Time Machine: Golf & games propelled Cedar Rapids entrepreneur to open Chapman's Sports Center

Tessa Bierl, 9, and DiAndre Eickstaedt, 11, of Cedar Rapids, glide down the waterslide at Chapman Fun World in southwest Cedar Rapids on July 26, 2001, the last season the center was open. The waterslide was donated to Vinton’s Skate and Activity Center in 2002.
Gazette archives Using an unorthodox yet effective technique, Adam McDermott, 5, of Cedar Rapids, taps in a putt at Chapman’s Fun World in Cedar Rapids on July 22, 2001, the last season for the Fun World. It was built to the south of the Chapman golf course complex.
Jake Eilers, 1, of Swisher sinks a putt with a little help from Connie Horak of Ely at Chapman Fun World on July 26, 2001, the last season the center was open.
A Gazette clipping from July 5, 1959, shows the two-level driving range Gene Chapman installed at Chapman’s Sports Center in southwest Cedar Rapids.
Larry Malcom, from Hardin Fun Times of Wapello, cuts a board in Jay 1992 for the new kiddie roller-coaster at Chapman Fun World, 3001 Williams Blvd. SW. The park had 12 rides for youngsters.
Workers set up children’s rides at Chapman’s Fun World at 3001 Williams Blvd SW on May 21, 1992. Gazette archive photo
Workers set up a small roller coaster at Chapman’s Fun World at 3001 Williams Blvd SW on May 21, 1992. Gazette archive photo
Ed Cole, owner of Chapman’s Golf Center at 3001 Williams Blvd. SW, Cedar Rapids. Gazette photo by John McIvor published April 4, 1981. Gazette archive photo
Judy Kinney gets ready to sink a putt, while her son, Lee, awaits his turn during a round of miniature golf. The Kinneys, from Minnesota, are in Cedar Rapids while Mrs. Kinney’s husband works on a construction project at Palo. Gazette archive photo published April 25, 1981
Gene Chapman, owner of Chapman’s Sports Center in southwest Cedar Rapids, was interviewed by The Gazette in September 1976. Chapman died in 1978. Clipping of Gazette photo by Tom Merryman. Gazette archive.
Gene Chapman as he appeared during the years he developed a sports and recreation complex in southwest Cedar Rapids. Chapman died in 1978, but the complex operated from 1953 to 2001.

What was once an open field — out beyond Cedar Rapids’ first drive-in theater on the outskirts of southwest Cedar Rapids — became a destination for fun, thanks to the entrepreneurial efforts of Gene Chapman and his family.

Eugene W. Chapman was born in Platteville, Wis., in 1908. His two major interests in life were music and golf.

He played drum for bands in the Midwest and on the East Coast during the 1930s. After earning his bachelor’s degree in physical education from the University of Iowa in 1932, he began managing country clubs in Wisconsin and Dubuque. He saw how slot machines improved the bottom line for the clubs he managed. Only one problem: Slots were illegal.

He survived several raids in Dubuque before arriving to manage the Iowa City Elks Club in the mid-1940s, where he employed the same strategy. A law professor friend warned him of a pending raid at the club.

“I got down there, and a few of us got the machines out just in time. We were standing around the bar, having a few drinks when the sheriff and his deputies came in the door, demanding to know where the slots were. I told ’em ‘Oh, we got rid of ’em last spring,’ “ Chapman related in a 1975 Gazette story.

FULL-TIME GOLF

Gene resigned as golf pro at the Elks Club course in 1948 and opened his own driving range near the Iowa City Airport. But he had a bigger dream.

On April 28, 1953, two couples — Gene and Evelyn Chapman and Don and Ailee McIntyre — formed Gene Chapman Sports Inc. They began building on land the McIntyres owned along Highway 149 SW — now Highway 151. (The McIntyres owned Midland Industries, a heavy hardware manufacturer; Don died in February 1955; Ailee continued on the company’s board.)

The Chapmans and McIntyres built a new driving range, an 18-hole miniature golf course and three batting cages, opening to the public May 22. Gene and fellow golf pro John Jacobs were on hand to give lessons on the driving range. They also gave golf tips each Thursday night on Bob Brooks’ KCRG-KCRK radio show, broadcast from Chapman’s Sports Center.

double-decker

In 1958, Gene installed a double-deck driving range on the pro shop at Chapman’s, the only one of its kind in the state, but putting 10 tees on an elevated platform above the 26 tees on the ground. He also added two archery ranges, another miniature course and a par-3 golf course that opened in May.

The center hosted several charity golf tournaments, including the Bucky O’Connor Memorial that honored a popular Iowa basketball and golf coach, and the Alex Fidler Memorial to honor a well-loved boxing referee who also was The Gazette’s longtime circulation manager.

In March 1960, Gene and Evelyn divorced, and soon after, Gene married Ailee McIntyre. Evelyn filed an alienation of affection lawsuit against Ailee that was settled out of court.

In 1960, Gene opened his golf course more than a week earlier than everyone else. He also announced plans to install a trampoline center with six of George Nissen’s trampolines.

golf course changes

In 1962, Chapman’s Recreation Center had a major setback in 1962 when the state Highway Commission announced plans to widen Highway 149 to four lanes. The new construction took out part of the miniature golf course, a parking area and three holes on the golf course.

The course was a favorite of older golfers, and Gene was upset that the greens would have to close for a reconfiguration.

“They come out here and enjoy their game because they don’t have to walk so far or climb so many hills,” Gene said. “We have lots of players who are out every day.”

In any case, Gene used the shutdown to innovate.

Guests at the preview of the redesigned course on the night of July 19, 1963, got to see the first lighted course in Cedar Rapids, illuminated with 28 35-foot aluminum light poles.

Gazette City Editor Jack Illian reported, “The greens stand out like jewels under the lights. Benches and chairs in the tee areas, something one scarcely notices in the daytime, become very decorative, and a little bridge over a creek stands out boldly in the soft light of the fairway.”

Some cameramen at the course urged Gene to hit a shot off the third tee. The ball hit the left front corner of the green 118 yards away and rolled into the cup.

more changes

Long hours at the center and security issues made it necessary for the Chapmans to live on site in a trailer. When young golfers decided the top deck of the driving range was ideal for aiming balls outside the net at golfers, Chapman closed it. In 1963, he remodeled it into an upstairs apartment with picture windows and a deck overlooking the course.

Five years later, Gene’s heart began to give out and his doctor told him he couldn’t climb stairs. Unable to find someone to devise a solution, Ailee created one of her own. Using the premise of boat winches, she bought the materials and built a pulley elevator with a motor and a battery charger.

An indoor driving range was the next step for Chapman’s. In 1969, Gene put up a 6-by-90-foot steel building with a 20-foot ceiling. Golfers hit balls off seven tees into huge nets. That lasted about three years before the driving range was dismantled and an indoor putting course was installed.

Gene put the whole sports complex up for sale in November 1974. He finally sold it to his daughter, Andrea, and her husband, Eddie Cole, in 1977. Eddie, a former national trampoline champ from Michigan, was also a good golfer. Gene died Jan. 14, 1978.

waterslide

Damage to the course caused by development of land surrounding Chapman’s, including a Kmart store in 1969, resulted in a shortened course layout in 1979.

In 1981, the Coles added a huge waterslide to the Chapman’s Family Recreation Center.

Andrea and Eddie divorced in 1989, and Cole became managing partner of the property. While the golf operation ended, Chapman’s Fun World expanded with the addition of rides geared to 3- to 11-year olds — including a kiddie roller-coaster — on four acres south of the established facilities.

In September 2001, Chapman Fun World closed for the season and never reopened. Cole, who had married Linda Lyons of Vinton in 1986, donated the huge waterslide to Vinton’s Skate and Activity Center.

Cole sold Chapman’s in 2002. The land became the site for Williams Plaza at 3001 Williams Blvd. SW.

l Comments: (319) 398-8338; d.fannonangton@gmail.com

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