The History of Miniature Golf in Hendersonville

 

 

Like its big brother, miniature golf in America grew from elitist roots. When the scaled-down version of the game first appeared on manors in the English countryside around the turn of the 20th century it was known as “garden golf” or “lawn golf.” In America, the father of “Lilliputian” golf was James Wells Barber.

Barber was an Englishman with golf in his blood but no time to play as he built a steamship line with his brother Herbert that provided the only freight service between New York City and France for thirty. Eventually Barber began spending time in Pinehurst building one estate and then another. On his second property in 1917 Barber teamed up with another golf nut and amateur landscape architect from Montclair Golf Club in New Jersey named Edward H. Whiswell to makeover his garden with a small eighteen-hole course.

Everything was laid out on compacted sand, with tiny greens that were elevated to promote drainage. All of the holes were designed to theoretically be made in one shot and ranged from twelve feet to seventy-one feet. Four of the longer holes were intended to be played with a niblick chip shot. Some of the holes featured artificial obstructions like concrete mounds and others, like the opening hole, which sported a small oak tree sixteen feet from the tee in direct stymie of the hole. As Whiswell later wrote, “It is necessary to put a slight cut on the ball as to give it perfect distance. Then, you may get your one.”

The story whispered through the Carolina pines is that when the work was finished Barber stood back satisfied and said “This’ll do” in his British accent and the course was dubbed Thistle Dhu. Rules were drawn up and guests invited for tournaments. All were universally charmed. The finest American woman’s player of the day, Glenna Collett, said it was “a lovely course.” Thistle Dhu was always private but in 2012 the Pinehurst Resort opened an enormous putting course for its guests and resurrected the name Thistle Dhu.   

Thistle Dhu and similar efforts in the 1920s were courses of sand or grass. That would change thanks to Thomas McCulloch Fairbairn, another Englishman who was stranded without golf on his Mexican cotton plantation. To fashion something resembling grass Fairbairn took crushed cotton seed hulls, mixed in some oil to bind the mash together and dyed it green. He patented his artificial grass but was not sure exactly how to profit from his invention.

John Ledbetter and Drake Delanoy knew. They had built a miniature golf course on the roof of a New York skyscraper in 1926 using Fairbairn’s product that they called “GrassIt.” Ledbetter and Delanoy quickly installed courses on 150 rooftops across the city. Garnet Carter knew as well and he bought Fairbairn’s cotton seed patent.

Carter was a traveling salesman with a promoter’s soul. He left the road in 1928 to settle on Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee to build a resort and golf course. Carter’s wife was way into fantasy and she ordered garden statues of gnomes and fairy-tale characters to be sprinkled around the resort, which was called the Fairyland Club. Some of those elves and princesses wound up on the fairways of a small miniature golf course on the property called Tom Thumb Golf. 

Carter’s Tom Thumb Golf was so popular that the grass greens could not stand up to the foot traffic and GrassIt was the ideal remedy. He added a patent for a miniature golf course design with hollow logs as hazards to the grass carpet patent and sold “Tom Thumb Golf” kits for $2,000, including shipping. The miniature golf mania was about to seize America.

By 1930 there were an estimated 25,000 miniature golf courses across the United States, set up in office buildings and vacant lots and college campuses. The Auditorium Country Club in downtown Wilmington, Delaware was typical. On a former basketball court the spacious felt fairways stretched four feet across with plenty of sporty hazards including traps, rough and water hazards. The highlight of the loop was a 50-foot drive across a long wooden bridge. The ceilings were painted an azure blue to enhance the illusion of real golf. A mini-clubhouse on the stage overlooked the course.

And that was the year Henderson County saw its first 18-hole golf course, albeit scaled down at the northeast corner of Church Street and Fifth Avenue West. The proprietor of the putting course was Berryman Thomas (B.T.) Longino. Longino was a 1907 graduate of Georgia School of Technology and worked on electric street cars in Seattle, Washington, Jacksonville, Florida and Columbus, Georgia before marrying a Hendersonville girl, Jessie Elizabeth Lewis. the newlyweds moved to the west coast of Florida in the midst of the original Florida land boom and Longino followed the money back to Hendersonville where he worked as sales manager for Country Club Estates.

By 1931 the craze was over. The Depression had something to do with it but mostly Americans had just moved on to the next fad. Longino folded up his Hendersonville course and returned to Florida. He started the Bee Ridge turpentine camp in Sarasota in 1937 - his son Buster would eventually be voted into the Florida Agricultural Hall of Fame in 2007 for working the land. Longino would be seen back in Henderson County as well, purchasing the Highland Lake Inn property in 1946 to run the All-America Boys Camp. He died in 1969.

In 1936 the City received an anonymous donation of $10,000 to build a park. Such a gift begged detective work and it turned out the donor was indeed a known trickster who delighted in mystery. Bert A. Boyd had gotten into the grain brokerage business in 1885 in Indianapolis when he was just 15 years old. He eventually segued from the Bert A. Boyd Grain Company into the presidency of the Indianapolis board of Trade. The colorful Boyd carried with him a metal token that he used to perform sleight of hand tricks. Encased in the metal token was a 1909 Lincoln penny (the first American coin to feature a real-life figure) and the engraving read: "You know what Lincoln said about fooling the people, well see Bert A. Boyd, Indianapolis."

Boyd may have been "able to fool all of the people all of the time" with his dextrous hands but the gift to Hendersonville was no fakery. Bert retired to Hendersonville in 1930 and four years later his wife Frances passed away. About the same time his only siblings Minnie and William, also died. Childless, Bert moved into the upper floor of the Kirk Building at 442-448 North Main Street where he lived the final 17 years of his life. He became well known around town as "Lucky 13er" since he loved the number 13. Bert had been born on November 13, 1870 and celebrated his birthday every Friday the 13th - even though he had been born on a Sunday.

 After his initial bequest Boyd added two more gifts of $2,500 and $1,250 and the lighted triangular plot of land created by Church Street, King Street and 8th Avenue opened as Boyd Park on June 16, 1936. It contained tennis courts and the city's first shuffleboard courts. In 1954 Clifton Shipman leased the park from the City and constructed a dance pavilion and a miniature golf course. Shipman was a serial entrepreneur known to have started more than 25 businesses in Hendersonville, often ruing more than a dozen at a time. Shipman's Hasty Tasty, opened in a nearby converted service station, was the town's first fast food restaurant, selling burgers, fries and shakes for 19 cents and sodas for a nickel.

Miniature golf has remained a presence in Boyd Park for over 60 years. Now operated by the City of Hendersonville the course has been renamed Laura E. Corn Mini-Golf in honor of the long-time proprietor known to many as just the "Putt-Putt Lady."

Don Clayton was one American who did not fall in love with mechanized windmills. Taking a health break from his insurance business, he went to a miniature golf course in his hometown in Fayetteville, North Carolina with his brother. Clayton was so disillusioned by the experience that he returned home and started building his own course. Three weeks later in 1954 the first Putt-Putt course was open for business.

Instead of dinosaurs Clayton’s courses had geometric blocks for obstacles. Instead of par threes, all Putt-Putt holes were par-twos with a chance for an ace of every tee. He franchise the concept around the country with eventually 126 copyrighted holes to build a course. To emphasize that his course were not children’s playthings Clayton started the Professional Putters Association in 1959 that has given away $8 million in purses. Syndicated television coverage of tournaments represented the second longest-running sports programming on television behind ABC’s Wide World of Sports.

The Hendersonville Putt Putt franchise was owned by Edgar Andy Garren and his wife Addie. They added the course next to their indoor roller rink on Drake Street off of Kanuga Road in the 1950s and operated the facility for over 30 years.

High-end, competitive miniature golf returned to Hendersonville with the opening of the Champions Golf Learning Center on Brookside Camp Road. After the course received a makeover from Harris Miniature Golf Courses on the Jersey Shore the facility hosted miniature golf's U.S. Open in 2015, the first time the prestigious event was contested in Western North Carolina. With $8,000 at stake, the event attracted over 40 professionals from ten states. Veteran professional putter Brad Lebo of Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, who moonlights as a dentist, won the title with an eight round total of 297. Danny Baddeley, a local pro from Hendersonville, finished in the money at 23rd with a 325; his sixth round score of even par 36 tied for the second best round of the tournament.