The Saga of Hiawatha

The south side of Minneapolis is home to a curious battle for public golf

By Laz Versalles

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.

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.

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. 

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 second 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.

18 thoughts on “The Saga of Hiawatha”

  1. Thank you for this important contribution to the story. Thank you for the history lesson regarding redlining — it is important to understand how an integrated city became a segregated city during the mid-20th century, and how this resulted in the housing segregation that persists to this day in Minneapolis.

    I’d like to make one very minor clarification: you state that Rice Lake was a marsh before it was dredged. This is not entirely accurate. While Rice Lake had a marshy wetland delta area on its west side (this is the part that was filled to create the course) it was not entirely marsh and was a sizable open water lake on its east side (the part that was dredged to produce the fill.) One can see all of this in this photo taken before the dredging project:

  2. One sad detail of the story is that local golf hero Solomon Hughes, died of multiple myeloma. Multiple myeloma is associated with the fungicides used on golf courses. You can watch the documentary “Ground War” to learn more about golf and cancer.

    Hiawatha has always had the nickname “the swamp” because of the fact that the golf course is not far above a layer of groundwater, and because much of it is below the level of the lake. It has had water issues from the day it opened.

    Grass that grows in soggy conditions is predisposed to fungal diseases. Just imagine all the fungicides they’ve had to use on this course over the years. The fungicides could be the reason we don’t see amphibians at Hiawatha. Biodiversity is under pressure worldwide, with amphibians being particularly threatened.

    This is the Park Board’s outline for their plan for how often they apply fungicides (it doesn’t explain that if there is an infestation of some kind they might have to apply more frequently. And it doesn’t say what quantity is applied or what brands are applied.)

    Fungicide Programs
    Greens/Collars – bi-weekly, preventive program, every 14 days. Typically May-Nov 1st
    Tees/Approaches – every 21 days. 1st application end of May-Nov 1st
    Fairways- every 21 days starting in June -August with a snow mold application at the end of the season.

    Fungicide is hard to cut back on because you’ve got to treat fungal infections proactively, because if you wait for a problem to arise, you end up having to use even more fungicide to try to fight it and it’s not very effective.

    I first learned about this issue from a former park board commissioner who in an interview he gave said:

    “The park board has really tried to reduce its use of pesticides but the majority of pesticide use goes to the golf courses. This is because in order to play golf you have to cut grass so short it loses all its defense mechanisms and therefore it needs a lot of fungicide.”

    ~ Former MPRB Commissioner Chris Meyer

    And it’s not as if the problem can be solved by using organic fungicides. In this interview, vineyard Golf Club Superintendent Kevin Banks says he is a fan of the organic fungicide Civitas (Intelligro), and says it’s the base of all his sprays.

    CIVITAS is a broad spectrum fungicide containing 98% mineral oil for use on golf course turf.
    Mineral oils are petroleum-based.

    With a 9 hole plan the new course will be high and dry so it won’t need as much fungicide treatments and it will be more separated from the water so less will get in the water and if it does get in the water the restored wetlands will help to filter it out.

    With Andy Komor’s plan to make the course dry, the creek would be cut off from the lake. The fact that the creek flows into and out of the lake is what makes this place so special. The free connection of those types of waters creates a unique habitat that is why this lake (in spite of the pollution) is the most biodiverse lake in Minneapolis.

    With Andy Komor’s plan to make the course dry, he says that the total square feet of wetlands in his plan would be the same as the square feet of wetlands in the 9 hole plan. But his wetland plants would be planted along the sides of what would essentially be a storm water ditch. Part of the way that wetland plants remove pollutants is the water has to be able to move slowly enough for the pollution to settle out. That is not going to happen in a stormwater ditch. But if you look at the 9 Hole Plan you can see that not only are the wetland plants around wider, slower moving areas of water, there are habitat first areas that give the space animals/birds/amphibians need in order to be separated from human activity so they can feel and be safe to do the things they need to do to live. Wetland plants around a stormwater ditch don’t count as meaningful habitat.

    The local indigenous community (we have one of the largest urban populations of first nation people in the country) is concentrated not far from Lake Hiawatha. Leaders from that community have said repeatedly that they support the 9 Hole Plan because they want to see the wildlife protected and expanded here. In the age of climate crisis that matters more than keeping all 18 holes of golf.

  3. I thought I might see mention of Jimmie Slemmons in there, but I trust your reasons, even without knowing.

    Thanks for looking out for our future generations!

  4. Thanks for this thoughtful article exploring the saga of our lake and the golf course that was built on the Dakota ricing grounds and wetlands of Rice Lake.

    Thanks for this: “How do we treat a planet that we are only borrowing from the next generation? (Horribly.)”
    Here are some fun Hiawatha facts:
    since this protracted debate and public process started after the flood of 2014, the City of Minneapolis and the Park Board have dumped four tons of phosphorus into the polluted lake through golf course pumping and untreated stormwater.
    In that same amount of time, volunteers have removed over five tons of plastic trash from Lake Hiawatha and still the trash pours in from untreated stormwater with every rain. The 9 hole plan that finally just passed, hallelujah, addresses these problems if it can be implemented. some 18 hole advocates vow to continue fighting and delaying this outcome. Hope they can get behind the plan and help make a kick-ass 9 hole course and a clean, safe, lake for humans and wildlife residents.
    Thanks for giving clarity.

    psst. many Dakota regard the term “Sioux” as derogatory.

    1. Sean, Thanks for availing yourself to the Fire Pit. We always try to be as informative as possible and I enjoyed talking to you.

  5. The problem with politics is that it is so political. What should the future of the course be? Get out your calculator and determine its cost/benefit ratio. How much does it cost to run? How much money does it produce? How many rounds are played in a year? How many golf days are lost to flooding? What am I missing?

    1. The 9 Hole Plan is absolutely the fiscally responsible option for Hiawatha.

      Apart from a pandemic bump that is probably temporary, Hiawatha golf course has been losing money in its current configuration. Like the rest of the golf industry, there was declining interest in golf here between 2008 and 2019 and you can see the losses piling up in the most recently released audited financials for the course.

      The 18 hole advocates say “Look at the price tag for this project! We can just leave things the way they are with minor improvements to save money. Or we can just have Andy Komor come in and design a clean lake, flood resilient 18 hole golf course for less money and we can secure our own funding faster than you can!”

      But the fact is that keeping things the way they are is going to cost us a lot of money because the course will flood again and FEMA won’t bail us out a second time because they expected us to solve the problem before the next flood. And we are currently in violation of environmental regulations and could get sued for being out of compliance.

      Andy Komor’s design would cost just as much if not more (if he could even get permits for the heavy handed things he wants to do to the lake, the east side of the lake, the delta habitat, and the creek) and he would probably be getting funding from some of the same places we would get funding. And with Andy Komor’s funding we risk him bringing in hidden investors who want to see a return on investment, and that could give them undo power in our democratic decision making processes around our park.

      It seems that the 18 hole advocates are more than happy to drain the park board finances by suing the park board to stop it from being able to secure funding for the 9 Hole Plan. They have at least threatened to do so. They don’t seem to actually care about fiscal responsibility with our tax money.

      The 9 Hole option is going to make more money than the 18 Hole option. It will have fewer maintenance expenses because of the smaller footprint. And because we gain some significant space by getting rid of 9 of the holes that are currently there, we will have room to do a significant wetland restoration (there is grant funding for that kind of project) and we will have room to offer other park uses that will draw people into the space who wouldn’t normally try out golf. So there will be new and diverse players spending money on renting golf clubs at the driving range or getting a golf lesson or playing on the golf simulator or trying out a 9 hole course with less pressure. It’s a proven business model according to people in the industry I have spoken to.

      1. Lauren, your nine hole concept is a good one both from a financial standpoint (initial design and construction costs, ongoing maintenance requirements, and staffing) and from a municipal recreation standpoint. The golf industry needs more nine hole courses in order to grow the game of golf. I see too many fledgling players struggle and give up on the game when they are thrust on to a full length 18 hole course. Not only do they not enjoy the experience but they slow up play for everyone. If a nine hole course is properly designed with a minimum of sand and water hazards, straightforward hole layouts, and realistic driving distances, the game becomes much more manageable and enjoyable for young people, beginner adults, seniors, and even accomplished players who only have an hour or two to spare. In short, the nine hole track fills a critically important niche. Unfortunately, most city councils, city managers, recreation boards, and recreation managers do not understand this point and therefore they do not know how to properly market a good, basic nine hole course. As a retired city manager I would also add that many golf professionals also do not have the patience or the expertise to know how to properly market and advertise the benefits of the nine hole course. Your ideas are good ones and now your challenge is to educate the powers that be. Good luck

        1. Good points, Will. Additionally, Hiawatha runs counter to how golf is meant to be played- on firm and fast surfaces. This makes a huge difference for lower skilled/newer players because you can hit a ball that runs with the land. You can use more imagination as well. It’s unavailable at Hiawatha because the land just won’t render those conditions.
          Thanks for reading. Hope you sign up for our newsletter. More to come.

      2. You wanna know what might be the best idea? SIX holes with as generous a putting surfaces as possible and large tee boxes to match.
        Double pins on greens (we have that here in Oceanside. It’s more fun that dangerous) and longer tee boxes to give options for distances and tee setting.
        Get crazy with it.

      3. Also, I know this is a message board and not a court of law, but I don’t think there are any absolutes apart from doing SOMETHING is absolutely better than maintaining as-is Hiawatha.

        9 hole facilities- when designed properly- can rake income. And one thing that Hiawatha misses is a competitive food and beverage option for neighbors. Here in LA there is a scrappy 9-hole course, probably the worst golf option in town, but GOOD LUCK getting a table at cocktail hour. It’s a scene.

        1. Laz, did you know that an LEED certified restaurant with a patio is a major feature of the 9 Hole Plan? Right now the food offered at the clubhouse is not what most people in Minneapolis want to eat. But have you heard about our beloved Owamni restaurant? It’s winning awards left and right, and even though this is a difficult time for restaurants it is thriving. It is a part of a bigger operation called North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NĀTIFS), founded by James Beard award winners The Sioux Chef. It is dedicated to addressing the economic and health crises affecting Native communities by re-establishing Native foodways. They imagine a new North American food system that generates wealth and improves health in Native communities through food-related enterprises. I would love if the new restaurant was one of theirs. Lake Hiawatha used to be called Rice Lake because the Dakota people harvested wild rice here.

    2. Will, You can do a public information request of almost every major city in America and you’ll struggle to find many municipal courses that run in the positive. In most cities, one or two courses carry the burden for the others that make money. We don’t run park systems on a cost/ratio benefit, nor should we run golf courses that way.

      1. Laz, politically it’s a tricky question. Yes, we do not run municipal parks/recreation/library/cultural facilities and services on a strict cost/benefit ratio because theoretically those resources serve all residents, the rich and the poor. They are also seen as improving the overall quality of life of a community and thus making it an attractive place to live, work, and play and an attractive place to bring or start a business. So theoretically there is an enormous payback for these services. But even so… more and more recreational and cultural services are becoming fee based to recover some operational costs. Municipal budgets are very tight these days.

        Golf, on the other hand, is politically a whole different animal. It is seen as the leisure activity of a small (less than 10%) and affluent part of the population, thus begging the question as to whether the taxpayers should be funding the recreational pursuits of the rich. The muni, therefore, is becoming an endangered species. My experience, however, teaches me that a well designed, well run, and well marketed muni can achieve an acceptable level of fiscal accountability and also be an overall enhancement to the larger community, but it takes elected officials and city administrators with vision, competence, and communication skills.

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