By Helen Weaver
“The tract of land bought by the Winnetka Park Board (on the edge of the Skokie Marsh) provoked much criticism in the village. People said that the new park was inhabited exclusively by snakes and frogs. They said it was wet and it was. It was contemptuously referred to as the Park Board’s Canoe Club, and the commissioners were asked when they were going to get out their glass bottom boats and take a look at the new park.”
So wrote Edward S. Rogers in a 1919 article published in Golfer’s Magazine and The Messenger, a publication of the Winnetka Congregational Church. Rogers went on to describe the great success Winnetka had in establishing one of the first municipal golf courses in the Midwest, despite its soggy beginnings.
In June 1912 the Winnetka Park Board was given a directive by a “large number of citizens” to acquire an area of 20 to 40 acres on the western margin of the Village to provide playfields for a growing population. By August 1913 the Board had closed a contract for the purchase of 40 acres on the west side of Lake (later Hibbard) Road between Pine and Oak streets. The cost was $25,000 (approximately $600,000 in 2013 dollars). The land was “covered with waist high marsh grass, soft and lumpy underfoot, and frequently underwater.” But the marshy conditions did not deter the Park Board. William Gold Hibbard, a Chicago hardware merchant and Winnetka resident, had a passion for drainage, and with his efforts, draining of the marsh began.
In the spring of 1916 the Park Board proposed a plan recommended by consultants at the Playground and Recreation Association of America to develop a 30-acre, nine-hole golf course, a baseball diamond, tennis courts, and an outdoor skating rink. William B. Langford, a golf course architect and graduate of Yale and Columbia’s School of Mines, “very generously donated his services in laying out the proposed course.” Langford and his partner Theodore Moreau designed or remodeled more than 200 golf courses in a 50-year career, most of them in the Midwest. Some of the best known include Skokie Country Club (remodeled in 1938), Wakonda in Des Moines, IA (1922), and Lawsonia in Green Lake, WI (1930). Though small by today’s standards, Winnetka’s new course was bigger (by two acres!) than the one in Chicago’s Jackson Park, the first municipal course in the Midwest (1899). The 2,155-yard course officially opened to the public on July 4, 1917, and by 1919 was accommodating as many as 200 golfers on Saturdays and Sundays, with admission free for residents and 50 cents for nonresidents.
In December 1916 Mr. and Mrs. Ayres Boal donated an additional 40 acres to the north and west of the original park in memory of their daughter, Lesley, who died in 1914. The golf course was expanded to 18 holes by the early 1920s. After the Park Board purchased 22 additional acres in 1924 and added 40 more acres by condemnation in 1928, the course was ready to be reconfigured. Champion golfer Charles (Chick) Evans laid out the new plan in 1930 for construction by Charles D. Wagstaff. By the mid 1950s the Park Board was concerned that too many potential users were being turned away at the frequently overcrowded course, so it proposed the addition of a 9-hole, par-3 course. Wagstaff constructed the new course in October 1960 under the direction of the 18-hole course’s original designer, William Langford.
While multiple drainage projects of the Skokie swamp have kept the two golf courses in playable shape most of the time, there have been at least four storms proving that Mother Nature will prevail. A downpour on September 13, 1936 flooded the course for two weeks and washed out the remainder of the season. Less than two years later, in July 1938, the course was flooded by over a foot of water after a deluge that brought more than seven inches of rain in five days. In more recent memory, the floods of July 2011 and April 2013 left the entire park covered in water, encouraging children to row boats in the flooded fields along Hibbard Road—where they might have spotted some snakes and frogs.