All posts by Joe Bissen

About Joe Bissen

Joe Bissen is a Caledonia, Minnesota, native and former golf letter-winner at Winona State University. He is a sports copy editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press and former sports editor of the Duluth News-Tribune. His writing has appeared in Minnesota Golfer and Mpls.St.Paul magazines. He lives in St. Paul, MN.  Joe's award-winning first book, Fore! Gone. Minnesota's Lost Golf Courses 1897-1999, was released in December 2013. Click here to order

Little Falls Country Club: A historical mulligan

Here, summarizing and paraphrasing, is what the Internet has to say about the history of a certain central Minnesota sporting venue:

“Little Falls Country Club” … “opened in 1930” … “designed by Jim Dahl.”

That’s the Cliff’s Notes version.

Cliff didn’t take perfect notes.

Now, I admit I am no expert on the history of Little Falls Country Club (given almost equal billing as Little Falls  Golf Course on web sites and in promotional materials). And because Little Falls does not have a lost-course connection, maybe I should keep my grubby lost-course paws out of this.

Sorry. No.

While snooping around and working my way up toward Minnesota lost golf course No. 150 — almost there — I came across a few old newspaper stories dealing with the origins of golf in Little Falls.

Little Falls CC, opened in 1930? In the name of Little Falls’ own Charles A. Lindbergh, I’m positive that’s not true.

Consider these excerpts from from the Little Falls Herald:

May 27, 1921, in a story headlined “Golf Links Are Purchased By Club”: “If one should out of idle curiosity get up at about 5:30 in the morning these fine days and amble down along the river bank on the east side below the lower railroad bridge one would find skipping about on the green some of our good business and professional men who were never before known to get up before 8 a.m. The reason is evident — they’ve got the ‘golf fever.’

“While no regular course has yet been laid out, the members of the newly organized golf club have put in a few holes and are warming up, if they have ever played the game before, or getting the rudiments of the game if it is new to them.”

July 19, 1921: “An expert, who has been employed by the Little Falls Town and Country club, completed a nine-hole course last week and the members are taking advantage of the finished course.”

Aug. 19, 1921: “… The grass has been mowed on all the fareways (sic). R.D. Musser had the first fareway fixed up at his own expense.”

April 7, 1922: “The question of erecting a clubhouse was discussed and it was decided not to attempt same this year, but to put all efforts into making the golf course first class. The club now has a membership of 101. …”

Dec. 9, 1922: “Some fiften (sic) or sixteen golf bugs had a round of golf at the course here Christmas Day.”

Ninety-four and a half years later, a phone call to Little Falls and a conversation with golf club manager Rich Frey reveal that the club was indeed officially founded in 1921 — on July 16, according to an original version of the bylaws held in Frey’s possession at the course. An April 15, 1921, story in the Little Falls Herald listed Dr. J.R. Holst as the club’s first president, with membership fee at $50 and 116 inaugural members enrolled. The story suggested the grounds would not be ready for play until June or July.

So 1930, usually cited as the founding year of Little Falls Country Club, is not technically correct. That year more than likely corresponds with a club decision to embark on a significant improvement of the layout. (I should give credit to St. Cloud Times golf columnist John Lieser, who did correctly write in 2007 that Little Falls CC was established in 1921. He is one of the few to have gotten it right.)

In 1931, according to Frey, bentgrass was ordered for the greens (presumably sand greens to that point). In April 1931, according to Frey, a prominent Twin Cities golf course architect (I’ll get to his name) was retained for $25 a day plus expenses to design a revised layout. This fellow was paid $150 later that year to build the greens, then was paid $10 to review the finished product.

Judging by aerial photos of the course in 1940 (above, courtesy of University of Minnesota’s John Borchert Map Library) and 1950 (below, also Borchert), Little Falls Country Club did not change appreciably in its earliest years. (The “18” marked on the later photo was probably just a catalog notation, even if it did turn out to be coincidentally prophetic.)

A major change to Little Falls Country Club came well into its adulthood with its expansion to 18 holes — in 1975, according to one source, or 1980, according to another. Enter the aforementioned Jim Dahl, who first was an employee at the course and then became the primary figure in its redesign. Much of the new nine holes covered the area marked “18” and just below it in the photo above.

Dahl is known in central Minnesota golf circles for also having designed Eagle’s Landing in Fort Ripley, Oak Hill in Rice and Pine Ridge in Motley. And certainly, he is the central figure in the current design of Little Falls CC. But it would be a historical transgression to not mention the course’s previous architects, both of considerable prominence.

From a Dec. 2, 1921, Little Falls Herald story:

“Officers and directors of the Little Falls Town and Country Club are considering having a full 18-hole golf course laid out on their 90-acre tract south of town, near the Mississippi river. W.D. Clark, golf expert, who laid out the present 9-hole course, is expected to come here in the near future to confer with the club directors regarding same.”

Although the expansion to 18 holes didn’t occur until some 60 years later, the mention of W.D. Clark is significant. William D. Clark designed or contributed to the design of at least a dozen Minnesota layouts, including Oak Ridge in Hopkins and Northfield Golf Club, plus four Minneapolis municipal courses and Chisago Golf Club, now a lost course in Chisago City. He also nearly became involved in a never-performed redesign of the first golf course in Madelia. 

When Little Falls’ course was redesigned in 1930-31, an even more prominent name came along. For that $25 a day, the club retained one Tom Vardon to oversee the redesign.

Vardon was the head professional at White Bear Yacht Club in Dellwood and the brother of six-time British Open champion Harry Vardon. Tom Vardon designed to contributed to the design of at least 40 courses in his native England and the Upper Midwest. Among them were five lost courses covered in “Fore! Gone.” — Bunker Hills, Matoska, Ortonville, Quality Park and Westwood Hills — plus more than 20 still-existing courses in Minnesota, including Southview Country Club, University of Minnesota-Bolstad, St. Cloud Country Club, Stillwater CC and Phalen Park.

In mid-2017, as Little Falls Country Club, now city-owned, approaches its centennial anniversary, it retains many of the features that have made it a reputable track. It is, I’m told, a sporty 18 holes, tree-lined and with small and undulating greens, especially rewarding to play if one can hit the ball straight. It features modest greens fees of $21 for 18 holes and $13 for nine, made even more attractive because weekend rates are the same as weekday. And it has history on its side — in addition to Clark, Vardon and Dahl, it is, as far as I can tell, the first and oldest golf course in Morrison County.

Cliff, you may now update your notes on Little Falls Country Club.

Featured image posted with permission of Little Falls Country Club.

 

 

Mille Lacs mystery: Bay View Hotel, Onamia

We have visual confirmation.

And almost nothing else.

Not every search for a Minnesota lost golf course results in a treasure trove of information or a fascinating, revealing road trip to a long-lost resting place of greensward.

Sometimes, dead ends are the order of the day month year.

In late 2016, I came across an image of an old golf course in the Lake Mille Lacs area. The inscription on the postcard is self-explanatory:

1935 postcard, golf course at Bay View Hotel, Onamia

Beyond the fact that this golf course once existed, I’m afraid, months later, that I still know nothing (insert your own punchline). Multiple calls to the Onamia area and other searches turned up almost no information on the former golf course near the site of what is now the BayView Bar & Grill. The only known modern-day connection to golf at BayView is that the bar and grill stages an on-ice tournament every year on the frozen surface of Lake Mille Lacs.

BayView — the bar and grill — advertises itself as having been in business since 1897, and in its early years as Bay View Hotel it operated a nine-hole golf course alongside Minnesota Highway 27, 4.5 miles northeast of downtown Onamia and just a couple of hundred yards east of Lake Mille Lacs’ Cove Bay. Judging by an ad in the January 1928 edition of “Fins, Feathers and Fur,” published by the Minnesota Fish and Game Department, the course was established in the mid-1920s. The course featured sand greens, as evidenced by the postcard image. I have no idea when the golf course ceased to operate.

The magazine ad is shown below. And below that is a 1938 aerial photo of the Bay View Hotel’s golf grounds.


1928 magazine ad

1939 aerial photo of the Bay View Hotel golf course, courtesy University of Minnesota’s John Borchert Map Library. Lake Mille Lacs is on the left; the hotel’s old airstrip runs diagonally near the bottom-right corner of the photo. A few of the course’s sand greens are clearly visible as small, bright, white circles. Click on the photo for a closer look.

And that’s all I got.

As always, further information about this lost golf course is welcome.

Theodore Wirth: Over historic hill, over historic dale

Today’s Sunday drive took me just west of downtown Minneapolis, to the grounds of Minnesota’s oldest public golf course, Theodore Wirth.

You think it ain’t? I say it is.

You can Google around for hours (sadly, I have done this, neglecting important duties such as getting the garbage out in time) and find references to Theodore Wirth Golf Club as “one of the first public courses in the state” or as “Minnesota’s first municipal golf course.”

Both labels are true, though less definitive than they might be.

To my knowledge, Wirth is just plain the first public golf course in Minnesota history, even if the distinction between “municipal” and “public” is perhaps trifling.

Wirth was established in 1916. though at the time it was named Glenwood Park Golf Links. In 1938, it was renamed Theodore Wirth Golf Club, in honor of the estimable Minneapolis Park Board chairman and supporter of municipal golf from 1905-1935. (A more complete timeline of the establishment of the course can be found in a 2016 story I wrote for Minnesota Golfer magazine.)

Wirth preceded Phalen Park, across the Mississippi River in St. Paul, by one year as Minnesota’s first public golf course.

Theodore Wirth Golf Club did not predate, however, the hills upon which it was built. (I know. Duh.) There are two distinct features of this golf course: One, the views of the Minneapolis skyline from Wirth’s front nine, which lies upon low land along Bassett Creek, and the relative Swiss Alps-like terrain on the course’s back nine.

Did someone say Swiss?

That reminds me. Notable feature No. 3, I suppose, is the golf course’s clubhouse, known simply as The Chalet, designed in the image of a Swiss chalet. Wirth was Swiss, so the chalet’s design stands as a tribute to him.

For all of the talk in recent years about golf being a “dead” or “dying” sport, on this day, Wirth blew raspberries at the haters. There were dozens of cars in the parking lot, there were groups of golfers on a majority of the holes, and with a steady stream of bikers passing by on Wirth Park’s bicycle trails, it seemed like a great advertisement for peaceful coexistence between those who golf and those who appreciate green space. Or maybe even an advertisement for those who appreciate both. I couldn’t help but think of the uncertain fate of Hiawatha Golf Course, another city-owned course six miles to the southwest, and how important Wirth would become to Minneapolis golfers if Hiawatha were to close (I predict, sadly, that it will, but others know more about that than I do).

Back to the terrain. Wirth is not, literally speaking, for the faint of heart. The ups and downs of the back nine come at a golfer right away, with a 60-foot rise from the 10th tee to the 10th green. The rest of the back nine features mostly gentler climbs and descents, but climbs and descents nonetheless. A golf cart would seem the best way to navigate the place.

The course is undergoing renovations on its front and back nines, with the 17th and 18th holes being rebuilt. Theodore Wirth Park also features a par-3 course, a disc golf course, and archery, a fishing pier, cross country skiing, and sledding and tubing, among other features. The park lies mostly within the borders of Golden Valley but is managed by the city of Minneapolis. And not that anyone cares, but an even older, more historically significant golf course lies — OK, technically lay, past tense — just beyond the park’s southeastern border. Bryn Mawr Golf Club (1898-1910), which occupied land at and sweeping above the intersection of Penn and Cedar Lake avenues in Minneapolis, in its two iterations spawned both the Minikahda Club and Interlachen Country Club.

More Wirth photos (click on any, above or below, for larger images):

Clubhouse: “The Chalet”

Wirth’s clubhouse walls feature old photos of the grounds, including a wonderful juxtaposition of golfers golfing and ski jumpers ski jumping.

From the 10th tee, the climb to the green.

Alongside the 10th fairway.

Construction underway.

More construction.

History in Madelia: famed flight, not-so-famed golf course

Moments in southwestern Minnesota history:

Sept. 21, 1876, west of the city of Madelia, along the banks of the Watonwan River: Shots fired.

May 1921, west of the city of Madelia, not far from the banks of the Watonwan River: Shots fired again.

Honestly, one shouldn’t make much of the similarities. They are coincidence, nothing more. The “shots” couldn’t have been more dissimilar. And although the first incident stands as probably the most significant event in Watonwan County history, the second, by comparison, is about as historically significant as Rory McIlroy clipping his fingernails next Wednesday.

Dispensing with the historically significant first:

In September 1876, three members of the James-Younger gang, which had been foiled 14 days earlier in an attempt to rob the First National Bank of Northfield, made their way through Madelia and then westward as they fled justice through the small towns of southern Minnesota. On Sept. 21, three of the Younger brothers — Cole, Bob and Jim — plus fellow gang member Charlie Pitts skulked through an area known as Hanska Slough (it no longer exists, having been mitigated via drainage ditch) until making a last stand in the Watonwan River, just south of the town of La Salle. A gunfight ensued. Pitts was shot and killed, and the Youngers were captured.

The Northfield bank robbery is widely considered the most famous in U.S. history. The Youngers’ attempted escape has been retold in book, magazine and even poetry form and has been the subject of preservation and re-enactment.

A mural on the Chamber of Commerce building in downtown Madelia depicts the capture of the Younger brothers near La Salle. (Courtesy City of Madelia)

As for the second Madelia-area event, only a handful of souls know anything about it. Stacked up against the story of the flight of the Youngers, may we present a few dozen paragraphs of pure anticlimax:

Forty-four and a half years after and 5.5 miles east of the site of the Youngers’ capture, different brands of foursomes, less threatening than three Youngers and a Pitts, made their way to an area west of Madelia, a few hundred yards north of the Watonwan riverbank.

The Madelia Times-Messenger of May 27, 1921, explains:

“The Madelia Golf Club is now a reality,” the newspaper reported, “a sufficient number having signed the membership roll to make a go of it.

“At a meeting held Monday night, Dr. R.J. Hodapp was made temporary chairman and Dr. M.J. James acted as temporary secretary. It was decided to place the membership fee at $5.00 for this season, and each membership to include the immediate family of the person joining the club.

“A portion of the Siron pasture, comprising about 25 acres, has been secured for the course, and those who are acquainted with the game claim that this tract will make as fine a golf course as is to be found anywhere. It will be a nine-hole course, and there are a sufficient number of mental and physical hazards to satisfy the most exacting.”

” … It is expected that grounds will be ready for play on Memorial Day.”

Madelia Golf Club, contrary to its “best course anywhere” boast, might be described by a term that usually makes me blanch: pasture pool. It’s a term used in jest at best and in the pejorative at worst. But truth be told, it fits the old Madelia GC.

The course was established on an attractive piece of land straddling Elm Creek, two miles west and slightly north of downtown. But its features were rudimentary, in a golfing sense. A Times-Messenger story from May 6, 1921, foreshadowed as much:

“Golf seems to be generally considered a rich man’s game, but we are told that such is not necessarily the case,” the newspaper reported. “Elaborate grounds, club houses, banquets, etc., are not at all necessary. Any old pasture of fifteen or twenty acres will do for a nine-hole course, and its use will not in any way interfere with the cattle which are pastured upon it.”

Bessie, here we come, mashies in hand.

The Madelia course, laid out by four members of the club’s grounds committee, was maintained by livestock grazing on the Siron pasture, which actually was part of the Fred Tiedeken farm, according to Barb Nelson of the Watonwan Historical Society. Although most Minnesota small-town courses of the 1920s and ’30s featured sand greens, which offered at least a modicum of refinement in rolling a ball across the land, the Madelia course had natural-grass greens, probably choppy and less-than-reliable. And golfers occasionally had the distinct pleasure of having to wash their cowpie-tainted golf balls off in nearby Elm Creek, according to Adeline Yates, whose father, Buster Yates, grew up nearby and wrote about the course in his 1986 book, “Seventy-Five Years on the Watonwan.”

“When the course was next to our place,” Buster Yates wrote, “my neighbor buddy, Lucius Siron, and I caddied for the players at a dime a round of nine holes. In our spare time we hunted lost balls and sold them back to people. During hard rains the balls would wash down the hills into the creek from where we would pull ’em out with a garden rake. The old creek produced more than golf balls; in the spring of the year bullheads, northern and walleyed pike and others headed north out of the river for Wilson Lake spawn. (Note: Wilson Lake lies 1.5 miles to the north.)

1939 aerial photo of Madelia Golf Club and surrounding area. Click image for full-size view. Red border shows approximate grounds of Madelia Golf Club, 1921-circa 1930. The road north and east of the grounds is now known as Elm Creek Road. One of the holes was routed in the area between Elm Creek and Elm Creek Road. Downtown Madelia is two miles to the southeast. (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources aerial photo)

“During these years the golfers didn’t have the benefit of daylight saving time for afternoon golfing and a clubhouse for celebrating afterward. Consequently, the course was buzzing with activity at daylight on summer days. Merchants played a round before opening their shops for the day.

“The golf club hired George Lassak, night operator at the railroad depot for part time service in keeping the greens in shape. The grass on the rest of the course was clipped short by our band of a hundred sheep. George didn’t have more than fifty dollars’ worth of tools. A hand push lawn mower, a few rakes and shovels, plus free help from our sheep kept a well- groomed golf links.”

Madelia Golf Club’s inaugural season appears to have been a success. On Oct. 21, 1921, the Times-Messenger filed this note: “These beautiful October mornings find many of our golf enthusiasts on the links bright and early. There is no better tonic than a chase after the little white ball before breakfast.”

On March 20, 1922, Madelia Golf Club drew up articles of incorporation. In late June 1922, the club announced it would be staging a tournament — single-elimination, match play, with handicap — to run through the Fourth of July. And a piece of potentially big news came later that summer. Doc Hall made the announcement with a piece written for the Aug. 18 edition of the Times-Messenger:

“William Clark, professional of the Oak Ridge Country Club of Minneapolis, and a nationally known golf course architect, laid out the nine-hole course of the Madelia Golf Club, Wednesday. He was assisted by several of the members who volunteered their services for the day.

“Mr. Clark was somewhat puzzled by the topography of the land but finally succeeded in laying out what promises to be an extremely ‘sporty’ golf course.

“The total length of the nine holes will be approximately 2880 yards, the shortest hole being 125 yards in length and the longest 550 yards. The creek and sand pits and several hills are used to good advantage in providing the necessary hazards. Mr. Clark remarked on first seeing the course that the land was peculiarly adapted to golf purposes. Only two holes, the third and ninth, will be trapped.

” … After he was through someone asked Mr. Clark how the Madelia course would compare with other courses elsewhere in the state. He replied, saying, that outside of some in the Twin Cities, the local course would surpass anything that he knew of in the state. He said  that the old course was only ‘cow pasture pool’ but that now it could be classed as a real golf course.

“Completing his work here, Mr. Clark returned to Minneapolis on the 5:01 train and promises to send the necessary blue prints and instructions for the building up of the course. As soon as these are received the officials of the club will endeavor to start as soon as possible on the construction of the course. In all probability the club members will be able to play over the new course this fall. Grass will be seeded shortly after September 1st and the greens will be staked and planted. A rough estimate of the  par of the new course will be 36, but we venture to say that no one will shoot any par golf this year.”

It was a brush with greatness, or at least prettydarngoodness. William Clark was indeed a noted golf course architect. He designed or contributed to the design of at least a dozen Minnesota layouts, including Oak Ridge in Hopkins; Northfield Golf Club; Superior (now Brookview) in Golden Valley; Minneapolis municipal courses Columbia, Armour (now Gross), Southwest (now Meadowbrook) and Glenwood Park (now Wirth); and Chisago Golf Club, now a lost course in Chisago City.

Clark’s plans for Madelia Golf Club never came to pass. The historical society’s Nelson, in conducting extensive research of the Times-Messenger, found no evidence that the club ever made the improvements Clark suggested. By October 1922, the club was in financial distress and seeking an assessment of $10 per member to improve the grounds, a request gussied up by a social gathering and dinner that included “fried chicken … potatoes in various styles, fruit salads, rolls, jelly, apple and pumpkin pie, cheese and coffee,” the newspaper reported.

(I’ll be right over with a 10 spot, if it’s not too late.)

Beyond that, references to Madelia Golf Club are scant. Nelson wrote in an email: “The 1923 newspaper has only two short notices about a golf tournament and scores from that tournament. The 1924 had no information on the course. In August of 1925 Joe Jansen was recognized as Madelia’s champion golfer, after he made the course in 38.”

Madelia Golf Club lasted only until about 1930. That is the approximate closing date posited by Yates in his book. In researching other lost golf courses in southwestern Minnesota a few years ago, I came across references to Madelia competing in inter-club tournaments in the area, but no references beyond 1930. A 1939 aerial photo of the vicinity shows no signs of golf existing there, or in fact ever having existed there, likely due to the course’s rather crude nature.

But Madelia Golf Club still holds a historical distinction. Most likely, it was the first golf course in Watonwan County. Though southwestern Minnesota saw a bumper crop of courses sprout up through the 1920s, I know of no evidence of a golf course in Watonwan County existing before 1921 — and of no other golf course in the county existing again until 1927, when the Tom Vardon-designed St. James Golf Club was established. I believe it was 54 years after that until another golf course opened in Watonwan County, the city-owned Madelia Golf Course, which is still in operation.

The author would like to thank Adeline Yates for the historical and geographic perspective, and especially Barb Nelson of the Watonwan Historical Society for providing the bulk of the material on Madelia Golf Club.

Minnesota’s lost courses: A quick correction

This week, numbers regarding Minnesota’s lost golf courses and attributed to me were used in a Star Tribune story about the golf industry. In the newspaper’s print editions and in its early online posting, an incorrect number regarding the number of lost courses since 2000 was published.

I appreciate Mark Craig of the Star Tribune having contacted me regarding the numbers. In the course of exchanging emails, I used some awkward phrasing and Mark misinterpreted or mis-transcribed a number.

The correct figures are:

— Since 2000, by my count, 47 golf courses in Minnesota have closed. (The number mentioned in the updated Star Tribune web site post, 44, was correct at the time. I have since added three more courses to that list).

— Since the first courses were established in Minnesota in the 1890s, 140 courses have been abandoned or, in a few cases, the clubs have significantly relocated. (That number, too, has changed as I came across more lost courses later in the week.)

— Since 2000, 21 courses in the seven-county Twin Cities metropolitan area have closed.