LIFE ON THE LITTLE LINKS — Do you remember when discos popped up like mushrooms during the late Seventies? Several generations ago, miniature golf links sprung up everywhere. During the 1930s, Americans could choose from thirty thousand courses, with over 150 rooftop establishments in New York City alone.
Miniature golf proved so popular that observers called it “The Madness of 1930.” The game ranks as one of the great crazes of the Great Depression. You could even hit the little links in specially designed lines of mini-golf clothing.
Moviemakers wooed the public with their new talking pictures, but even the studios feared competition from “Rinkiedink” golf. They forbade their stars from playing, yet Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and numerous other luminaries putted in public anyway. Miniature golf attracted everyone from children & Civil War veterans to professors & Prohibition bootleggers. It drew players from both sexes and all ages.
ODDITY SELLS — The goofy game offered a plethora of crazy courses. The links tried to outdo each other with their outrageousness. Players navigated through a maze of traps & contraptions and putted past pools, geysers, castles, sunken gardens, petrified forests, Taj Mahals, White Houses, Great Walls of China, fairytale characters, Wild West icons, and Rube Goldberg-like devices. One course even boasted a trained monkey which grabbed the ball from unsuspecting players!
All was fair in love and business. Gimmicks included live bands, singing midgets, vaudeville acts, marathon dances, pie eating contests, pole sitting, tea rooms, and ladies’ lounges. Some links hired beautiful women as players in order to entice male customers, and various courses entertained their guests until the wee hours of the morning. Miniature golf ranks as one of the first outdoor sports that could be played at night – along with baseball and football.
JACKSONVILLE JOINS THE FUN — The River City was no duffer when it came to peewee golf. Its courses ranged from Ortega to the Northside. Were any in your neighborhood? Here are those listed in the Jacksonville city directory of 1930-’31:
- Amos ‘n Andy Little Golf Course, 535 Talleyrand Avenue
- Blue Chip Miniature Golf Course (for African Americans), 615 West Church Street
- Brae-Burn Miniature Golf Course, 543 Riverside Avenue
- City Miniature Golf (Municipal Miniature Golf), in Waterworks Park
- Fairyland Tom Thumb Golf Course, 3900 McGirts Boulevard
- Five Points Miniature Golf Course, 1017 Park Street
- Golfdrome, 12 West Bay Street
- Hole-in-One, 3629 Main Street
- Oaken Bucket, 2712-2732 Park Street
- Owl Golf Course, northwest corner of Madison and West Ashley
- Peter Pan Golf Course, 122 West 8th Street
- Shady Oak, northeast corner of Pearl and 36th Street
- The Nineteenth Hole, 224 West Adams Street
- Windsor Golf Course, 225 West Monroe Street
- Woman’s Golf Club of South Jacksonville Miniature Golf Course, corner of Hendricks Avenue & East Atlantic Boulevard
The 1930-’31 directory gave 15 golf courses for Jacksonville! The 1929 volume indicated just one, the Tom Thumb Miniature Golf Course at 3900 Ortega Boulevard. And by the way, only three are listed in the 2002 Bell South directory. This is in spite of the fact that over five times as many people live in Jacksonville today than in 1930.
Why did Jacksonville residents and so many other Americans take such a fancy to peewee golf? There are several reasons: You could enjoy this game after work, you didn’t have to dress up, and you could get some exercise and breath in some fresh air. The activity was also rather cheap, a real consideration during the Depression. Prices ranged from 25 cents to 50 cents, or about $2.50 to $5.00 in current currency.
FOUR COURSES — Most people now consider miniature golf a novelty, but it proved a serious endeavor for many of yesteryear’s players. Jacksonville’s newspapers regularly reported tournaments and course openings in their sports pages. When Riverside’s Brae-Burn links opened in March, 1930, the course celebrated with a tournament attended by Mayor John T. Alsop, the namesake of the Alsop Bridge (the Main Street Bridge). Brae-Burn gave away a grand total of $200 in prizes, or approximately $2,000 in today’s money.
Attending the inauguration of the Shady Oak course four months later were Mayor Alsop and City Commission President “Chic” Acosta, the namesake of the Acosta Bridge. Situated at the corner of Pearl and 36th streets, this establishment served Brentwood and Springfield. The links were cooled by oak canopies and enclosed by a rustic fence.
At least one course, the Five Points, operated both indoors and outdoors. The start & finish of each game took place inside, while the middle portions of play transpired outside. A water obstacle served as a highlight. These links were located near the well-known Five Points intersection in Riverside. With an address at 1017-1019 Riverside Avenue, the course was based in the new Park Arcade Building, a business complex built in 1928. Featuring a Mediterranean-style facade, the Park Arcade still stands today, largely occupied by small, trendy shops. Part of the old Five Points mini-golf course covered a private park in back of the structure.
During these segregated times, African Americans could frequent an outdoor course meant only for them. The Blue Chip operated in the traditionally African American neighborhood of La Villa. Located at 615 West Church Street, the course lay across the street from the Richmond Hotel, which offered the finest accommodations for Jacksonville’s African American travelers. Nearly all of the black celebrities who visited the city lodged at this three-story hostelry. Over the years, its illustrious guests included Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holliday. The stars would often greet their fans from the second floor balcony. The Richmond and the Blue Chip were situated just one block from the glittering nightlife of Ashley Street, the Great Black Way. The site of the Blue Chip is now a vacant lot, but the Richmond building has survived. Most of the rest of La Villa’s structures, though, have been razed.
MINI GOLF BITES THE DUST — After just two years, the craze for miniature golf courses had run its course. Many of the enterprises sank into a financial sandtrap and never resurfaced. Whereas the 1930-’31 city directory had listed 15 courses in Jacksonville, the 1931-’32 volume indicated only six. By the time that the 1932-’33 book was published, there were none.
The Golfdrome stood as an example. It had been an indoor course located downtown at 12 West Bay Street, in the middle of a busy retail section. After only a short time, though, the course was converted into the M & M Department Store. (This site is now the northeast corner of the Modes Building’s lot.)
Too many Americans had simply lost interest in peewee golf. The courses confronted a variety of problems, including rumors of Mob involvement in big cities, a growing “pool hall” reputation as a corrupter of youth, and laws in various places that prohibited Sunday and late-night miniature golf play.
Even more troubling to the peewee golf industry was the overbuilding of links and the overhyping of the game, making it seem faddish. (Almost fifty years later, disco investors experienced the same kinds of difficulties: a media backlash and a glut of dance establishments.)
To some degree, miniature golf did rebound during the 1950s, proving popular among baby boomers & their parents. The Depression Era rage for the game, however, has never been seen again.