Hiawatha Golf Course in south Minneapolis has been living for decades with the threat of flooding taking away part of its golf course whenever storm run-off overwhelms Minnehaha Creek and adjacent Lake Hiawatha. But it currently lives with an even bigger threat that might take away half its championship course permanently.
The Minneapolis Park Board.
Hiawatha, which boasts a deep history and roots going back to the 1930s in the diverse community that surrounds it, dodged a pair of attempts in 2021 by the park board to cut the course from 18 to nine holes as part of a $43 million master plan. The board voted 5-4 in July to reject the plan following what the local paper called “a zealous debate between ecological sustainability and historic preservation.”
But a new board was elected in November, with the only two returning members having voted in favor of the plan to cut the course in half, including current board president Meg Forney. She has promised to bring the master plan up for another vote as soon as the next 30 to 180 days.
Even with former British Open champion Tom Lehman, Minnesota’s most famous golfer, and his brother Jim Lehman working on behalf of preserving the course as 18 holes, it’s a continuing uphill fight.
“The fate of Hiawatha is still up in the air,” said Jim Lehman. “So, we’re back in the same position we were a year ago.”
“It’s been a constant fight for the last two years,” said Darwin Dean, who has helped spearhead the effort to maintain Hiawatha as an 18-hole course. “Every time they get voted down, you have the commissioner that is responsible for that area bring it right back up again. They can bring it to the table as often as they want.”
The history at Hiawatha is of particular importance to the Black community, which once comprised the bulk of the surrounding area when it was previously known as Bronzeville. Since 1939, it has hosted an event known as the Bronze Tournament, which was created for Black golfers when the PGA operated under a Caucasians-only clause. The Bronze attracted notable Black golfers including Ted Rhodes, Joe Louis and Billy Eckstine. Despite all that, Black golfers weren’t allowed inside the clubhouse until Minneapolis golf pro Solomon Hughes Sr. integrated it in 1952. The clubhouse is now named after Hughes.
“As we know history has been told from many, many different directions, but Hiawatha is a historical golf course that has traditionally welcomed minorities to come out and play there,” said Dean. “That golf course was surrounded by minorities. In 1932, when a golf course opened, certain areas of it were closed. Because you had a heavy minority population there, people who were already in that area, they started coming in great numbers.”
While a big part of Hiawatha’s history is connected to the Black community, that’s not what the course is about. It’s about the whole community – one of the most diverse in Minneapolis – that has found a home on its championship course.
Dave Podas, the head professional for 19 years at exclusive Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles, first picked up a golf club and learned to play at Hiawatha as a kid growing up a few blocks away in south Minneapolis. “From the time I could walk I spent all my summers there,” Podas said. “I don’t know anyone who’s played more there than me.”
Podas speaks wistfully of a vibrant course that drew him into a lifetime of golf. His first job in the industry was behind the counters there, and now he teaches the game to Hollywood’s elite.
“The thing about Hiawatha that was so neat is that there were always a lot of pretty good players hanging out there,” Podas said. “And the gamblers hung out there. So, there was always action. I learned to compete there. That place was very important to me.
“I never thought about (anyone’s race) at the time only because everybody who showed up there was a golfer. So that component I didn’t think about at the time.”
Bob “Nordy” Nordstrom – who served as Hiawatha’s pro/manager from 1971-96 and died in 2020 – ran a regular Friday game at noon called “The Hustle” that attracted players from all over the region. Podas even made a point of flying home from L.A. at least once a year to play in the Hustle.
“People who thought they were good would come from all over the Twin Cities to put their money where their mouth was,” said Podas, who notes that Tom Lehman was sometimes one of those players.
Being a championship course is the big reason Hiawatha is used by area high schools including Washburn, South Minneapolis and Edina.
“Where are they going to go and learn how to play 18 holes of golf? Where’s the nearest golf course?” said Dean. “You know there’s a reason why Washburn comes to practice at Hiawatha. There’s a reason why South is there. There’s a reason why Edina comes to that golf course. It’s location. A kid can get on their bike right now today in south Minneapolis, strap their clubs across their shoulder and ride a bike to Hiawatha.
“They come to that golf course because it is an 18-hole championship golf … and shutting down nine holes of it and then you have nine holes to play. You’d immediately outcast a ton of people that come to the golf course to play because it is a championship level golf course.”
It’s also a gathering place for adults, including Dean’s group of Black golfers who call themselves the Eagles. “When some 35 to 40 guys are done playing golf and we’re sitting out in the parking lot tallying up our scores, the community comes out. Even if they don’t play golf, they’ll drive through because they know we’re going to be there. And the camaraderie is huge from people who are active in golf and people that aren’t golfers.”
The golf course, which sits below the level of Lake Hiawatha with a low water table not far from the Mississippi River, has always had its issues with water going back to its foundation.
“Lovingly we all nicknamed the place ‘the Swamp,’ for obvious reasons,” said Podas, who played there regularly in the 1970s and 80s. “Not every summer, but it would get wet and the lake would overflow. ‘The Swamp’s gonna be wet today,’ we’d say.”
(Click on images of flooding at Hiawatha from 1965 (above, left) and 1984 to enlarge. Photos courtesy of Steve Skaar.)
But the problems have been exacerbated in more recent years as development in south Minneapolis grew and the run-off was all funneled down toward Lake Hiawatha, which is roughly half its original depth from all the silt deposited on the bottom of it for more than 80 years, according to former Hiawatha manager Steve Skaar. Muskrat dams changed the flow of Minnehaha Creek, which along with the lake needs dredging to restore its depth. A big flood in 2014 closed down the course for more than a year.
“For the last two to three decades, Lake Hiawatha has been a dumping ground from the water, streams and the runoff from all those surrounding areas that are dumping water into it,” said Dean. “So the golf course really has never been the problem as far as water is concerned, it’s been the solution.”
Jim Lehman concurs.
“The city has been using that area as a dumping ground of excess water,” Lehman said, saying the underlying purpose of reducing the size of the course is just to create more space to store more excess water. “And whatever land they don’t use for water storage, they want to create other types of uses of the land. … It would be to the detriment of the golf community for sure.”
Dean calls it “a land grab” and the park board is using the water issues as a red herring to distract from their real goals.
“The city really hasn’t maintained that surrounding community and the water that it should have for the last two to three decades,” Dean said. “The park board would like to change the back nine to a dog patio, BMX bike park and a putt-putt. Those types of things don’t resolve the water issue.
“The city and the park board should step up to resolve some basic issues that have been presented to them and stop saying and stop using Hiawatha as an excuse to do some other things.”
(Click on images of Hiawatha backers Tom Lehman (above, left) and Jim Lehman to enlarge. Photos: USGA)
Jim Lehman has enlisted a friend who helped resolve a similar dispute over flooding and golf serving diverse communities at a Philadelphia-area course called Cobbs Creek. They’re trying to use that resolution’s public/private concept as a model for fixing Hiawatha.
“We’ve actually started working with the same water engineering firm that helped the folks at Cobbs Creek figure out their problem to see what we can do to figure out the water issue at Hiawatha,” Lehman said.
Said Dean: “Cobbs Creek proves that that model is worth saving that golf course and beautifying that community, and Cobbs Creek is simply just a mirror of what Hiawatha could be.”
The diversity element can’t be overlooked when it comes to talking about how the park board is handling Hiawatha, which is located a short distance from where George Floyd was murdered, launching a nationwide campaign for social justice in 2020.
(An aerial view of Hiawatha Golf Course in 1936 (above, left) and the back of the clubhouse in 1934. Click on images, courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society, to enlarge.)
The Minneapolis Park Board oversees five championship golf courses – Hiawatha, Theodore Wirth, Columbia, Meadowbrook and Gross National. Only Hiawatha sits inside the city limits in a diverse neighborhood. Only Hiawatha is in the board’s crosshairs for getting cut in half.
“They’re building a new clubhouse at Meadowbrook,” said Dean. “They’ve already built a new ski building at Theodore Wirth. Columbia Golf Course is being changed to accommodate its flooding problem that it has had for years. Now all those golf courses that I just mentioned, none of those courses will be reduced to nine holes. Yet in a minority community as you have with Hiawatha, now you want to reduce it to nine holes and limit the pleasure that thousands of people enjoy.
“And all of those golf courses that I’ve just mentioned have had major improvements. All of them with the exception of Hiawatha. You have to give pause to that. Why is all the money being taken away from Hiawatha and not being reinvested in Hiawatha?
“Historically, minorities haven’t had the wherewithal to deal with an organization as large as the Minneapolis Park Board and the City of Minneapolis,” Dean added. “So it’s seen as an easy target.”
The support of the Lehman brothers has lifted the exposure to try to hold the park board accountable. “To be honest with you, since Tom and Jim came on board, what would have taken me maybe a year or a couple of years, these guys got it done in less than a month,” said Dean. “So really, I’m really happy that they’ve joined the team.
“All we’re really doing is exposing the truth and uncloaking what happens in the darkness of decision-making.”
Whether that’s even to sway the minds of the new park board – which had originally proposed reducing the course to four holes before the outcry forced it to pivot – remains to be seen. Even if it passes the plan to reduce the course to nine holes, it still would have to secure the $43 million in funding to execute its plans, which Jim Lehman says could buy more time to resist it.
Skaar, the former manager, struggles to comprehend why the park board is willing to spend millions of dollars “to invent new uses for the golf course. What on earth can they do that will replace the average of $200,000 of profit that Hiawatha has averaged over the years?”
“You’re taking away a big part of the heart and the soul of the community by taking away a place like Hiawatha. It means too much. It’s too much history.” – Tom Lehman
Podas worries it’s already too late to stave off the park board’s determination to downsize instead of revitalize.
“The disappointing part is it seems like the minds have been made up (on park board),” Podas said. “My hope, because I think there’s so much potential there, is the game of golf is great because of places like Hiawatha where a teacher’s kid can afford to play the game. Playing golf is about access. So I feel very strongly about the need to keep those places alive, where people can walk to and serve the surrounding community.
“If you look around the country, there are municipal courses that are showpieces – Bethpage, Brown Deer, Torrey Pines. My hope was always that Hiawatha could do that.”
Tom Lehman feels strongly about preserving Hiawatha’s history and standing in its diverse community.
“You’re taking away a big part of the heart and the soul of the community by taking away a place like Hiawatha,” Lehman said in a video last year produced by the folks trying to preserve the course. “It means too much. It’s too much history. … It’s been this home for so many people for 90 years, passed down from generation to generation so many things that are good.
“I think you need to celebrate the history of Hiawatha. You need to celebrate all of those who have been here. Need to celebrate all those who will come next.”
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