By Kathleen Kullberg, Minneapolis historian
When the Walker Art Museum first opened its rooftop mini-golf course in 2004, they may have thought they were onto something unique in Minneapolis history.
The Walker mini-golf course was not the first in Minneapolis. In the 1930s, people could spend all summer playing mini-golf courses in downtown and Uptown, even participating in contests to see how low a score they could rack up in a month over six courses.
In the 1930s, putting a little ball on a story-book green was one of the most popular summer activities for all ages. In Minneapolis, there were dozens around town, accessible within a short walk, bicycle or streetcar ride.
These miniature versions of nine and 18-hole acreages were known as Tom Thumb courses created by a Georgia resort owner, Garnet Carter, in the late 1920s. Carter, based in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, and Thomas Fairbarn, the inventor of mini-golf, teamed up to franchise their Tom Thumb courses across the country in 1926.
By the 1930s, it was estimated that over 25,000 courses attracted the masses nationally to a fun new pastime each year.
There were over 10 courses within several blocks of Loring Park and downtown. Mini-golf was such an attraction that the Minneapolis Tribune sponsored a mini-golf tournament in the summer of 1930 with hundreds of dollars in prizes. The rules required that entrants had to play on six approved courses between September 17 and October 12, using an official Minneapolis Tribune scorecard. Each entrant had to play three rounds at each of the six to qualify, the lowest 60 aggregated scores over 18 rounds would enter the playoffs.
Prizes for the tournament were donated by various sponsors including the Minneapolis Tribune. The top prizes were a 1931 Brunswick radio, a set of Kroydon golf clubs, and a Tropic-Aire hot water heater. Besides the hot water heater, among the prizes were a variety of items which reflected the more realistic needs of the Depression years: a man’s strap watch, a “slip-on” sweater, a flannel sport shirt, one pair of golf knickers, one box of Hyetest cigars, socks, and a ladies’ wrist watch.
Investors got involved in the sport as well. A group of investors, The Fairways Investment Corporation, created several courses at several vacant lots around town.
In July 1930, the City Council Standing Committee on Licenses granted licenses for mini-golf plots to Fairways Investment Corporation, Tuberg Holding Company, and Garnett Church Furniture Company, who built a course at the northeast corner of 44th and Nicollet, and Woodhouse & Moritz who desired a location at 128 4th Street SE. Most licenses were subject to approval of the local councilmember, then called alderman, in each ward. Between 1930 and 1934, there were over 400 leisure licenses applied for within Hennepin County.
In 1930, a mini-golf course attracted a large following at just about any location. One prime spot was the northwest corner of 25th Street and Hennepin Ave. at the streetcar stop. It is now a Holiday gas station. Just a few blocks further south on Hennepin, now the site of the YWCA parking lot, was Uptown Villa, offering evening rounds of mini-golf for the after-school crowds. It was located next to West High School. There was a course at 2212 Hennepin Ave. S. where the Starbucks now is, and at the corner of Franklin and Nicollet was Shady Links mini-golf.
There were also courses all along Lake Street including at 4223 E. Lake St., 113 E. Lake St., and 501 W. Lake St. There was a Tom Thumb course in a lot between Fremont Avenue and Lake Street in Uptown. Downtown sported a few locations at 1010 Park Ave., 1413 11th St. SE, and 1328 Yale Place. The course at 1010 Park Ave. had the distinctive name of the Rock Garden Golf Course.
Though many were only open for the summer months, most course components were portable and could be moved indoors. One group of owners at 2021 West Broadway advertised ‘Genuine Goat Grass’ and provided indoor putting. Advertisements for the “DA-NITE Golf Course” urged get-rich-quick franchises that could be bought for only $1,000 per month, in the 1930s, to convert an empty building into a big money game.
“Expert statisticians figure 25 million people are playing miniature golf every week,” reads a Minneapolis Tribune clipping from August 1930. “You can get your share of this patronage with an INDOOR course this fall and winter.”
This fun summer pastime lasted well into the 1950s but as post World War II families moved out to the suburbs away from the city and the omnipresent automobile afforded more distant fun, the craze for mini-golf in the city slowly faded into the twilight. Most courses are now found back where they first had their start – at summer resorts, roadside attractions and theme parks.