The Biggest Little Game in Town

From early Tom Thumb courses to later Putt-Putt Golf, miniature golf was a source of entertainment for decades. // Photography courtesy of Vintage Views
Crystal Park in Beulah where kiddie rides and miniature golf provided fun for the whole family.

Miniature golf has delighted Americans for almost a century, challenging the skills derived from “real” golf with entertainment features and novelty. The first miniature golf course was created in 1916 in Pinehurst, North Carolina, on a private estate. Other wealthy golfers followed, creating their own personal postage-stamp courses, calling the activity “garden golf,” but with none of the kooky obstacles that would later characterize the game.

In the 1920s, this leisure class pastime was transformed into a cultural phenomenon that ordinary folks could enjoy. Mini-golf fever caught on across the country, including in Michigan. The movement exploded in 1927, when Freida and Garnet Carter of Tennessee acquired the rights to an artificial turf made of crushed and dyed cottonseed hulls and patented Tom Thumb Golf. They sold some 3,000 Tom Thumb courses for $4,500 each, including courses in the Michigan towns of Frankfort, Marquette, Escanaba, Detroit and others.

By the late 1920s and early 1930s, miniature golf had become another crazy fad, like dance marathons, flagpole sitting and hot-dog-eating contests, that indulged America’s appetite for novelty. At the same time, Prohibition uprooted many men from their customary barstools onto a miniature green. In 1927, federal agents raided a building on the east side of Detroit and found a bar and liquor storeroom — as well as a thumbnail indoor golf course. In downtown Jackson, another indoor miniature golf course, the Rustic Gardens, was raided by police in 1930 where a small quantity of beer, whiskey and gin were seized. But overall, the game appealed to folks looking for simple recreation, not liquor. The Detroit Sportsman’s Show of 1929 featured a diminutive 18-hole layout for its visitors’ enjoyment. Professional golfers at the show gave instructions in the midget game.

Grand Haven State Park’s course opened in 1951 and became a hotspot for teens. 

By 1930, an estimated 40,000 mini-links appeared across the country in vacant lots, hotel grounds, rooftop gardens, highway gasoline stations and amusement parks. There were even indoor midget courses in department stores. In 1928, the Battle Creek Sanitarium opened an 18-hole miniature golf course for its patients and guests, where Dr. John H. Kellogg played the first round on the model course. Port Huron’s Hotel Harrington had a “snappy” indoor 9-hole course, where in 1929, “the ladies are particularly urged to come in and play.” The 1929 plans for a new suburban development in Bloomfield Hills of “old English Country Estates” highlighted miniature golf courses, tennis courts and bowling-on-the-green courts. Meanwhile in Ludington, an indoor 9-hole course, where “each hole is decidedly sporty,” showcased a scaled-down break

water, lighthouse and cottages, reflecting the maritime heritage of that city.

Courses ranged from sublime to ridiculous. Oddball, crazy, or strange grounds featured windmills, castles, pagodas, waterfalls, or storybook characters. Roulette wheels, giant dice, jungle animals, or cultural icons like Paul Bunyan or the Taj Mahal were caricatured. Rube Goldberg-esque hazards designed to roll a ball through complicated tricks were popular.

Lilliputian courses sprang up all over Michigan, from Watervliet in southwestern Michigan to Ironwood in the Upper Peninsula. By 1930, Lansing had six 18-hole miniature links, and Detroit had at least twice that number. There were peewee courses in Brighton, Paw Paw, Holland and many other towns. The zenith for half-pint golf courses came in 1930 when an estimated 4 million people regularly played. The fad faded in the following years and the number of links dwindled.

For many Michiganders, our images of miniature golf were formed by the links of the 1950s. The baby boom and growth of suburbia fostered an explosion of interest. New courses sprouted up in shopping strips or along popular highways. The Putt-Putt Golf chain offered franchises in 1953, and several were established in Michigan. Miniature golf was a clean, wholesome activity for families with young children or teenage baby boomers on a date. Crystal Park in Beulah offered fun for the whole family with kiddie rides and a miniature railroad, as well as mini-golf. Established in 1953, Jawor’s Fun Golf in Roseville featured a giant pair of red dice, a pink elephant and a purple alligator, among other novelties. A hot spot for teenagers was Grand Haven State Park, which opened a miniature golf course concession in 1951. The attraction lasted through the 1962 season when the Michigan Conservation Department decided against such “carnival concessions.”

Mini-golf saw another boom in the 1980s that continues today, albeit in smaller numbers. As John Margolies stated in his seminal book on the subject, “Miniature Golf”: “Europe may have its centuries-old traditions of landscape architecture, but America has miniature golf.”

BLUE Vintage Views columnists M. Christine Byron and Thomas R. Wilson reside in Grand Rapids. They are authors of the book “Historic Leelanau: Recognized Sites and Places of Historical Significance.”

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