by Cori Hilsgen
Did you know St. John’s University used to have a golf course? The course is described in author Joe Bissen’s book called “Fore! Gone. Minnesota’s Lost Golf Courses, 1897-1999.”
The book describes more than 80 abandoned courses in Minnesota, including the one at SJU and another that was at one time located in St. Cloud. It was called “Hillside Golf Course” and operated from 1930-45.
“I did not write about the more than two dozen courses that have been abandoned since 2000, as I wanted to keep the book more historical in nature,” Bissen said.
Bissen said SJU occupies a distinct position in Minnesota golf history. He believes it’s one of only two colleges or universities in the state that had its own golf course. The University of Minnesota-Bolstad course is the other.
The SJU course is described in his book in Chapter 26, “The Old College Try.” Much of the information Bissen used in his book about the SJU course is attributed to a book entitled “Scoreboard: A History of Athletics at St. John’s University,” published by Dunstan Tucker and Martin Schirber in the late 1970s.
Tucker and Schirber gleaned much of their information from the archives of the St. John’s campus newspaper, The Record. They indicated the course occupied an area of the north lower campus, close to Stumpf Lake. An entry of Tucker and Schirber attributes the following statement to an April 1926 issue of The Record:
“Every afternoon a cavalcade of students with caddies, bags and camp followers wend their way to the hill. The present course is in an ideal location and with some improvements can easily be the best desired.”
Bissen said it is clear golf was being played on the SJU campus by 1925 or 1926. The layout of the course was improved with the assistance of Archie Houle, assistant professional at the White Bear Yacht Club, in the fall of 1926. Houle was the brother of SJU football coach Bill Houle.
Bissen said Archie Houle would have been employed by Tom Vardon, the most distinguished designer of Minnesota golf courses in the first half of the 20th Century.
“The course had a checkered history,” Bissen said. “It was sprinkled both with a collection of avid collegian golfers and, at times, the hoof prints and back-end deposits of cattle that grazed the grounds. By 1933, with interest in the game declining and with the Great Depression setting in – the Depression and the effects of World War II claimed more than 35 Minnesota golf courses – the St. John’s campus course disappeared. An attempt to revive the course in 1955 proved ill-fated.”
When describing the SJU golf course, Bissen said one of his favorite passages was an account of the 1955 attempted revival of the course through the Tucker and Shirber account as it was told by the former St. John’s athletic director George Durenberger.
“Work progressed slowly but surely. The workmen brought along their chain saws and opened up a fairway through the woods, though much of the area was clear. My son, David, remembers the Durenberger family out on the course evenings picking up stones, brush, etc.
“Then came the letters. One said God had been good to St. John’s for ninety-nine years and we must not do anything to offend him. Another wrote golf was a game only for the wealthy people, so we would be doing our students an injustice, since most of them are poor, by creating an interest and skills for a game economically beyond their means. Another objected to the picnic area: ‘If we permit this to happen, the grounds will be surrounded by women in short skirts.’
“Some of this rubbed off on Abbot Baldwin, as I was instructed to stop the work on the course for the sake of peace, and we did.”
Bissen’s book includes information from the Tucker and Schirber account along with his own added information of the course. He has included more background and context about the designer of the course, Archie Houle.
Bissen, 56, is a Caledonia native and former golf letter winner at Winona State University who studied mass communications with a journalism emphasis. He is a sports copy editor for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and a former sports editor of the Duluth News-Tribune.
A former SJU graduate and newspaper colleague of Bissen’s at the Duluth News-Tribune told him about the course.
Bissen does freelance golf writing and has written about golf courses for more than 40 years. In 2010, he was asked by the Minnesota Golfer, which is published by the Minnesota Golf Association, to write a story about lost courses of the Twin Cities.
Bissen said he did so and was hooked on the subject.
“I did casual research for the next two years and in July 2012 decided to dive into the topic headlong and write a book,” Bissen said. “Many dozens of road trips and library visits, hundreds of phone calls and emails and thousands of Google searches later, “Fore! Gone.” is the result.”
Bissen lives in White Bear Lake with his wife, Sue. They have three adult children. He wrote and self-published the book, which was printed in Brainerd.
The book can be ordered through the author’s website, ForeGoneGolf.com or at Amazon.com.