Golf in our Backyard!

Golf Was In Our Back Yard!

By Cynthia Sommer

The game of “early golf” developed in the pastures on Milwaukee Eastside in late November 1894.  The founding players improvised a rough course in the Mariner’s farm that was bordered by Downer and Oakland Avenues between Locust (formally named Folsom) and Hartford Avenues – the northern section of Murray Hill.  Records are not clear as to whether there were 7 or 9 holes, but the enthusiasm of the players was documented with them playing from late November well into the winter that first year.

Most would agree that the modern game of golf evolved in Scotland during the Middle Ages though ball and stick games are recorded throughout history.  Golf was rapidly and firmly established in many areas of the US in the late 19th century though early records for golf in the US go back to the late 16th century.   Milwaukee’s golf activity flowed from the Chicago Golf Club when Milwaukee businessman Eliphat Cramer (for whom Cramer St. is named) invited in November,1894 three of his friends  to play golf in the Chicago area -John Tweedy, an early state lawyer/politician, and bankers James Ilsley (M & I Bank = BMO) and Grant Fitch (National Bank Exchange = Marine Bank).  They got infected with the golf bug and soon involved 14 additional friends to form the Folsom Avenue Club, the beginnings of the Milwaukee Country Club and the oldest club in the state.

These golf enthusiasts would travel to the “edge of town”, north of the homes starting to be established on Newberry Blvd and change into their knickers and knee socks in a house on Frederick Avenue.  The holes in the improvised course consisted of cans placed into the ground with fishing poles tied with cloth to identify their location.  The type of golf ball used at the time was a gutta-percha ball (also called gutta or guttie).  This type of ball was made by molding and pressing the latex like sap from trees native to the Malay Peninsula in Southeast Asia into a round shape.  Golfers eventually realized that a many times nicked gutta balls had truer flight than smooth balls and thus evolved golf balls with surface textures and patterns.   The size of the early Mariner’s golf course gives a hint that the types of balls and clubs used in those early days did not send the ball the same distances possible with today’s golf equipment.

There were several driving forces that led to the short life of Milwaukee’s first golf course and a move to an area just a few blocks north.  The Milwaukee Country Club, a social and family club, was being established in 1895 with a club house and grounds on the eastside of the Whitefish Bay toll road (Lake Drive), at about Beverly Rd in Shorewood.  This private club allowed the socially prominent men and women of the East Side an opportunity to leave “the bustle of the city”.  Since most of the original pioneer golfers were also members of the Club and there was an increase interest in golf, the members leased with their own money the field across from the Club house (Edgewood, Shorewood Blvd, Downer Avenue and Lake Drive) and laid out their 3- hole to eventually a 9-hole course.  Within 2-3 years, the two golfing groups merged and the original Mariner’s field yielded to urban development.  The Milwaukee Country Club golf course moved again to the current location in River Hills with a grand opening in 1929.   Golf in Milwaukee had indeed gone from humble beginnings to grandeur.