BY JEFF FALK
FREEPORT MILLS – After enduring an eight-month, weather-related closure, Freeport Mills is again open for business. But what one can’t help but wonder is how much longer Lebanon County’s oldest public golf course can remain open.
Yet Freeport Mills owner Jim Schock didn’t reach 85 years of age by worrying about the future. He realized along time ago that we – not unlike his golf course – are all leading day-to-day existances.
Located in North Lebanon township, on the east side of Route 343, across from Pine Meadows Golf Complex, the 70 acres of land that hosts Freeport Mills would be worth more money as farm land or lots for a housing development than it is as a golf course. But sometimes a man just becomes connected with a piece of land.
“I’m not unpleased being here,” said Schock. “I’m more interested in the history and continuation of the business (than money). We have customers who have been very loyal to us. They keep coming here. But they keep dying.”
That emphasis is just one of the things that makes Freeport Mills different than the other seven golf courses in Lebanon County. The fairways are a bit more rustic, the greens don’t putt quite as true and there is no luxurious clubhouse.
Geographically, the nine-hole Freeport Mills Golf Course is split into four unequal quadrents by the interesection of the little Swatara Creek and Golf Road. Par is 33 on the 2,022-yard layout, whose longest test is the 283-yard, par-four second hole.
“I have no idea what the future holds,” said Schock, who relies on son Edward to maintain the golf course. “Hell, I’m 85. What future do I have? I’m living on borrowed time now.
“He (Edward) has interest in it,” Schock added. “But I have other children, and grandchildren, and I have to do something for them. He’s (Edward) an attorney who’d rather be a golf course superintendent.”
More than a year after a 2010 tornado ravaged the course and uprooted more than a dozen mature oaks, Freeport Mills was hit hard by September’s tropical storm Lee. The deluge of rains swelled the little Swatty’s flood waters some nine feet past the former high mark of Agnes in 1972.
The flood waters ruined greens, and when they subsided, left residual creek-bottom stone in the middle of fairways. Freeport Mills re-opened again two weeks ago, on Memorial Day weekend.
“Actually, it’s what the industry is demanding right now,” said Schock. “Shorter courses that take less time to play. They say these types of courses should be busier, but Mother Nature has been very tough on us. In 2010, a tornado ripped out 120 trees, and then Lee came around.
“Lee was worse for us than Agnes, by about nine feet,” Schock continued. “Before the tornado three years ago, we had the best business opening we ever had. But then it halted. Mother Nature said, ‘No’.”
Schock’s owned Freeport Mills for 45 years and once operated it with the help of his wife Dorothy, who passed away seven years ago. In many ways, Dorothy Schock is still very much a part of the course.
“I bought it in 1967,” said Schock, who worked as a bio-chemist at Lebanon’s Central Chemical for 19 years after graduating from Penn State in 1952. “I didn’t intend to buy it. I was out selling seed and fertilizer and the owner said, ‘Woud you like to buy a golf course?” I offered him a lot less than he was asking. And then one night at about five o’clock in the morning he called me up and said, “You bought yourself a golf course.’
“If someone came along who wanted to buy it, and my son doesn’t want to buy it, I’d consider the offer,” Schock continued. “I’ve had people approach me recently, seven retired guys from Pine Grove who want to operate a golf course. But they didn’t come up with any money yet.
“It’s an expensive venture to operate. I have about $100,000 into it. But we didn’t talk money.”
Full of memories and a great way to stay busy, money might be the least important reason for Schock to continue to operate Freeport Mills.
“I never had that thought, no,” said Schock of putting the course up for sale. “This has been an education for me. Part of my Penn State experience was in turf management. Yes, it has affected the way I’ve lived my life.
“The golf course market is in a flux,” Schock continued. “Many people are buying golf courses at a quarter of the cost. I have no idea what it’s worth. I’m thinking it’s $650,000. It’s worth more as a farm now. It’s crop land.
“We (Schock and his son) don’t leave until eight o’clock or nine o’clock at night. Are we making a lot of money? No, we’re not.”
But as long as Schock owns Freeport Mills, he will continue to be a business man.
“People in Lebanon County are changing,” said Schock. “They didn’t want to come out here because they didn’t have carts to ride. When I advertise it as a walking course, I’m eliminating a lot of people. And not older people, but younger people who want to ride.
“People are creatures of habit,” continued Schock. “Once they start going somewhere, they continue to go there.”
Takes one to know one.