In 1930, two years after the stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression, Duluth was in the midst of its fourth major economic downturn since it was first established as a township in 1856. The unemployment rolls were getting longer, and federal programs such as the Works Project Administration had yet to be created. So members of the Duluth community lead by Parks Superintendent F. Rodney Paine came together, pooled their money, and put more than 75 men to work creating an absolute jewel for the city of Duluth and its remarkable parks system: Lester Park Golf Course, which for more than 80 years has provided generations of Duluthians with a great excuse to spend hours outside in the company of friends.
The history of Lester Park Golf Course (LPGC) is intrinsically linked to that of Enger Park Golf Course (EPGC), established in 1926. The land for today’s Enger Park, Twin Ponds, and the Enger Park Golf Course came from a gift of $50,000 from West End furniture dealer Bert Enger in 1920. Soon after the idea of creating a municipal golf course was raised and pushed by a group of citizens led by J. B. Clinton, a well-known businessman and sportsman, and the Chamber of Commerce even established a Municipal Golf Committee.
While Enger Park golf course was under construction in the summer of 1926, Parks Superintendent F. Rodney Paine announced that Arnold “Andy” Anderson, an employee at Northland Country Club, had been hired as the new course’s head greenskeeper. By June 1927 the course and clubhouse were open to golfers.
Two years later, despite the Great Depression, EPGC had earned back the city’s investment. The course had only one issue: the exotic bent grass used on its greens was not hearty enough to withstand Duluth’s cold winters. While struggling with this issue, Andy Anderson noticed a patch of grass growing along a creek bed on EPGC. On closer examination he discovered it to be a native bent grass and immediately began developing the strain for use on the golf course. He called it “Enger bent.”
Duluth Responds to the Depression
The unemployment caused by the Great Depression and the success of EPGC gave rise to the idea of a second municipal course in Duluth in 1929. Paine was behind the idea, but the city did not have ready funds on hand to begin work. He estimated the cost for the course at $45,000, with another $12,000 for a clubhouse; with other features, the total cost was estimated at $76,000. Since Enger had made a $9,500 profit that year, the idea seemed very feasible—but there was no source for the initial capital.
Paine’s affluent friends came up with the needed cash—$25,000—to underwrite the initial construction cost of the course’s first nine holes. Robert Congdon (as well as the Congdon Estate), Congdon’s brother-in-law H. C. Dudley, grain trader Ward Ames, George H. Spencer, Paine’s father F. W. Paine, B. M. Peyton (son of H. M. Peyton, Thomas D. Merrill, I. S. Moore, R. W. Higgins, Mrs. A. M. Marshall, Mrs. A. L. Ordean, and Mr. and Mrs. Franklin Rice formed the City Land Company and pooled $25,000 for the course’s creation.
It was a selfless act: None of the investors owned any of the land that was purchased, and nearly all of them were members of Northland and Ridgeview Country Clubs—they already had a place to play golf, but saw the greater community need for more public links. The funding required no down payment by the city, and the first payment wasn’t due until 1933; no annual payments would exceed $6,000, and the debt would be paid off in five years.
The first thing Paine did for LPGC was to put Andy Anderson in charge of both EPGC and the new links. Anderson, who had worked on the expansion of Northland Country Club in the 1920s, drew the course’s layout by hand. His plans were then reviewed by Tom Vardon, the pro at the White Bear Lake Yacht Club, at the time one of the state’s finest courses. Vardon also designed more than 80 courses throughout the U.S., including two municipal courses in St. Paul. When he finished going over Anderson’s plans, he wrote to Paine in Duluth:
I think it is a beauty and is worth a lot of interest from the Duluth people, because when finished you will have something more than you anticipated. This is a wonderful piece of ground, just made for a golf course. Every hole is different; plenty of variety of shots; a real championship course. The scenery is wonderful from all parts of the course, standing well around the beautiful lake and surrounding hills. You cannot beat it.
Construction began on October 24, 1930, when 75 unemployed men set to work clearing trees, brush, and boulders from the course. This was part of a plan contrived by both citizens and the Duluth City Council to provide jobs to those without work. Duluth’s City Works Administration operated much like the Works Project Administration projects and Civilian Conservation Corps camps that the Roosevelt administration would later establish. A pool of over $16,000 had been established just for work on the city’s parks. Those unemployed men cleared nine fairways by the end of November—by hand.
The next summer Anderson went to work on the finer points of the course, which included seeding the greens with Enger bent. Meanwhile, at Enger Park the original greens were torn up and reseeded with Enger bent, In fact, several other courses in the area began using Enger bent on the greens as well, including the short-lived Lakewood Golf Club. By October, LPGC’s front nine was ready for play.
The Course Opens
While it was a bit late in the year for golfing, the City Land Company presented Lester Park Golf Course to the city of Duluth on October 2, 1931. L. G. Castle, president of the company, formally turned the course offer to Mayor Sam Snively, representing the city’s golf course commission. Mr. Snively also hit the official first drive at Lester—but the newspapers of the day failed to report how well the mayor struck the ball. The event was marked by a nine-hole match between four of Duluth’s most prominent golfers: Northland club champ Bobby Campbell and Ridgeview club champ Ray Belisle against “public links golf stars” G. R. Ward and Runcie Martin. The competition ended in a tie.
The first nine holes of the course opened to the public on May 27, 1932, with the same four men participating in the first “test match” round. The second nine holes of the courses were developed that year, financed with $10,000 from a $500,000 bond established in 1926.
In May of 1933, further improvements were made. More unemployed men were put to work by Duluth’s CWA constructing buildings: A rustic rain shelter between the 2nd green and 3rd tee that resembles a Japanese pagoda, a rustic refreshment stand between the 4th green and 16th tee, a rustic caddy shack about 100 yards east of the Club house, and a tool house and garage built with lumber salvaged from a dismantled Power & Light building. (The rain shelter and refreshment stand—now a rain shelter itself—still remain, but the caddy shack has been reduced to ruins and the tool house has been altered dramatically.)
Lester Park Golf Course was formally dedicated June 11, 1933. By then, the clubhouse—which cost $15,000—was already complete. The structure was designed by A. R. Melander, a native Duluthian who also created the plans for Duluth’s First Lutheran and First United Methodist churches, Somers Hall at St. Scholastica, the original East Junior High (now Ordean Middle School), as well as St. Mary’s, St. Luke’s. and Miller Memorial (Miller-Dwan) hospitals.
Mayor Snively hosted the dedication, making a speech and again driving the first ball. The day was marked by tournament played by “16 star pro and amateur golfers of the city.” Everett Nelson won the event, witnessed by over 1,500 spectators, shooting a score of 76.