It is hard to believe the miniature golf course at Nolan’s Point celebrated its 10th anniversary in May. The Lake Hopatcong Golf Club continued a historic connection with miniature golf at the lake and its design even highlights structures from the lake’s unique past.
As a thriving resort, Lake Hopatcong was very much a part of the miniature golf craze that overtook America in the late 1920s and peaked in 1930. The Roaring ‘20s marked a distinct cultural change in the nation. Embracing a “return to normalcy” after World War I, jazz music blossomed, flappers redefined the way women dressed and the Art Deco style of architecture and design flourished.
Technology leapt forward with such inventions as the automobile, telephone and electricity becoming widely used. At the same time, Americans enjoyed a series of fads as the population sought the new and exciting. Mahjong, Ouija boards, crossword puzzles and the Charleston were among the crazes sweeping the nation. However, nothing was bigger than the madness surrounding miniature golf.
Cheaper than a movie and entertaining for the whole family, miniature golf became quite the rage in the 1920s. New York City’s first outdoor course opened in 1926 on the roof of a financial district skyscraper. By 1930 there were 150 rooftop courses on hotels, clubs and nightspots across Manhattan, and many more courses sprouted up in vacant lots around the city.
In small towns across America, entrepreneurs utilized weed-filled lots and scrap material to build these compact and efficient moneymakers.
The Commerce Department estimated that 25,000 mini golf courses were in operation around the country by August 1930. One could even hit the little links in specially designed lines of mini golf attire. Miniature golf was called “the madness of 1930” and its popularity grew during the beginning of the Great Depression.
The concept of a miniature version of golf goes back to St. Andrews Links, the famed Scotland golf course. The men of St. Andrews formed an organization for women in 1867 known as the St. Andrews Ladies’ Golf Club. In that era, when even semi-strenuous activity for women was taboo, play on a putting course was just what social norms demanded.
Beginning here and continuing into the 1920s, miniature golf was simply a shortened game of regulation golf. Often called “garden golf,” it was played with a putter on real grass with holes ranging from about 10 to 20 yards in length.
The first miniature golf course in America opened in 1916 in Pinehurst, N.C. Known as Thistle Dhu (or “This’ll Do”), the course was a tribute to the Louvre’s Tuileries Garden, complete with sculptures, fountains and elaborate terraces. Like the St. Andrews Ladies’ Golf Club, the course was intended to be a miniature version of golf, played with only a putter.
When golf enthusiast Thomas McCulloch Fairburn tried to build a small course in Mexico in 1922, he found that growing and maintaining natural grass was difficult. He went on to formulate (and later patent) an artificial surface from cottonseed hulls, sand, oil and green dye. This was the important component needed for miniature golf courses—as we know them today—to spread.
In 1927 the “Tom Thumb” golf course was created at Lookout Mountain, Tenn., then patented and sold around the country. Other competitors sprang up as well, and miniature golf course architecture became a new profession. For the first time, rails or bumpers were used to confine the ball within a boundary, similar to the courses seen today.
During the Depression, many new and ingenious obstacle or hazard holes were created from whatever could be scavenged—old tires, wagon wheels, rusty stove pipes, sewer pipes, barrels, rain gutters and more. Some of these proved so popular that they were incorporated into courses across the country, becoming the models for the obstacle-laden miniature golf we think of today.
Miniature golf was one of the first “sports” to be played in the evening. Many courses were strategically built under billboards or other brightly lit areas to allow for evening play. Playing a round became the “in” thing to do after attending a ball or gala and it was common to find courses open until 4 am! In fact, many communities found it necessary to enact curfews to force miniature golf establishments to close at more reasonable hours.
Even film star Mary Pickford jumped into the craze, buying land in Beverly Hills to build an elaborate one-of-a-kind miniature golf course. In August 1930, the Los Angeles Times reported that Pickford was spending $50,000 on a course designed and constructed by artisans of the United Artists Studios. The course would be “French ultra-modernistic in style with a landscaping plan that includes a lagoon and wandering streams, the whole enhanced by modern holophanic lighting effects.”
The first appearance of miniature golf at Lake Hopatcong occurred during the summer of 1923 when the Hotel Durban set up a miniature golf course at Sharp’s Rock that consisted of putting a ball across the hotel lawn. Nolan’s Point Amusement Park established the first true mini course at the lake, opening a nine-hole layout for the 1929 season that proved to be a very popular addition to the park. Playhouse Park, an upscale bungalow colony off Espanong Road, soon announced plans to build a miniature golf course of its own.
The mini golf craze exploded at the lake in 1930, when the Lake Hopatcong Breeze reported the opening of no less than seven new courses. This included a new 18-hole course at the largest hotel at the lake, the 250-room Alamac, and a 9-hole course at Playhouse Park designed and built by Duer Irving Sewall, a well-known golf architect from New York City. Sewall’s design was a miniaturized replica of a full-sized course, with hills, ditches, roughs and sand traps.
When Bertrand Island Park opened a beautiful 18-hole course as part of the construction of its upper boardwalk, the July 26, 1930 Breeze reported that “the miniature golf craze has hit Bertrand Island Park with a ‘bang!’… Everything from the putting greens to the tricky obstacles is entirely different from the many other miniature courses that dot the map hereabouts,” and noted that “the location on top of the observation hill is an ideal one, the cool breezes from the lake sweep it constantly.”
As is typical of fads, miniature golf was overbuilt both at Lake Hopatcong and across the country. The Nolan’s Point course closed after the 1931 season, having outlasted most of the others at the lake. Only two of the lake’s courses would establish long-term roots. The course at Bertrand Island Park lasted through the 1930s and was replaced by a new, smaller course when the upper portion of the park was rebuilt in the 1950s with the addition of Kiddie Land. It remained until the park closed for good in 1983. The course in River Styx, located near the bridge, survived into the 1970s. The location remained vacant until recently being converted into overflow parking for Patrick’s Pub.
For years it appeared that miniature golf might just be a nostalgic memory at Lake Hopatcong, but happily that all changed in 2011. Showcasing scale replicas of iconic structures like the Wildcat roller coaster from Bertrand Island Park, the historic Lake Hopatcong Yacht Club and the dam at Hopatcong State Park, Lake Hopatcong Golf Club is continuing a most enjoyable tradition at Lake Hopatcong!
Bertrand Island Park miniature golf course in 1930, individuals unknown.
Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks at Pickford’s Hollywood miniature golf course, circa 1930.
Bertrand Island Park miniature golf course in 1962, individuals unknown.
A River Styx miniature golf course score card, circa 1965. Bertrand Island Park miniature golf course, circa 1970.