A Brief History of Lester Park Golf Course

The history of Lester Park Golf Course (LPGC) is intrinsically linked to that of Enger Park Golf Course (EPGC), established in 1926. By June 1927 the Enger park course and clubhouse were open to golfers. Two years later, despite the onset of the Great Depression, EPGC had earned back the city’s investment.

(Left to right) Clarence Williams, Frederic W. Paine, Andy Anderson, Ed Hoff, Thomas Larden, and Duluth Park Superintendent F. Rodney Paine look over Anderson’s design for the original 18 hole layout of Lester Park Golf Course in September 1930. Scroll down to the end of the page to see Anderson’s hand-drawn sketch. (Image: Zenith City Press)

The unemployment caused by the Great Depression along with the success of EPGC gave rise to the idea of a second municipal course in Duluth in 1929. Park Superintendent F. Rodney 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, 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 most 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 Lester Park Golf Course was to take Andy Anderson from Enger Park and put him in charge of 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.”

Formerly unemployed men hired by Duluth’s City Work Administration work to expand Lester Park Golf Course in 1933. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

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 worked much like the WPA projects and Civilian Conservation Corps camps that would later be established by the Roosevelt administration. 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 hit 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.

A scene from the first official match at Lester Park Golf Course, October 2, 1931. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

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.)

Architect A. R. Melander’s sketch of his design for the Lester Park Golf Course clubhouse. (Image: Zenith City Press)

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.

Eighty Years of Golf at Lester

Since the course was dedicated, its history has been relatively quiet, which is expected with such a facility. The course has sponsored formal and informal leagues throughout its history, including a Men’s League, a Women’s League, a Senior’s League, the Lakeview Club, the Sunrise Club, and the “Red Caps” (another group of seniors), among others. The course has also hosted youth programs and countless tournaments, including charity scrambles and the annual Lakeview Medal, which is still played today.

Member’s of the Lester Park Women’s Club, year unknown: Mrs. Evelyn Ryan (Secretary/treasurer), Miss Doric Johnson (Evening President), Mrs. Joseph Gershgol (Women’s 18 President), and Mrs. Tom Tomlinson (9-Hole Group Chair). (Image: FODPG)

Generations of Duluthians have enjoyed the course over the past 80 years—many of them learned the game at Lester. They participated in tournaments, league play, youth programs, and informal outings with friends. For some, the course grew to become more to them than merely a place to play. While many of those have passed on, they are not forgotten—at least not on the golf course. Today, anyone playing Lester Park Golf Course can see its history on the tee box of nearly every hole, where either the tee sign or a bench is etched with the names of those who loved the course, particularly time spent there in the company of friends.

Andy Anderson retired in 1964, replaced by 10-year LPGC veteran Buck Wiley. Wiley stepped down just three years later, turning the reins over to Jim Anderson, Andy’s son, who at that point had 22 years of experience on the course—he started there in 1945 while still a student at Central High. Jim Anderson managed until his retirement in 1983, marking the end of 57 years of Anderson men maintaining Duluth’s municipal golf courses. Andy passed away in 1981, Jim in 2005.

Many others worked at the course over the years holding titles that included “manager,” “supervisor,” and “pros,” including Bill Rosen, Norm Johnson, Rick Liljedahl, Mark A. Carlson and others. Mary Thorene ran the pro shop in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Over the years Duluth’s public golf courses have seen few capital improvements, a testament to its original construction, which included the most sophisticated watering system in the region. According to a 1991 article in the Duluth News Tribune, at different points during the life of EPGC and LPGC, citizens have criticized city leaders for not doing enough with their public golf courses. In the late 1980s, Duluth mayor John Fedo changed that.

Lester Park Golf Cuurse’s rustic 1933 pagoda-style rain shelter remains one of the courses unique landmarks, reminded golfers of the course’s long history of serving Duluth’s public golf community. (Image: FODPG)

Encouraged by the expansion of I-35 through Duluth and improvements to the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, Fedo and other city leaders felt Duluth was poised to become a convention center—and that the rest of the city needed to help attract those conventions. Since the popularity of golf was on the rise nationally, one improvement idea involved adding nine holes each to both LPGC and EPGC, expanding both to 27 holes and Duluth’s total public links to 54.

The city hired Denver’s Richard Phelps to design both additions. At Enger Park, he found a spot between the original front and back nines to create what is known as the Middle nine today. At Lester Park, Phelps took a heavily wooded area along a sloping hillside west of the front nine and transformed it into a set of links known as the Lake nine. The total costs came to over $4.1 million (roughly $7.6 million today), which the city paid for with a loan at 6 percent interest. Interest brings the total expense to over $6.5 million or more than $12 million in today’s dollars.

This bench at Lester Park Golf Course commemorates the Red Caps, a group of seniors who have golfed LPGC for decades. (Image: FODPG)

When the Lake nine first opened at Lester Park in the summer of 1991, it was met with mixed emotions. First, it was the most beautiful stretch of links in the city. Duluth News Tribune sportswriter Joe Bissen described it in October 1991: “Aesthetically, the Lake nine can’t be matched anywhere in town. Hole for hole, not even Northland Country Club can match the sweeping panoramas on Lester’s Lake nine….the Lake nine embodies everything that northern Minnesota does.”

According to a 1998 article in the Duluth News Tribune, it wasn’t until 1997 that Duluth first hired Professional Golf Association professionals to manage its courses when Paul Schintz was hired to run Lester.

Click here for a timeline history of both of Duluth’s public golf courses for issues concerning both courses from 2000–2018.

Story from Duluth’s Historic Parks: Their First 160 Years (Copyright © 2017 Zenith City Press)

Andy Anderson’s original hand-drawn layout of Lester Park Golf Course. (Image: Zenith City Press)