Collage of photos of Octagon Mound

To stand on the top of Observatory Mound at the Newark Octagon – to see the massive Native American earthwork stretch out in the distance – can be a mind-bending experience. It transforms one into the Great Shaman of the Hopewell, experiencing what their spiritual leaders saw and lived roughly 2,000 years ago.

The problem is, getting to the Observatory Mound requires trespassing on private property. (pictured above).

What’s worse, once at the Observatory Mound, it’s hard to ignore the par 4 on the right – one of many golf holes that cut through what is arguably the most significant pre-historical site in Ohio, perhaps more compelling and mysterious than Serpent Mound.

A few days per year the golf course, the private Moundbuilders Country Club, does allow visitors to walk the entire Octagon.

The Ohio History Connection (OHC) owns the Octagon’s property, but why the OHC in 1997 renewed Moundbuilders Country Club’s lease until the year 2078 perplexes anyone who loves the state’s ancient Native American earthworks. Some say that at the time, the OHC needed money or didn’t have the wherewithal to save the Octagon from developers.

But to keep this sacred Native American geometric structure a golf course is considered by some to be naively selfish and greedy. It’s original purpose was clearly not to be a place to swat a tiny white ball around while downing cans of beer. The Octagon in many ways is a temple to the moon, one that tracks the moon’s 18.6-year major cycle.

“There’s a certain commonality of the human experience, and one is looking into the night sky and seeing this object move across the sky and change shape. A source of light that seems to have a life and will of its own,” said Ray Hively, the now-retired Earlham College professor who in the 1980s discovered that the Octagon was clocking the 18.6-year major cycle of the moon. “But it’s important to recognize that to a pre-historic culture the moon would appear to be a very powerful and probably divine object.”

This is why the Hopewell spent generations observing and then building something akin to the Great Pyramids and Stonehenge, says Hively. 

“No other pre-historic structure has the same combination of monumental skill and geometrical precision that the Newark Octagon has,” he said.

Any longtime golfer will tell you that the Moundbuilders Country Club is not true to the game of golf. The course is flat like a pancake. Its greens are far from exceptional. The mounds themselves act as hazards, but some think this gives the course a distinct phoniness.

Many have trespassed to get a better look and feel for the Octagon. But someday possibly soon, the entire world can freely visit the Octagon and experience its connection to the celestial heavens.

The Ohio Supreme Court on Tuesday, April 13 at 9am will begin  hearing an appeal from the Moundbuilders Country Club after a lower court in 2019 ruled the OHC can terminate its lease with them. The hearing can be viewed on the Ohio Channel.

Over a century ago the OHC and the country club became necessary partners to preserve the Octagon. The OHC is trying to terminate the lease early through eminent domain. But Moundbuilders is the tenant that refuses to go. The club’s board of trustees’ president Dave Kratovilletold the Free Press the OHC can have the Octagon back in 2078 when the lease is up.

If the Ohio Supreme Court rules in favor of Moundbuilders it will remain a private golf course with extremely limited public access.

If it rules for OHC and Native Americans, the Octagon will be designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the UN’s heritage arm. Sources say Moundbuilders must vacate if Ohio wishes to have its first World Heritage Site.

The Free Press has been following this story for nearly a decade, and sources have told us World Heritage status means tourists from around the globe will begin visiting Newark and Columbus.

But this isn’t about revitalizing the city of Newark. This is about correcting and reversing the historical indignity the golf course still symbolizes.

“I understand they [Moundbuilders Country Club] have been there many years and have an emotional attachment, but I can’t help but wonder why they don’t realize there are attachments that precede theirs,” said Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma Chief Glenna J. Wallace.

The Shawnee were forced to walk from Ohio to Oklahoma following the Indian Relocation Act of 1830. They claim stewardship of the Octagon because they are descendants of the Hopewell.

Jeff Gill of Newark has spent a career working with at-risk youth, but his passion are Newark’s earthworks. In 2019 the Free Press attended a tour where Gill led a group through the aging streets of Newark showing how the ancient walls and roads leading to the Octagon were possibly a ceremonial route to honor the deceased and for the living to walk and feel connected to a larger cosmos.

Standing outside the Octagon that day, Gill pointed to Moundbuilders Country Club: “It’s time for them to go.”

“If we didn’t raise a finger to talk about the damage that has been done, the damage that is being done, in the name of so-called ‘golf course preservation,’ and if we just backed away, they’re still closing in probably about ten years,” said Gill back then. “Their membership numbers, everything about their financial survivability, is headed into the tank. They won’t be there until 2078. Their time is naturally coming to an end.”

Kratoville, the club’s board of trustees’ president, said 20 years ago Moundbuilders had 500 members, but like many private golf clubs across the nation, its membership has dropped since then.

“We did have a declining membership,” he said. “We now maintain a membership level around 300, and it declined with the OHC litigation, all the way down to 250 members in 2019.”

But the current reality is that after changes were made, says Kratoville, the club is now on “solid financial footing.”

“We have made money four of the last five years,” he said. “And for the last two years our membership is up. We are currently at 317 members.”

Moundbuilders membership believes it has preserved the integrity of the mounds, and done so since 1910.

“We’re not destroying anything. There’s no structural damage. There’s no heritage that’s there. These are not burial grounds. These are lunar calendar ceremonial mounds,” he said. “Preservation took place before the OHC had the wherewithal to do anything. And then later, and even now, when they were chronically short on money to take care of properties, they deemed it a good deal to lease the property to us. The membership takes pride in the fact we’ve kept the mounds in the same good shape over the last 110 years.”

But Kratoville insists the club is not locked in at the Octagon. “We’ve always said, if you are willing to pay us enough money to move, we will consider that.”

After appraisals, the OHC wanted to pay $1.6 million. Kratoville says Moundbuilders would need $25 million, which includes building a new golf course.

There is an exit strategy for Moundbuilders, an option that at the very least gives them a decent golf course. Not far from the Octagon is the public golf course Raccoon International, currently for sale at $1.9 million.

Kratoville says Raccoon International is an option they’ve researched, but they would need an extra $10 million or so from the OHC to move there.

As mentioned, to win World Heritage status, Moundbuilders must completely vacate.

“They’ve told us it’s all or nothing,” said Kratoville. “The club would be willing to talk about a different shared arrangement if we could come to a resolution that works for both parties.” 

Moundbuilders is the only private golf course in and around Newark. Thus, it’s the region’s premier recreational spot for those with money to burn.

The Free Press asked Kratoville, how much total wealth does the membership at Moundbuilders have?

“That’s a great question, I couldn’t even give you a guess. We are like every other club. There are people that belong to the club that have money, there are other members who are blue collar types,” he said.

The Octagon’s history is distinctly American, but it could end with a historical twist no one could have foreseen. Native Americans could retake their sacred ground from opulent Europeans, and in turn, tourists flock to a small, struggling Ohio town, giving the town new life.

Of course, all of this depends on how the (white man’s) court rules.

“I just so long for people to be able to go there freely anytime they want,” says Chief Wallace. “To see that site. To commune with that site. To recognize the magnificence of that site. The sooner the better.”