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