116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
In one of my later pieces for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, I briefly mentioned an artifact in my possession, a road map of Cedar Rapids, Hiawatha, and Marion from 1964. While that article focused primarily on public lands at the state level, such as state parks and wildlife preserves, there is another parks-related feature of that map: the number of golf courses featured on it.
At the time of the map’s printing, there were six golf courses present in the Cedar Rapids area; three public:
Ellis: Front nine completed 1919, back nine completed 1949.
Jones: Nine-hole course completed 1959, 18-hole course completed 2001, closed 2020.
Twin Pines: Completed 1962.
And three private:
Cedar Rapids Country Club: Opened 1915.
Elmcrest Country Club: Opened 1947.
Indian Creek Country Club: Opened 1925.
By the end of the decade, one new public course (Gardner, 1968) and one new privately owned course (St. Andrews, 1966) had opened, capping off a remarkable decade of golf course growth in Cedar Rapids, from 1959 to 1969, when three of four public golf courses in Cedar Rapids opened and the city’s golf course count doubled. Since then however, even as the region’s population has grown, golf course construction has not kept pace. Indeed, one public course has even closed recently — Jones — in 2020. While three public courses in Cedar Rapids is enough to stay even with the number of public courses in Des Moines and far outpace public golf in Iowa City, which has more or less been limited to the golf course the University of Iowa has operated in some capacity since 1925, it speaks to an overall decline in per capita public golf capacity in Cedar Rapids over the past half-century.
Perhaps the better question to ask is not what makes the current era so hostile to golf, but rather what made the mid-20th century so hospitable to it. The answer seems to more or less boil down to “the economy.”
Referencing a history of the spatial distribution of golf courses in the United States by Darrell E. Napton and Christopher Laingen (now Professor Emeritus and Professor of Geography at South Dakota State University and Eastern Illinois University, respectively), it appears that the heyday for public golf course expansion in Cedar Rapids tracks closely with what they refer to as an “Epoch [of] Increased Leisure Time and Affluence” from 1950 to 1969. Indeed, if these bounds are extended to just a year prior, the construction of the back nine holes of Ellis Golf Course would be included here as well, indicating that all but nine public golf holes in the City of Cedar Rapids were constructed during this immediate postwar era. Cedar Rapids’ population grew by more than 50 percent during this time, from 72,296 in 1950 to 110,642 in 1970, suggesting levels of economic growth far in excess of the past 20 years, when the City’s population has only grown by around 17,000 people, or about 14%, since 2000.
A number of reasons are given, ranging from the conventional (increased demand for recreational resources among a healthier, wealthier, population), cultural (people watching President Eisenhower play golf on television), to the historical (young suburban families aspiring to fit the sport’s wealthy, landed associations). An argument I find particularly intriguing here is one of land economics, especially given (1) the abundance of land in the U.S., and especially in Iowa, and (2) the amount of land required for a game such as golf.
Napton and Laingen expand the conventional argument of automobile-dependent urban sprawl providing the low-density environment for golf to prosper by also noting that “increasing agricultural productivity reduced the demand for cropland.” As mass automobile ownership increased the amount of land accessible to development more quickly than population growth to keep up, the price of land in suburban and rural areas correspondingly fell, supporting non-intensive ventures such as golf courses. Indeed, virtually all of Cedar Rapids’ postwar golf courses were built on what were then the outskirts of town, replacing what historic aerial imagery indicates were once agricultural lands.
This time should also be recognized as an era of social redistribution in golf in Cedar Rapids, reorienting it away from the domain of a privileged few. At the beginning of this epoch in 1950, private golf courses, all situated in country clubs, outnumbered the single public course by a margin of three to one. By the end of this epoch in 1969, the number of private courses had increased to four, but so had the number of public ones, placing the quantities of each on par with each other (no pun intended). Once more or less confined to who had the privilege to be invited onto a country club’s grounds — almost certainly limited to the wealthy, white, and male back then — the city’s investment in public golf courses in the 1950s and 60s seem to indicate an opening up of land in Cedar Rapids for the benefit of all residents, albeit within a narrow scope of use for a consumerist middle class.
The cession of public golf course construction in Cedar Rapids coincides with the end of this ‘epoch’ and the shift in golf course construction trends toward “semiprivate, residential golf-course communities.” increasingly built in the Sun Belt rather than the snowy Midwest or northeast. Indeed, since 1969, the pendulum has since swung back in favor of private courses outnumbering public ones, with the construction of new private courses and the closure of Jones Golf Course in 2020.
Even with a much greater representation of public options in the golf course carousel today compared to a century ago, questions about the accessibility of lands allotted to golf remain, ranging from its impacts on the environment to the opportunity costs of dedicating scarce urban land to golf rather than housing. It is in this same vein that I would also include contemporary moves such as repurposing the Jones Golf Course grounds for winter sports or pickleball, along with the opening of a miniature golf course at Twin Pines. In particular, mini golf has a storied history of providing inexpensive recreational opportunities to the masses, going back to the Great Depression.
There are still some questions which I remain curious about, such as who exactly among the city government spearheaded the development of municipal golf in Cedar Rapids (such as in advancing municipal bond measures for the construction of courses), the exact requirements for local country club membership before the 1950s, or why Des Moines seems to have waited nearly 70 years, between 1902 and 1971, in constructing its second and third public golf courses. Comments, sources, or suggestions for any of these questions can be linked at this short form.
Austin Wu is a Gazette Editorial Fellow.