Lakato Golf Club: First the La, then the Kato

Scrounging through newspaper archives a couple of months ago, I came across a place I had not heard of.

“Lakato Golf Club Claims ‘Sportiest Links in State,’ ” read the headline the April 29, 1928, edition of the Minneapolis Tribune.

Lakato?

Don’t bother Wiki-Googling it. You won’t get anywhere. In the L’s, Wikipedia’s alphabetical list of Minnesota cities goes like this:

La Crescent … Lake Benton … Lake City …

No Lakato.

The second paragraph of the Tribune story explained Lakato succinctly.

Lakato, the story read, “is situated midway between Lake Crystal and Mankato and its members are drawn of the two cities.”

Well, that clears things up. To a point.

Lakato Golf Club wasn’t so much midway between Lake Crystal and Mankato as it was in Lake Crystal’s back yard and Mankato’s back 40, geographically speaking. The course lay on the banks of Minneopa Creek, 2 miles northeast of downtown Lake Crystal and about 9.5 miles southwest of downtown Mankato. The Tribune story said Minneopa Creek crossed the golf course five times.

The Tribune story went on to describe the course and its topography.

“The peculiar course of the creek, as it placidly moves in and out of the links and the rolling country, with all manner of unusual depressions and hills, makes for plenty of natural hazards. Although the course is less than 4,000 yards long, the natural hazard of the terrain makes Lakato difficult for even crack golfers.”

The presumption is that Lakato was a nine-hole course, which makes the stated yardage of 4,000 a head-scratcher. Small-town golf courses of the 1920s through 1940s in Minnesota generally were in the 2,500- to 3,000-yard range. Perhaps Lakato was very short, measuring under 4,000 for two nine-hole tours of the grounds. I can cast no definitive light on that.

The Tribune story stated that Lakato was “started only a year ago” and featured 100 members. But the stated chronology is misleading.

An inquiry with the Blue Earth County Historical Society revealed that the golf course on the Minneopa Creek grounds actually dated to 1923. That would have made it the second golf course in Blue Earth County, according to my records, which aren’t encyclopedic but are more voluminous than, say, a stack of 20 Post-It Notes. (Mankato Golf Club was established in 1919, according to its web site, which would make it Blue Earth County’s first course.)

The historical society passed along a clip from the Lake Crystal Tribune that mentioned golf being played on the grounds in late November — yes, late November — of 1923.

“Most of the members of the Lake Crystal Golf club,” the Lake Crystal Tribune reported on Nov. 30, 1923, “have been taking advantage of the fine fall weather by chasing the ball around the new course on the John Norman farm, just two miles from town on the Mankato road. With a little more work, Lake Crystal will have one of the snappiest as well as the most beautiful courses in Southern Minnesota. M. M. Meixell, widely known baseball player holds the low score on the Golf sheet.”

In a few years, Lake Crystal Golf Club would become Lakato. How? Welcome, citizens of Mankato.

“Anyone from Mankato wishing to play on the Lake Crystal links may see or correspond with the secretary for instructions,” the Lake Crystal News reported on May 11, 1925.

Within two years, the course had been renamed and its essence redefined.

The May 5, 1927, Lake Crystal Tribune ran a story headlined “Mankato Men Join Lake Crystal in Golf Club.”

“The new club will be limited to a membership of seventy-five; fifty Mankato men and twenty-five Lake Crystal men. …

“The Norman field will be used again this year, but with the addition of members from Mankato many improvements will be made. The members have chosen ‘Lakato Golf Club’ as the title of their organization.”

A month later, the Minneapolis Tribune again wrote about Lakato, in a one-paragraph story with details that didn’t jibe with the Lake Crystal Tribune story. The Minneapolis paper reported that the golf club’s membership was at 100 and, curiously, that “membership is limited to 79 from Mankato and 80 from Lake Crystal.” (Perhaps the membership jumped in the one month between newspaper stories, and perhaps the club in that time established a bylaw that curried favor — very slightly — to Lake Crystal members over Mankato members.)

The next spring, the Tribune ran its “Sportiest Links in State” headline, which a cynic might say is a compliment that has been handed out to no less than about 300 Minnesota golf courses over time, in one manner or another. The story went on to note that Lakato’s greens were being enlarged, new tees were being built, and five “rustic” bridges were being installed to cross the creek.

Plat map from 1916 of the area northeast of Lake Crystal, Minn., from the University of Minnesota’s John Borchert Map Library. The plots within the red border show land owned by John Norman and that the Lake Crystal/Lakato Golf Club is presumed to have been on. Minneopa Creek cuts through the property, and it cut through the golf course as well. The diagonal highway, now Minnesota 60, led northeast to Mankato, and the north-south County 114, or 523rd Avenue, runs close to the old golf grounds.

The Tribune reported: “Experts have estimated that with its 4,000 yards par should be 39 (another vexing reference to yardage), but the best mark achieved was a 33 by Dr. R. F. Dodds of Lake Crystal. The only ace ever made was by Cullen Dodds, 16-year-old son of Dr. Dodds, who is president of the club.”

Those handful of seasons, 1923 to perhaps about 1930, would constitute the heyday of Lake Crystal/Lakato Golf Club, in my opinion. Newspaper stories about the club and course became hard for me to find in succeeding years. A skimming-through of Lake Crystal Tribune front pages from 1931 revealed no mention of the course, nor did a less-thorough scan of 1931 front pages of the Mankato Free Press.

Note: The next four paragraphs, which were part of the original posting of this story, have been struck through, as they include flawed reporting. Reader Tim Pulis points out, almost certainly correctly, that later Lake Crystal Tribune stories that I claimed pertained to the Lakato course almost certainly actually pertained to Minneopa Golf Club, on the western edge of Mankato and opened in 1929. Based on this, it is likely that Lakato did not last much past 1930, if that long. My apologies.

The golf course did make the 1935 Lake Crystal Tribune. On May 9, the newspaper reported, “J.A. Frank, Freeman Parsons and D.E. Cuppernull drove to the Minneopa course late Monday afternoon and made the round of nine holes in very good form considering it was their first appearance on the links this year. Mr. Frank negotiated the course in a 39, five above par.”

A June 30, 1938, passage implied that Lakato had seen tenuous times in the 1930s. “The golf bug has appeared in Lake Crystal after an absence of several years, and quite a number of business men have been bitten.” Cuppernull was again mentioned in that story.

The last mention of the grounds that I could find came in the May 25, 1940, Lake Crystal Tribune. “Fairly good scores, a few just over par and two below 40, have been made during the past few days by local golfers who play the game at the Minneopa Golf course,” the newspaper reported. Carl Lower, with a 36, had the lowest round mentioned.

I did not scan the Lake Crystal newspaper diligently from that point forward. So many courses in Minnesota, especially small-town layouts in southwestern Minnesota, disappeared at the advent of World War II that it seemed likely that the ultimate demise of Lakato was imminent by about 1940. I found no mentions of the local golf course in the newspaper front pages of 1942 nor, thinking perhaps the course might have been revived after the war, 1946. Also, a handful of inquiries with folks from the Lake Crystal area to try to find someone familiar with the course or the Norman land proved fruitless.

1938 aerial photo, from University of Minnesota John Borchert Map Library, showing at least part of the area that the Lakato Golf Club course likely lay on. I’ll admit, this one has me befuddled. My suspicion is that the course lay on or very near the buttonhook curve of Minneopa Creek, but I see no definitive shapes of fairways or routing of holes in this area. Also, the Borchert database includes no aerial photos for the area immediately south of this, which also was owned by John Norman, on whose land the golf course lay. But of Norman’s two lots, the southern lot did not intersect Minneopa Creek. There are a couple of small circles on this photo, one dark and one bright, on either side of the creek (click on photo to enlarge) that might have been sand greens, but I can’t state that definitively. More information from someone who might know is always welcome. … Update: Since the original post, it has become evident that the Lakato layout had been abandoned well before 1938, so this photo is unlikely to show any distinct golf course features. 

Image at top of post via Peter Wong.

 

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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

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