Category Archives: Lost golf courses

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.

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.





Southview Country Club: A visit with Tom

Been awhile, Tom. Good to see you again.

Truth be told, I never knew Tom. Never met him. Don’t think I’ve ever even met someone who met him. Tom, who died in 1938, was from a different era and a decidedly different social circle. But how could I not feel a connection?

Tom is Tom Vardon, one of the four most important figures in the early development of Minnesota golf. Depending on your point of view, Vardon, the brother of six-time British Open champion Harry Vardon and former longtime head professional at White Bear Yacht Club, is either A) one of the most prolific and gifted course architects in Minnesota golf history or B) the most prolific and gifted architect of lost golf courses in Minnesota history.

I’ll concede that I may be the only person alive with the “B” viewpoint, but whatever.

Vardon designed or contributed to the design of at least 40 courses in his native England and the Upper Midwest. Among them were five lost courses that were covered in “Fore! Gone.” — Bunker Hills, Matoska, Ortonville, Quality Park and Westwood Hills — plus more than 20 still-existing courses in Minnesota, including University of Minnesota-Bolstad, St. Cloud Country Club, Stillwater CC and Phalen Park.

Before this weekend, I hadn’t set foot on a Vardon creation in probably three years, since I left an old Westwood Hills green site hidden on the grounds of Westwood Hills Nature Center in St. Louis Park. But the weekend offered a new opportunity to peruse another of Vardon’s gifts to Minnesota golf: Southview Country Club.

Southview is where, over the weekend, I reacquainted myself with Tom Vardon. The venue on the southern edge of West St. Paul is the annual host of the Tapemark Charity Pro-Am tournament, which features not only outstanding golf by many of Minnesota’s top players but also outstanding contributions to the community — the Tapemark benefits organizations that help people with disabilities and has raised, according to its website, $7.2 million since the tournament’s inception in 1972.

The Southview that golfers see today — green and lush and tree-lined — is most certainly not the Southview on which Vardon and Walter Hagen faced off in a 1925 exhibition match, prompting Hagen to comment, according to Rick Shefchik’s “From Fields to Fairways” book on Minnesota’s classic courses, “I never thought I’d play an exhibition in a nanny goat pasture.”

Nanny goats be gone: After opening with nine holes in 1922 and expanding to 18 (with sand greens) in 1924, Vardon conducted the first hands-on, professional design of Southview in late 1927. The club adopted some revisions offered by A.W. Tillinghast in 1936, and Jerry Pirkl engineered a significant redesign in 1967. Today, the course is known as a relatively short (6,404 yards off the back tees) but challenging test because of the strategy required in negotiating its doglegs, changes in elevation, trees and hazards.

I presume there are elements of Tom Vardon’s design golf that remain on the Southview grounds, whether it be in routing or green structure or bunker placement. Until last weekend, I never had been closer to the Southvew playing grounds than within a few steps of the first tee. But afforded an opportunity to walk the grounds during Sunday’s final round of the Tapemark, I took in some impressive greensward and thought about my old friend Tom.

These are the sights I saw, offered in no particular order other than the order in which my strides decided to take me. I’ll keep the commentary limited, as I’m not familiar enough with the layout to offer many details.

First tee — dogleg-right par 4, 353 yards.

Elevation change comes into play everywhere at Southview. Miss the green to the left here, and you’ve found trouble. It’s about impossible to see, but there is a ball lying about 8 feet from the cup on this short par 4. The player smartly landed his approach shot well to the right of the flagstick and let it feed toward the cup.

More elevation change. Thank you, tree, for offering brief shelter from the rain.

Ninth tee. This par 4 was played from a forward tee for the final round of the Tapemark, I believe measuring at 315 yards. This is the highest point on the Southview grounds, at 1,027 feet above sea level. (Lowest point is 942 feet.) From this vantage point, one can see beyond the green to a water tower in South St. Paul and then across the Mississippi River (not visible) to a ridge in Woodbury, with a look at power lines ascending the ridge.

Ninth fairway.

Ninth green, clubhouse in background.

18th hole — tee box down the fairway to the right, green atop a rise back home. (Sadly, I’m too technologically limited to be able to offer a wider view of this panoramic photo. I’ll work on it …)



Clearwater Country Club, Annandale: Another look

Maybe it’s just me.

OK, it’s just me.

But one of the compelling things — to me, just me — about rummaging around for Minnesota’s lost golf courses is occasionally coming across something quite unusual — an old scorecard, an old photo, an old duffer buried and petrified beneath the surface of an ancient pot bunker from which he could not extricate himself (OK, haven’t come across one of those yet).

There is satisfaction, too, in sharing a find with two or three people who might care.

Sometimes as many as four.

The downside is that for every find, there can be more questions raised than answers revealed.

Case in point:

In August 2015, I wrote about the former Clearwater Country Club of Annandale, in central Minnesota’s Wright County. A couple of months ago, a friend who shares an interest in Minnesota golf history alerted me to an eBay auction for an old Clearwater CC postcard.

Old postcards of old golf courses in Minnesota aren’t unusual. There are plenty available from the state’s first course, Town & Country Club of St. Paul. There may be even more available from another early and historic course, Minikahda of Minneapolis. (Maddeningly, close to half of the postcards from the latter course mangle the spelling of the course’s name, going with Minikhada or the even more common ultramangling, Minnekahda.)

But postcards from other lost courses don’t show up every day, and they often offer little more than a dim view of a shoreline or a clubhouse. I was drawn to this Clearwater CC postcard because of the clear view of the terrain and Clearwater Lake in the background, and the clear depiction of a golf course, even if no greens or 22-handicappers are visible nearby.

So I bid on the postcard and was fortunate enough to win it, for something less than the price of a new Callaway driver, which I wouldn’t be able to hit worth a damn anyway. A look at the card, and a long-ago view of Clearwater Country Club, is presented below.

Best guess is that the photo was taken from near the center of the golf course, looking northeast and toward Clearwater Lake. Wright County Highway 24, which was more or less the southern border of the course, would be behind the photographer, as would the clubhouse. There is a better look at the entirety of the golf course in an aerial photo of the course on my original post on Clearwater CC (see link above).

But it seems like I can never come up with one nugget from a lost golf course without more unsolved mysteries arising. So it is with Clearwater CC.

I reported in my original post that Clearwater Country Club “opened before 1942, most likely.” I’m never crazy about being so vague, but is inevitable in this line of work/folly because absolute confirmation of “facts” can be difficult to come by. The postcard above, however, suggested that Clearwater CC was in fact founded well before 1942. The date on the postmark, though partially obscured, appeared to be 1932. Short of trying to contact Mr. Martin Syphrit (spelling?), to whom the postcard was mailed and who presumably has long since ceased to become reachable via a valid postal address in Brookville, Pa., I thought I would try to be more precise with the founding date of Clearwater Country Club.

Browsing through issues of the Annandale Advocate from 1932 held on microfilm at the Minnesota History Center revealed nothing — no mention of a golf course. Across the hall from the History Center’s microfilm room, however, is the Gale Library, with a wonderful collection of books, magazines and other resources. Included among those holdings is an Annandale centennial book, issued in 1988 and titled “Community with Spirit.”

The centennial book cleared up for me the exact date of Clearwater Country Club’s founding. An entry reads:

“1925: Agitation for a golf course. In 1925, Mrs. L. Longfellow was the President of the first golf club in Annandale. The first golf course in the area was located near Clearwater Lake. It was a nine-hole course with sand greens, and has since been platted for lots, and many homes have been built on the land.”

As far as I can tell, a 1925 opening would have made Clearwater Country Club the first golf course in Wright County.

Of course, if I had come across the centennial book in the first place, I never would have had to speculate that Clearwater CC was founded “before 1942.” But you never know in which order you’ll find these little gems, so you do what you can with what you have.

Anyway … it may be small potatoes, but there you have it. A cool, old view of Clearwater Country Club, plus the knowledge that someone first striped a drive there in the year 1925.