The Falls of Schuylkill, known as “East Falls”, is a little neighborhood in Philadelphia on the east bank of the Schuylkill River between Strawberry Mansion and Manayunk. In the 1890s seventy-five percent of the area’s workers were employed by Dodson’s, a weaving mill that had supplied blankets to the Union Army during the Civil War. Dodson’s had two classes of employees; English weavers and Irish laborers. In 1893 the Philadelphia Country Club constructed a golf course on its grounds a mile or so west of the Schuylkill near City Line Avenue. There was now a need for caddies, and golf was introduced to East Falls. Up until that time the Irish boys usually dropped out of school when they reached the age of 14 and went into the mill, but now there were caddy jobs and the parents were happy to get them out in the fresh air, away from the drinking in the mill.
It didn’t take long for some of the boys to become accomplished golfers. They chipped and putted in the caddy yard while awaiting employment, and they played the course on Mondays. By the early 1900s the boys from The Falls were becoming assistant pros, and within a few years they were being hired as head pros by the Philadelphia clubs.
At one point there were 48 young men holding positions as head pros or assistant pros who had lived in East Falls. Some became famous, and some were colorful characters.
East Falls’ most famous golfer was Jack Burke, Sr. who worked at several Philadelphia clubs before moving west. Burke missed winning the 1920 U.S. Open by one stroke while working at the Town & Country Club in St. Paul, Minnesota. He went on to win the Senior PGA Championship in 1941. His son Jack Burke, Jr. won a PGA Championship and a Masters Tournament.
Another caddy graduate of East Falls was Joe Roseman, who went west to work for Burke and became a pro-green superintendent. Roseman also designed more than 50 golf courses, pioneered the use of complete underground watering systems, and in 1922 built a night-lighted par-three course. Elected in 1922, he was the Illinois PGA’s first president. Roseman invented and manufactured golf course mowers that were sold under the Roseman name. One of his inventions was a hollow mower roller to preserve the turf. Some golf courses are still using Roseman mowers and looking for parts on the Internet.
Bill Byrne, an East Falls caddy, turned pro at age 17 to work for the professional at the Philadelphia Country Club. While later serving as the head professional at Aronimink G.C., Overbrook G.C. and St. Davids G.C., he was a founder of the PGA of America and the Philadelphia PGA. He met a caddy named Johnny McDermott while working at Aronimink. Later McDermott would give Byrne credit for strengthening his game sufficiently to win the U.S. Open in 1911 and 1912.
A famous East Falls caddy who didn’t become a golf professional was John B. Kelly, Sr., the father of the actress Grace Kelly. Kelly won gold medals in rowing at the Olympics in both 1920 and 1924. Kelly became a successful business man and a power broker in Philadelphia. His brother George Kelly wrote a prize-winning play called “The Showoff” using Matt Duffy, one of those colorful caddies from East Falls, as his inspiration for the lead character.
For years the caddies from East Falls were always arguing about who was their best golfer, so in 1920 they decided to hold an East Falls Open. The tournament, 36 holes in one day, was only for golfers who lived in East Falls or had lived there. The Philadelphia Country Club hosted the tournament on a Monday and went on to host the first 17. The winner was Bill Leach who was the professional at Overbrook for 33 years. He would win three more East Falls Opens and in 1930 he finished second in the Miami Open to Gene Sarazen.
In September the East Falls Open, which is now called the East Falls Golf Championship, will be played for the 96th time.