton who pulled the plug on the Country Club. Why? Shareholders were trying to oust his grandfather because he was taking too long to build the “back nine” holes across Chestnut Street to make the Garden of Eden an “official” 18-hole course.

Things turned tense in the early 1970s, Barton says. “The membership became impatient about finishing the golf course. What my grandfather should have done was go out and borrow the money to finish everything. But being part of the Depression era, he wasn’t willing to take that risk. He wouldn’t take on debt to get a good running business, and this prevented the expansion to 18 holes. He finally felt he was getting too old to continue, and with the spat with the board of directors, they ended up suing each other. My grandfather sued for back wages for being the greenskeeper, and they sued him because the course was not being built out.”

Who won? Millard did, with a surprise move in the mid-1970s.

See, he hadn’t put all of his land into the corporation. He still owned the seventh and eighth holes, so he hatched a plan. He instructed grandson Barton, who sat on the board of directors, to sell the seventh and eighth holes to residential developers. “I sold them right out from under the Garden of Eden Country Club,” Barton says. “A nine-hole course could have been viable, but if you take two of the holes away, it doesn’t work so well. Fortunately, I was living out of town. As you could imagine, I was not a very popular person at that point, but I was just doing what needed to be done to take care of my grandparents.” This forced an expensive reconfiguration of the property. Combined with the cost of finishing the golf clubhouse, the club went broke and dissolved in 1980.

The club’s demise was hardly the first trouble in paradise. Wisdom Evermond Bell, the dairy farmer who hired Millard at the start of this story, killed himself with a shotgun in November of 1945 at age 83 for reasons unknown. Millard and wife Ruby were sharing the house with the old farmer at the time. They heard a bang and found Bell with a hold in his chest. He had used a necktie to secure a shotgun to a chair, and pulled the trigger on himself.

He had lost his wife, but at least five years prior. He was in good health and was about to spend the winter in Florida, as he’d done for 25 years prior. He had no heirs, so the town seized the land and put it up for sale to cover unpaid property taxes. Millard swept in and bought it. That’s how he went from being a hired hand to owning the farm in the first place.

But even Bell’s shotgun death wasn’t the first trouble in paradise. In the summer of 1894, a mentally disturbed 16-year-old named William Johnson sat in front of his home on Chestnut Street and killed himself by swallowing rocks.

Maybe all the stress in the Garden of Eden — the collapse of the golf club and two suicides — could have been averted with a relaxing round of golf.

Garden of Eden ninth hole pond and clubhouse in background, Wilmington MA
The pond at the ninth hole and the never-completed clubhouse.

Garden of Eden Country Club scorecard front, Wilmington MA

Garden of Eden Country Club scorecard rear, Wilmington MA

Garden of Eden Country Club promotional flyer, Wilmington MA

Bell Farm Dairy extra order cards, Wilmington MA

Garden of Eden Country Club keychain
A club member gave this to Gary Johnson, whose house at 281A Chestnut Street served as the club headquarters in its early days. He grew up on Peach Orchard Road before moving to Wilmington as an adult.

 

A view of the seventh tee and ninth green today
A view of the seventh tee and ninth green, now known as Gary Johnson’s yard, 281A Chestnut Street, Wilmington.

 

The Bell farmhouse still stands at 300 Chestnut Street, near the junction of Hillside Way (becomes Mill Street once you cross into Burlington)
The Bell farmhouse still stands at 300 Chestnut Street, near the junction of Hillside Way (known as Mill Street once you cross into Burlington). Wilmington Town Crier photo.

9 thoughts on “Paradise found but suddenly lost Leave a comment

  1. Great article Robert! I have spent quite a bit of time at the Garden Of Eden over the years. Back when it was still operating as a golf course my neighborhood friends and I would ride our bikes through the course, much to the chagrin of the golfers.
    During my high school years it became a hangout spot on weekend nights.
    The first house I bought in Burlington was within a short distance of it and I would take my sons on nature walks and bike rides through the property often.
    I now live on Green Meadow Drive somewhere along the 1st hole.

  2. We used to caddy at the Garden of Eden. There were many characters who were members. Remember Walter Bakoian (sp?) and a guy named Mel ran the course. The caddies used to get in a lot of trouble.. won’t go into the details but it was a fun time for us young kids.

  3. i remember back in the late 60’s we used to cut through the woods off Mill Street to the golf course to look for lost balls in the woods, till we saw the red jeep coming and they used to chase us out. it was fun.

  4. great bit of history,bob…………………….well done and researched………………..mill street of course used to lead down to Mill Pond where the reservoir is today………………it was a pretty pond and place for fishing for small pickerel…………….carl johnson,bhs,54

  5. We used to go use the rope tow and ski down the pathetically little ski hill they had there in the mid 60’s. lol

    • There is still a piece of the pulley system mounted to a tree up on the hill behind the new homes Paul

      • Worked cutting grass , Dom Corsetti was my boss . Also worked on the second stage of the Club House (function Hall) my mother worked the snack counter . Great memories

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