Altoona’s mini-golf history launched in 1930

The grand re-opening of Blair County’s historic Lakemont Park has introduced not just one but two new miniature golf courses to local enthusiasts.

The layouts are the latest in a long-run of mini-courses our area has seen going back nearly a century ago, to the game’s beginnings.

In 1922, Thomas McColluch, a transplanted Englishman, came up with a unique invention. Tired of the grass-less turf on his cotton plantation near Tlahualilo, Mexico, McColluch developed a synthetic playing surface for golf using crushed cottonseed hulls and oil that were dyed green and pressed onto flat surfaces.

The result was a material that resembled a grassy golf green.

It wasn’t long before some of McColluch’s associates used the material to produce small, practice-putting surfaces. In 1929, Garnet Carter used the invention to build a whimsical, fairyland mini-golf course on his resort property atop Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

It was there that the game of miniature golf began to take shape.

Carter would patent his idea for miniature golf courses and created the Tom Thumb Golf Course Company to provide the materials and work crews to construct courses across the country. Carter’s timing was perfect in the spring of 1930, as the country was looking for a diversion from the beginning of the Great Depression.

From near nothing, there were 5,000 courses opened for operation by July. Amazingly, just a month later the nationwide total ballooned to 25,000.

Blair County did not escape the craze. One of the first Tom Thumb courses in our area opened at Plank Road and Ward Avenue in May of 1930.

The event was christened with a challenge match between mayor John McMurray and Altoona head football coach Edward “Snaps” Emanuel, who also managed the new golf operation.

At a cost of 25 cents during the day and 35 cents at night, additional Tom Thumb courses opened at the 2700 block of Union Avenue, the 2200 block of Pine Street and one directly behind the new Jaffa Mosque.

This 1930 fad continued with dozens of other mini-courses, including the Wee Scotch at Ivyside Park, the Bob-o-Link course on Chestnut Avenue and the Peter Pan Links, an indoor course on 12th Avenue.

Regional courses were opened near the diamond in Hollidaysburg, on the front lawn at Bedford Springs and at Blands Park in Tipton.

Some chaos accompanied the tremendous pace with which miniature courses were being constructed. Complaints were quickly being lodged at Altoona’s City Hall concerning the noise and late hours associated with these new businesses.

It wasn’t long before lawmakers were forced to pass ordinances in order to keep the peace.

As the summer of 1930 came to a close, many of the new mini-courses conducted season-ending tournaments to maintain interest. None was bigger than that one held at The Little Golf Club along Route 22’s New Valley Forge Inn, just west of Duncansville.

In late September, entrants from as far away as Pittsburgh and Harrisburg competed in a 36-hole tournament with the winner taking home a first-place prize of $200, an amazing sum of money for the time.

By the next year, the miniature golf craze cooled, and many courses around the country closed. The ones that remained open were fairly simple in design, especially when compared to today’s courses. In 1955, the Lomma Golf Company introduced a new era of trick hazards and challenging obstacles to mini-golf, including their signature “spinning windmills.”

Locally, residents would enjoy the newer layouts, which included Lakemont Park’s Pleasure Island course and the miniature course adjacent to Greenwood Golf’s Par-3 golf course.

Perhaps the finest miniature golf course ever built in central Pennsylvania was the course at DelGrosso Park in Tipton. This championship-level course, ornately landscaped and pristinely maintained, was removed five years ago when the park expanded its new water park.

The most popular, current mini-golf course in our area is the layout at the Meadows Family Fun Center in Duncansville. The course features a traditional obstacle-laden design of 18 holes, with a par of 45. Joining this course will be the two new layouts at Lakemont Park.

The Rabbit Hole is a whimsical re-design of the park’s existing course by local artist Michael Allison, while the second is a brand-new, slightly larger course named Keystone Falls.