After a hiatus of almost 30 years, miniature golf has returned to the shores of Lake Hopatcong with the opening of the Lake Hopatcong Golf Club at Nolan’s Point in May. Located on the site of the long defunct Lakeland Marina, the new course is a treat to see as well as play. Its design incorporates models of important structures from the lake’s history including Allen’s Pavilion, the Ogden Mine Railroad, and the steamboat Hopatcong, as well as surviving structures such as the Main Lake Market and Lake Hopatcong Yacht Club. The new course fits into a rich history of miniature golf at Lake Hopatcong.
As a thriving resort, Lake Hopatcong was very much a part of the miniature golf craze that overtook America in the late 1920’s and peaked in 1930. The Roaring Twenties marked a distinct cultural change in the country. Embracing a “return to normalcy” after World War I, jazz music blossomed, the flapper redefined the way women dressed, Art Deco style flourished, and technological leaps were everywhere as such inventions as the automobile, telephone, and electricity became widely used. Americans enjoyed a series of fads as the population sought the new and exciting. Mahjong, Ouija boards, crossword puzzles, and the Charleston were a few of the crazes that swept the nation. However, nothing was bigger than the madness surrounding miniature golf.
Cheaper than a movie and fun for the whole family, miniature golf became quite the rage in the 1920’s. In 1926 a pair of businessmen opened New York City’s first outdoor course on the roof of a financial district skyscraper and by 1930 there were 150 rooftop courses on hotels, clubs and nightspots across Manhattan, and many more courses sprouted up on vacant lots around the city. In small towns across America, entrepreneurs used weed-filled lots and scrap material to build these compact and efficient money-makers. By August 1930, the Commerce Department estimated that there were 25,000 mini-golf courses in the country. One could even hit the little links in specially designed lines of mini-golf clothing. Miniature golf, which was called “the madness of 1930”, actually saw its popularity grow during the beginning of the Great Depression.
The concept of a miniature version of golf goes back to St. Andrews in Scotland. Originally known as the Ladies’ Golf Club of St. Andrews, an organization for women was started in 1867 by the men of St. Andrews. In that era, even semi-strenuous activity for women was taboo. Play on a putting course was just what social norms of the day demanded. Beginning here and into the 1920’s, miniature golf was actually a short 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 mini golf course in America was Thistle Dhu or “This’ll Do.” It opened in 1916 in Pinehurst, North Carolina as a tribute to the Louvre’s Tuileries Garden, complete with sculptures, fountains, and elaborate terraces. Like the Ladies Golf Club of St. Andrews the course was intended for a miniature version of golf using 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, so he formulated an artificial surface, which he later patented, from cottonseed hulls, sand, oil, and green dye. This was the important ingredient needed to allow miniature golf courses as we know them today to flourish. In 1927 the “Tom Thumb” golf course was created at Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, 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 miniature courses seen today. During the Depression, many new and ingenious obstacle or hazard holes were created by using what could be scavenged – old tires, wagon wheels, rusty stove pipes, sewer pipes, barrels, rain gutters, and more. Some of these became so popular that they were incorporated into courses across the country, and were the models for the obstacle-laden miniature golf that we think of today.
Miniature golf was one of the first “sports” to be played in the evening – many courses were strategically built under lights of billboards or other areas lit brightly enough to allow evening play. Miniature golf became the in thing to do after attending a ball or gala and it was common to find these courses open until 4 AM! In fact, in many communities curfews were enacted to force miniature golf courses to close at more reasonable hours.
Mary Pickford & Douglas Fairbanks at Pickford’s famous Hollywood miniature golf course (1930)
Even film star Mary Pickford jumped into the craze, buying land in Beverly Hills for an elaborate course. In August, 1930 the Los Angeles Times reported that she was spending $50,000 to construct a one-of-a-kind course that was “designed and constructed by artisans of the United Artists Studios under the direction of Mary Pickford, the course is French ultra-modernistic in style with a landscaping plan that includes a lagoon and wandering streams, the whole enhanced by modern holophanic lighting effects.”
Advetisement for miniature golf course on Howard Boulevard in Mount Arlington (1930) Advertisement for River Styx Miniature Golf (1930)
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 which consisted of putting a ball across the hotel lawn. As the popularity of miniature golf began to take off across America, Nolan’s Point Amusement Park established the first real miniature golf course at Lake Hopatcong for the 1929 season with a nine-hole layout. It proved 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.
As the 1930 season opened, the craze exploded at the lake. In the course of the summer, the Lake Hopatcong Breeze reported the opening of no less than seven new courses at the lake. According to the July 5, 1930 issue of the Breeze,
Scorecard from River Styx Miniature Golf (1960’s)
The craze of the miniature golf course which has taken the country by storm has spread to Lake Hopatcong. A very tricky course has opened in the River Styx section near the bridge. It is run by Mr. Frank and Mr. Mulvey of the Lakeland Amusement Company. The course is composed of eighteen entirely different holes each one offering a different problem to the golfer. Although the course was just opened, it has already enjoyed a large patronage, and promises to offer amusement and diversion for many of the residents of the lake.
The Alamac Hotel immediately opened an 18-hole course of its own, and the Playhouse Park course soon opened to much fanfare as reported in the July 19, 1930 issue of the Breeze,
The course, designed and built by Duer Irving Sewall, well known golf architect of Fifth Avenue, New York, will be a small replica of a full-sized course, with the fairways and traps modified to suit the needs of a putting game. Mr. Sewall, in designing the course, has not resorted to using trick hazards such as bridges and pipes, but has made the course as near as possible an exact duplicate of a larger course. There are nine holes on the course, and no two of them are alike. Hills, ditches, roughs and other natural hazards are the only obstacles in use, but there are enough of them and such a variety that the course will not lack interest. It will be of particular interest and benefit to the real golfer, inasmuch as it is really a test of putting ability. Mr. Sewall is a far-famed golf architect, having designed and built golf courses in all parts of the country. He recently completed one for the Lake Mohawk Golf Club in Sparta and another for Blair Academy at Blairstown.
Opening of the new miniature golf course at Bertrand Island Park (1930)
Bertrand Island Park joined this entertainment juggernaut when it opened a beautiful 18-hole course as part of the construction of an upper boardwalk. The July 26, 1930 issue of the Breeze reported that
The miniature golf craze has hit Bertrand Island Park with a “bang!” The multitudes who witnessed the opening of the most original miniature 18 hole course on Monday evening were of the opinion that it receives the grand prize. Everything from the putting greens to the tricky obstacles is entirely different from the many other miniature courses that dot the map hereabouts. The location on top of the observation hill is an ideal one, the cool breezes from the lake sweep it constantly.
In the ensuing weeks of the 1930 season, miniature golf courses opened on Espanong Road (near the area where Jefferson Lumber stands today), at the Ithanell Hotel in River Styx, and on Howard Boulevard opposite the old Mount Arlington Post Office.
As is typical of crazes, miniature golf was overbuilt both at Lake Hopatcong and in the rest of the United States. 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 1930’s and a new, smaller course would replace it when the upper portion of the park was rebuilt in the 1950’s with the addition of Kiddie Land. The course in River Styx just past Bon Air Lodge and the River Styx bridge remained for many years. As the August 1952 Breeze reported,
The miniature golf course on the other side of River Styx Bridge has been having a busy season this year. It seems to be the only cool spot on these very hot days and evenings here and the course not only takes one’s mind off the heat but it is such a delightful novel course that all trouble are forgotten by the players.
Though a bit worn in later years, the River Styx course continued in operation well into the 1970’s. In fact, the property where it stood on River Styx Road is still vacant today.
So after these many years, miniature golf has returned to Nolan’s Point just a short distance from where the first course opened in 1929!
The Lake Hopatcong Golf Club, May 2012.