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The Saga of Hiawatha: A curious battle for public golf in Minneapolis

Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.

September 10, 2022
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MINNEAPOLIS — In the state known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes, one of the more controversial and puzzling battles in the landscape of public golf in America is unfolding at Hiawatha Golf Course. Fittingly, it involves a lake.

On Wednesday, after decades of flooding in an environmentally sensitive area, the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board voted 6-3 to repurpose the land the golf course occupies, doing away with the current 18-hole layout. This was a charged and controversial vote that has been marred by vitriolic exchanges between the MPRB and a small but vocal opposition that believes the course—located in an overwhelmingly white neighborhood—is historic to African-American golfers in the city.

In the beginning

Before there was golf, there were indigenous nations. The Sioux Nation is among the most prominent. A branch of that nation is the Dakota, a people indigenous to the occupied land that we now call Minnesota. The name Minnesota is derived from the Dakota words for clear blue water, mní sóta.

The land on which Hiawatha sits was sacred to the Dakota. Almost 100 years ago when development and growth came knocking, these sacred lands were dredged and earmarked for recreational use, more specifically a golf course.

The planning for Hiawatha started as early as 1923, according to Rick Shefchik, author and the foremost historian on golf in Minnesota. Rice Lake, then a marsh, and a place sacred to the Dakota, was dredged to collect the organic matter used to develop the land that would become a golf course.

Dredging a marsh to build a golf course that would border a lake is no small task. In 1939, walls were built around Lake Hiawatha to control erosion of the shoreline. It was undoubtedly an important initiative for the bordering golf course. A berm was also built to aid with water management. Despite all of the efforts to control water levels, the course has experienced substantial flooding, in 1952, ’65, ’87 and most recently 2014. Mother Nature seemed to be trying to tell us something.

How race plays a part

The fact that Hiawatha, a course with a rich African-American golf history, is in an overwhelmingly white neighborhood is by design.

The 1934 National Housing Act effectively color-coded maps that dictated lending practices. Red meant “Hazardous.” Yellow was “Definitely Declining.” Blue was “Still Desirable” and green was deemed “Best.” Hiawatha was surrounded by a sea of blue and green. People of color lived almost exclusively in the yellow and hazardous red areas. (They really didn’t have much say in the matter.) This is what is called redlining. This is what institutional racism looks like. This was the government creating Black and White neighborhoods in Minneapolis—and every major city in America—with a paintbrush.

The man who made Hiawatha historic

Solomon Hughes migrated from Alabama to Minneapolis in the 1940s in search of better opportunities. His legacy in golf endures.. He was an icon of Black golf in America and played a role in ending segregation in professional golf alongside Bill Spiller and Charlie Sifford.

When it came time to integrate the clubhouse at Hiawatha, Hughes was credited with kicking down the proverbial door. In the 1940s, African Americans could play Hiawatha but they couldn’t set foot in the clubhouse. Hughes led the charge for change, and in 2021 the MPRB renamed the clubhouse in his honor.

The Bronze

One of the flagship events in the tapestry of African-American golf in America, the Upper Midwest Bronze Invitational, had a rich history at Hiawatha. Started in 1939, the Bronze was first held in Minneapolis at what is now called Francis Gross Golf Course. The tournament spent the next quarter century at Theodore Wirth Golf Course—located on the city’s majority African-American north side—before moving to Hiawatha in the late ’60s. The Bronze may have peaked at Hiawatha in the ’70s, and the new vintage may have momentum, but to call it “the Home” is tantamount to calling Dodger Stadium the home of the World Series.

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By the early ’90s, the Bronze had all but died, a mere shadow of the glory days, when fields with hundreds of golfers were common. Golf advocate Darwin Dean has revived the event, at least in name, and aims to bring it back to the glory and importance it once held. Dean also has a vision for maintaining the 18 holes at Hiawatha as they are, or potentially implementing an alternative 18-hole plan, and has partnered with Minnesota golf great Tom Lehman and Andy Komor, a Minneapolis native who now works in California as an executive at a water engineering firm.

You can still find men who played during the Bronze’s glory days on Tuesday mornings at Hiawatha: They participate in the Old Negro Golf League. As the name implies, they are a group of seniors who enjoy the course and the memories it gave them. They have a heavily vested interest in maintaining the course as it is today.

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Jimmy Slemmons (left), the Godfather of the Bronze, at its peak.

How we got to the vote

In 2014, a storm that dumped 11 inches of rain inundated Minneapolis. To the surprise of no one, Hiawatha flooded. The MPRB explored options to manage the course while also contemplating climate change, rising levels of Lake Hiawatha, continued development and a golf course that had experienced an operating deficit of more than $400,000 the previous year. (Since 2013, the course has lost more than $2 million, but it did profit by $303,000 in a pandemic-fueled 2021). Those in the neighborhood wondered if having a golf course in such an ecologically sensitive and volatile area was the best use of the land.

For perspective, to maintain playability, Hiawatha Golf Course in 2021 pumped more than 1 million gallons of water daily into Lake Hiawatha. Millions of gallons of water continue to be pumped into the lake. That pumping raises phosphorus levels and harms the ecosystem of Lake Hiawatha, which is listed as a threatened waterway. It bears mentioning that the vast majority of the golf course, which is in a flood plain, sits at a lower elevation than Lake Hiawatha. It also should be noted that other factors, such as development in bordering cities and changes to Minnehaha Creek and pollution from storm drains, affect Lake Hiawatha and the surrounding neighborhood.

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The flood of 2014 hit Hiawatha hard.

There are basically three camps in this saga. First, there are those who believe the course should remain as it is today. Their view: Why get rid of a golf course when you can pump it dry and continue pumping to make it playable? It is an important course for the community, and it is historic to many.

There are those who want the golf course to go away. They believe it’s a boggy, marsh-like property that was never a good spot for golf and doesn’t serve the neighborhood as well as it could. Despite all of the civil engineering that has been done to make it viable, the course still floods, requires excessive pumping and will inevitably flood again.

Finally, there are those who are for a compromise. They believe the land can be altered to allow for a return to a more natural state, while maintaining a level of golf that serves the community and honors the history of the course.

The MPRB plan: a compromise

After the recent vote, it appears that compromise will win the day. Steffanie Musich is the commissioner for the fifth district, home to Lake Hiawatha and Hiawatha Golf Course. “People in this neighborhood are concerned about the water levels in the neighborhood,” she told me. “And other people want to maintain a golf course that they can enjoy. We wanted to listen to all of the parties.” By all parties she means not only the neighborhood she serves, but also residents from other parts of the city who enjoy recreation in the many parks available to them.

The MPRB put forward a plan to reimagine the golf course as a nine-hole facility with an improved practice area, with potentially a dog park and walking and bike paths. The plan for Hiawatha has some merit. Many courses, including Belmont in Virginia, are finding that less can be more. The plan emphasizes a solution to reestablish the water balance in the area. The plan is in its nascent stages. Hiawatha could be a nine-hole facility with additional practice areas, or it could be a 12- or seven-hole design. Nobody knows what the final product will look like. This much is certain: The clubhouse will always be known as the Solomon Hughes Sr. clubhouse. History, at least in a symbolic manner, will be honored.

The future

“They’re putting water ahead of golf,” MPRB member Becka Thompson told me. Thompson, who represents the eighth district on the north side, is opposed to the change and wants to maintain the course as an 18-hole facility. She learned to play at Hiawatha, describing herself as a “twilight golfer” who plays nine or 10 holes. She’s among the growing masses of golfers who simply don’t have time for 18 holes, or prefer a shorter game.

It is unlikely but possible that a new plan will emerge. Komor, who grew up working in the Minneapolis golf scene, knew more about Hiawatha, golf development and the golf business in general than anyone else I spoke with. He sees a future where 18 holes could exist in a more friendly manner. It will take a small miracle, but a recent filing to recognize the entire property—not just the clubhouse—as a historic landmark gives some hope to those who want to see 18 holes.

After the vote and years of following the saga at Hiawatha, I’m left with more answers than questions. But those questions leave a bad taste in my mouth.

How do we treat a planet that we are only borrowing from the next generation? (Horribly.)

Are there those among us who would co-opt history for their gains? (Probably.)

Are city hall meetings the new telenovelas? (Absolutamente.)

This much is certain: Golfers are a passionate bunch.