A ‘Wonderful Piece of Ground’

The history and legacy of Lester Park Golf Course

Editor’s Note: The city of Duluth announced in June that it is considering selling all or part of Lester Park Golf Course to a developer to create middle-income housing due to the dramatic improvement in the Duluth economy (some details can be found here). In light of that announcement, Zenith City Online presents the history of the golf course to better inform the citizens of Duluth exactly what is at stake. The rest of this week we will explore the city’s ideas in a series of editorials.

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Duluth’s longtime parks superintendent F. Rodney Paine, who conspired with friends to finance the construction of Lester Park Golf Course to help put unemployed men to work during the Great Depression. (Image: Zenith City Online)

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. (Read more about the early history of EPGC here.)

The clubhouse at Duluth’s Enger Park Golf Course from a photograph taken in 1931. (Image: Zenith City)

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.”

Arnold Andy” Anderson, the first greens keeper at both Enger Park and Lester park golf courses, and the developer of “Enger Bent,” a hearty bent grass used to seed golf course greens he discovered along a creek within Enger Park Golf Course. (Image: Zenith City Online)

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.

A facsimile of Anderson’s original course layout made for the local newspapers. Since it was first built in the early 1930s, only the location of the fourth green has changed, moved further west to extend the length of the hole; otherwise the original 18 holes remain just as Anderson had planned. (Image: Zenith City Online)

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.

Some of the 75 unemployed men put to work by the city to clear Lester park Golf Course. (Image: Zenith City Online)

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.

Seeding the new greens at Lester Park Golf Course with “Enger Bent.” (Image; Zenith City Online)

Click on “2” for the rest of the story….

The history and legacy of Lester Park Golf Course

14 Responses to A ‘Wonderful Piece of Ground’

  1. Hey Glen! Yes, I sent email notices on the history of the course and all three editorials to the mayor, CAO Montgomery, all city councilors, and members of the planning Commission and the Heritage Preservation Commission. So far I have received a simple Thank You from councilors Hanson, Larson, and Gardner. None of the others have said a thing.

    I have also emailed Montgomery three time requesting information based on city claims about the courses being ‘mediocre,” any stuy that shows a need for middle income housing in Lakeside/Lester park, and exactly what the $13 million in needed improvements entails. He has failed to respond to me. I am going to email him–and copy the mayor and councilors–again this morning.

    Glad Zack is golfing. It’s a game he can play his entire life. No matter how well or poorly you play, it’s time spent outdoors with friends.

  2. Hi Tony,
    Thank you for the insight and ideas with Lester Park Golf course.
    Have you forwarded the 3 segments to the city officials located in the 4th sound-off section?
    Zack has taken up golf and plays at Lester, he would appreciate this perspective. All of the City officials should see this.
    Keep up the good work.
    Glen Filipovich

  3. Bryan: we address those very issues–crowded Enger, other ideas,–in the editorials so keep reading! Scroll down the home page and look for the LPGC Golf Ball for the editorials. At the end of each piece is a link to email the mayor, city councilors, the News Tribune’s letters to the editor, so sound off, everyone! Now is the time for your voices to be heard.

  4. Lester is an essential asset to our community and it MUST be preserved as such. Only the uninformed and non-golfing populace could argue otherwise. As for Enger being all we need I say bunk! Both course are busy most days and the gridlock that would occur with just the one course is unimaginable. The Lake 9 is a safety valve in that you can show up alone and get out. I play Lester almost everyday and I see firsthand it’s importance as people of all ages use Lester daily. Investment in upgrading the clubhouse so that weddings and other events could be held is only wise. The liquor ban that is archaically still in place must go! Make it a place non-golfers would patronize as well as golfers. Imagine a deck with a view, great burgers and local brews. It could be open year-round.
    A midst all this doom and gloom talk I hear nothing in the way of solutions. What of our corporate entities? Naming rights? How about Maurices Lester Park Golf Club? The good will they could generate with such generous sponsorship would far exceed the relatively small “loses” the last couple of years have incurred. Solutions MUST be found!

  5. Citizens of Duluth. Do not let them sell off your golf course. A city of your size needs two muni courses. You have two gems.
    Rally the troops!

  6. I have a novel idea! The city should sell Spirit Mountain for middle-income type housing development. Consider the unique “cliff dweller-hanging” type housing to be built there! The view, the savings of huge amounts of city utilities,the mountain bike trail possibilities through back yards, the less need of water drawn out of Lake Superior,the less need of resurrecting the defunct 70’s Ski Train to Duluth, like the “Northern Express” proposes to be.

  7. It seems developers just can’t keep their hands off of golf courses. All that land just sitting there, they can’t stand it. I think they haunt around all of them in the country looking for some reason they can tell people why they should build on them and see if they believe it. People have to stand up to them. They never build good quality homes and sometimes within 20 years it looks like a ghetto.

  8. Doesn’t this possible “developer” have a relationship with Mayor, Don Ness?? Is there a little Nepotism happening here?? “Middle-Income” housing may be a smoke screen for high end luxury housing making Lester Park a true “Country Club” setting, in reality!
    All this to keep Spirit Mountain running with possible new property tax revenue coming in, to continue to dump into Spirit Mountain, to keep tourists coming in the winter, as support for the Canal Park Business Owner Association, and their cash registers, in the “off” season!

  9. Wonderful story Tony. Clearly Lester Park Golf Course is a part of our legacy. Lester is an absolute jewel of an asset.

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