An extended family puts its land to new use – betting the farm on a bumper crop of greens.
Bull Creek Golf and Country Club is a 170-acre family dream wrapped around a dead-end country road near Louisburg. If you visit, you might get a bouncy ride in a weathered dump truck driven by 54-year-old Zollie Gill.
He’ll point out the No. 3 green “where the hog pens used to be,” and a clump of trees in the middle of the fairway “where we used to skin our beef cattle after the first freeze.” An old tobacco barn peeks out from the woods bordering the eighth fairway, and at the bottom of the hill, there’s a catfish pond that now serves as a water hazard.
In 1924, a farmer named Zollie Massenburg bought 75 acres in Franklin County where he and his wife, Martha, raised cotton, potatoes, tobacco and 14 children. Today, seven families of Massenburg descendants and relatives live in sturdy brick houses at the end of Massenburg-Baker Road. There was a time when the white dots in their yards were windblown cotton bolls; today they’re errant golf balls.
Like many small farmers in Eastern North Carolina, they found they could no longer make a decent living raising low volumes of tobacco, cotton, corn, and soybeans. And the young generation had little interest in doing so. Most of the families had given up on farming five years ago, taking up white-collar jobs such as schoolteacher, the county magistrate, and small-business owner. They leased their land, which brought in barely enough to cover taxes. Still, they weren’t willing to part with property that had been in the family for generations.
So they turned it into a golf course – one of only a handful of black-owned courses in the country. It’s a long hop from hog pens and tobacco barns to manicured greens with underground sprinklers, but the families are staking their savings and their land on making it work. They’ve poured $900,000 into opening nine holes. It will take an additional $600,000, they estimate, to finish the back nine and a clubhouse.
Bull Creek, which opened in October, is the toil and pride of three generations. Weddings through the years have brought in new names, but all of the investors are family by blood or by marriage. Just as Old Man Massenburg left rich farmland to his descendants, these families are growing a new legacy in the same fields.
The CEO is Sam Solomon, 58, a slim, necktie-wearing man who married into the Massenburg. He lived in New Jersey for 17 years, returned to Franklin County in 1977 and built a big brick house that now has a golf course for a backyard. Though confident he can make Bull Creek a success, he’s hanging onto his day job as a junior-high vocational-education teacher.
His key partner is the family’s patriarch, Warren Massenburg, 71, a broad-shouldered, no-nonsense man and last surviving son of Grandpa Massenburg. He owns three rest homes and raises cattle on the side. He also is chairman of the Franklin County school board. His right-hand man is nephew Zollie Gill. He’s the one who likes to show visitors where the tobacco-plant bed used to lie – right in the middle of what’s now the No. 2 fairway.
Twenty years ago, Gill was the family’s only golfer. For a long time, he looked at those rolling hills, the creek, and the lake and thought, “Man, what a golf course that would make.” He talked Sam Solomon into playing. “Some of the older family folks died, and others quit farming,” Gill says. “We needed to do something. And once Sam started playing golf, he and I started talking about a golf course.”
When they proposed the idea to Warren Massenburg, the largest landowner, in spring 1993, he thought it was a joke. He was getting ready to move some of his cattle onto the land. “When I started thinking about the best way to utilize the acreage that our fathers and uncles left us, I realized that a golf course could be one of the best things we ever did.”
Late that fall, Solomon called a meeting of the five major-landowner families. He needed a firm consensus to proceed. “The land is put together like a puzzle,” he says. “Anyone of the five families could have stopped the project. Their land is that strategically located.” He expected some reluctance but got little…