Putting for Fun - Miniature Golf in 1962
This week, we’re going to run all around the country and take a look at miniature golf. Mini golf has long been one of my favorites and it’s extra fun when played on a good roadtrip. Roadtrip-'62 ™ even has a connection to the game, as my previous business was ownership of a set of portable mini golf courses back in the 1990s. I rented these out for company picnics, festivals, and personal parties, along with a variety of other games and inflatable bounce houses. One of the places I bought mini golf equipment like clubs and score stands from was Witek Golf, which has been in business since 1946. But the game is much older than that: let’s look at some history of miniature golf.
Some people credit the first miniature golf course in the world to the Ladies’ Putting Club of St. Andrews in Scotland, in 1867. The game was used as a women’s pastime because it was deemed more ladylike than regular golf, as the ladies did not need to swing with their arms above their shoulders. I’m not sure that a putting club qualifies as true mini golf though. The first acknowledged course in the United States was on the private estate course of James Barber of Pinehurst, North Carolina, who hired Edward H. Wiswell in 1916 to design a miniature course that duplicated the elements of a regular golf course. His course appeared in the pages of Country Life magazine in 1920 and captured national attention. It came at an opportune time, for the Roaring 20s not only had money flowing, but women were moving into new activities outside the home and after Prohibition began, men were moving away from drinking activities. Mini golf provided a new venue for fun and caused a full-fledged national obsession.
We can still find some remnants of that early mini golf boom. For example, Allison's Miniature Golf in Geneva On The Lake, Ohio, was established in 1924 and is now the oldest continuously open miniature golf course in the United States. Courses opened on vacant lots everywhere, and indoors at posh hotels. And where there were no vacant lots, people innovated: by 1926, someone had opened a rooftop miniature golf course on a New York City skyscraper! One problem with all the early courses was a lack of a durable playing surface: grass required constant care and soon turned into mud or dust from constant foot traffic. A mixture of ground cottonseed hulls and oil had been developed by Thomas McCulloch Fairborn in 1922 that was sold commercially and used by many courses, as appropriate outdoor carpet had not been invented. This surfacing was used by the Tom Thumb Golf company, which sold mass-produced concrete figures and obstacles such as gnomes, hollow logs, and miniature buildings. The Tom Thumb courses were a patented course design created by Garnet and Frieda Carter, owners of the Fairyland Inn in Chattanooga, Tennessee. They created a miniature golf course at their resort in 1926 and a few years later began selling the design and obstacles. By 1930, despite the Great Depression, there were over 3,000 Tom Thumb courses around the country, in addition to many thousands more home-built courses. In fact, miniature golf became a nationwide craze: songs and editorial cartoons were written to it, a new trade magazine for the owners, ”Minature Golf Management” was published, and a tournament was held which offered a $7,5000 prize!
It’s estimated that over 25,000 courses were open to play by 1930. Competition became tough in many places, with owners resorting to publicity stunts and increasingly unusual and grand obstacles. Replicas of geysers, natural wonders, Chinese and other cultural décor, and even the Taj Mahal were constructed. During the 1930s, essentially all of the features we see as typical mini golf were developed: buildings, water features, loop-the-loops, the 18th hole that returns the ball to the clubhouse, scoring tables, windmills, bridges, multi-hole greens, and landscaping. A miniature golf course was even constructed at the presidential summer camp in Camp David, Maryland for President Hoover’s family! In an attempt to control the mania, the United States Golf Association unsuccessfully tried to fold miniature golf into its rules and tournament system. But as the Depression deepened, people’s ability to spend even small amounts of money on entertainment started to dry up. Combined with over-saturation of courses, too many local regulations against noise, zoning and taxes, the bottom dropped out of the game by the end of 1931.
By the mid-1930s, miniature golf had died down, but it enjoyed a resurgence in the 1950s, as tourism ballooned along with interstate freeways, new motels, new suburbs, and increased income and leisure time. Owners began to split into two camps: those who built ever more unusual courses for pure fun, and those who built standardized courses for serious play. Putt-Putt Golf was founded in Fayetteville, North Carolina in 1954. They grew into the largest chain of miniature golf courses, at one time having sites in courses in the United States, Australia, Indonesia, and even Lebanon. They opted for serious play, using short holes designed so that a hole-in-one can be scored on any hole with a skillful putt and a calculated bank shot because the metal rails facilitate accurate caroms. Obstacles are usually limited to small hills, metal baffles, pipes, and small water hazards. Because of their predictable play and need for skill, when ESPN broadcasts a miniature golf tournament, it is always at a Putt-Putt course. Many locations are now known as Putt-Putt Fun Centers and feature go-karts, bumper boats, indoor bumper cars, batting cages, laser tag, arcades, and snack bars in addition to mini golf. The franchise is much diminished from what we would have seen in 1962, as, there are Putt-Putt courses in only 14 states today, mostly in the south.
Lomma Enterprises was founded in 1955 in Scranton, Pennsylvania (also on our US-6 roadtrip) and went for the wacky courses with trick shots. This style of course became the norm, and today most mini golf courses include holes that are impossible to get a hole-in-one on. Most also have themes, such as a story book, jungle, space, or pirates, along with manmade mountains, lakes, caves and waterfalls. Besides franchised businesses, as with many things in the 1950s, there was also a strong do-it-yourself trend. Interesting courses could be constructed with not much more than concrete, carpet, and 2x4s, along with some nice landscaping. These simple courses were often located with mom and pop motels or public parks. All of this diversity has made miniature golf a truly American art form that continued to evolve after the 1960s. In the 1970s, entrepreneurs in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, gave a big boost to the themed course idea with Junglegolf. They were followed in the 1980s with Adventure Golf in Traverse City, Michigan and a chain of Pirate’s Cove adventure golf courses. Today’s indoor courses have also become more attention-grabbing with glow-in-the-dark features, LED lighting and other lighting effects.
Now that we know the history of miniature golf, let’s look at some of the courses we could have played in 1962 that are still around, in no particular order. Novelty Golf and Games of Lincolnwood, Illinois, has been open for over 60 years. It’s located just off the intersection of US-14 and US-41 and includes a classic burger, hot dog and ice cream shop called The Bunny Hutch. As with many mini golf businesses, it’s only open during the summer, from April through mid-October. They not only have two 18-hole courses, but also batting cages and a vintage game room. Another old-time course in the Chicago area is Par-King, which opened in 1955 in Morton Grove, Illinois. The country’s leading trade magazine has called it “Minigolf’s Taj Mahal” and noted it as the most elaborate 18-hole mini golf in the country. They have since moved to a spot on US-45 in nearby Lincolnshire, Illinois in 1977 and doubled the size. They also added even more elaborate obstacles and decorative items based on a Chicago area theme, including a 9ft-tall roller coaster hole and a model of the Sears Tower where the ball takes a ride up the elevator!
Florida’s oldest mini golf course is Bayfront Mini Golf, just off US-1 in St. Augustine, Florida. It has been on the marina since 1949, offering scenic and historic views of the Bridge of Lions along with the golf. Even though the course is old, it has recently been renovated to restore it to its original look, without the waterfalls and other gimmicks commonly seen today. It’s a simple putting course with lovely hedges for landscaping. In keeping with its historic aspect, in 2013 the city began the process to place Bayfront Mini Golf on the National Registry of Historic Places. Another old-fashioned course is Farmington Miniature Golf & Ice Cream Parlor, family owned and operated since 1962. It is located in Farmington, Connecticut just 3 miles off our US-6 roadtrip, and includes a few traditional hazards like a windmill on its well-landscaped grounds. Another course that opened in 1962 is Memphis Championship Miniature Golf at Memphis Kiddie Park near Cleveland, Ohio. This course is a classic test of skill, with each hole designed to allow a skilled golfer to score a hole-in-one. The amusement park is about 3 miles off of US-42 and also has a mini roller coaster, train, and other rides.
Miniature golf courses were added to many amusement parks in the early 1960s. As noted on our US-6 roadtrip visit to Cedar Point, Ohio, their Cedar Classic Miniature Golf opened in 1961. Adventureland amusement park in East Farmingdale, Long Island, New York, opened in 1962 with a mini golf course. When opened, it included just a few rides like a carousel, small train, Little Dipper Coaster, and kiddie boats. It has since grown to thirty rides including two roller coasters and three water rides. Unfortunately, the mini golf course was replaced with Adventure Falls, a log flume water ride, in 2001. Even Disneyland added a mini golf course in 1961, though at the Disneyland Hotel and not in the theme park itself. The hotel had a putting green since 1956 and added a full 18-hole golf course, a driving range, and a unique 18-hole miniature golf course adjacent to the Disneyland Hotel. Of course, the mini golf course was outfitted with miniature copies of some of the theme park buildings such as Cinderella’s castle, and featured popular Disney characters. The driving range and miniature golf course were shut down in 1978.
On both our US-23 and US-6 roadtrips, we passed several other courses that were around in 1962. A couple are still in business but most are not. Dinosaur Gardens, on US-23 in Ossineke, Michigan, has a miniature golf course in addition to concrete dinosaurs and a gift shop that boasts "Everything dinosaur!" Just a few miles off US-23, adjacent to Bay City State Park in Bay City, Michigan, there was a mini golf course and roller skating rink. There was also a Putt-Putt brand course on US-23 itself. Both are gone today but there is a new mini golf course across the street from the park, with a modern mountain and waterfall. Running east to west on our US-6 journey, we passed a course at Wellfleet, Massachusetts, where the Wellfleet Drive-In Theater added a course in 1962 that is still in operation with the original obstacles. The Family Drive-In Theatre in Kane, Pennyslvania opened in 1952 and includes a 9-hole mini golf course. Another old-style flat course is Putter-Port Mini Golf in Vermilion, Ohio. This classic course includes an old metal loop-the-loop hazard. Moline Mini-Golf was another of the old-style courses, near King Plaza in Moline, Iowa. It seems to have closed recently. And the Zeckendorf Plaza in downtown Denver, Colorado once included an outdoor skating rink reminiscent of New York’s Rockefeller Plaza, and a miniature golf course. The plaza and its surrounding buildings were completed in 1960 but replaced by other buildings in the late 1990s.
Besides the songs and other cultural artifacts of the heyday of miniature golf from the 1930s, the game continues to have unusual influences on pop culture. In 1962, Milton Bradley introduced a tabletop miniature golf game called Pivot Golf. It was invented by Marvin Glass and consisted of a bunch of tiny plastic replicas of typical mini golf obstacles like chutes. You putted by aiming a Golfer figure and pushing a button, causing the spring-loaded Golfer to swing his club and hit a ball toward each hole. Perhaps its strangest feature was that Lucille Ball endorsed it on the cover of the box! And apparently playing miniature golf helped you score with the girls, as Playboy Magazine’s Miss December 1962, June Cochran, mentioned in her magazine bio that she loves twisting, miniature golf, Corvettes, and shish kabob.
Time now for Roadtrip-'62 ™ to play some mini golf. I’m not going to get as crazy as Dan Caprera, who spent 78 days on a roadtrip adventure sleeping in his car, driving to Alaska, and traveling 20,681 miles across America playing mini golf, but I will be hunting for some more old-style courses. And first, I will check Dan’s ”America’s Best Mini Golf” guide for some ideas. His quest took him everywhere from the corn fields of Iowa to the schooners of Maine and he believes he found the best course in America, and the best course in each state and Washington, DC. There’s sure to be one near you!
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