by Bruce Cherney (part 5 of 5)
Golfers are noted for eagerly anticipating the return of spring and their first opportunity to head out to the golf course and send a few balls aloft. “There is no stopping an enthusiastic golfer,” proclaimed the Manitoba Free Press on April 16, 1919, “and this was no better exemplified last Saturday when about a dozen members of the Winnipeg Golf Club made their way with their high powered autos through the heavy going to Birds Hill course ... They found the course in splendid condition, even the impromptu greens on the edge of regular greens were in grand shape and some players were getting remarkable scores for the first time out.”
In 1923, eight Winnipeggers had the golfers’ rite of spring in mind when they jumped into two cars and headed out to the Winnipeg Golf Club’s Birds Hill course.
An April 24, 1923, Free Press article, First Game of Golf at Bird’s Hill (old spelling used an apostrophe), described how the eight Winnipeg golfers made their way to the course on a Saturday afternoon, driving down Nairn Avenue to Birds Hill Road. The road in the RM of Springfield (Garven Road) was said to be “threatening” but passable, while “the north road (Pineridge Road) to the club house looked fine.”
Spring run-off would be their nemesis as well as snow still prohibiting play on a few holes, but as with all golfers across the world from time immemorial, they were intent upon playing their first game of the season regardless of the obstacles thrown in their path.
“A man with a horse and buggy was approaching from the north, the horses at a jog trot. Hopes were high — so was the water, but they did not see it just then.
“All right for three-quarters of a mile, but the fields on each side were a vast lake.”
The horse-and-buggy driver pulled up about 50 metres in front of the car and stopped where a stream ran across the road. The man in the buggy tried to cross, but the current caused the horse to fall and the water was nearly at the top of the buggy wheels. The golf course was just a half mile away, but the car driver refused to proceed.
“No cold bath for me,” said George, who then backed his car up along the road made narrow by the water on either side.
A more adventurous driver was willing to test the high water.
“I am not coming this far and not get some golf. I am going to cross,” said Matt upon meeting George en route back to Winnipeg.
At the wash-out, Matt donned rubber boots to probe the depth of the water. Satisfied it was passable, he told the rest in the four-man party they would leave the car where it was and walk to the golf course. “Huh, a little stream of water stop a game of golf — never.”
Golf clubs and men were ferried across the wash-out by the sturdiest man in the group, Rattray, who also had rubber waders. Once through, they hit another much deeper wash-out on the road, but they were undaunted, and with Rattray’s help in crossing, eventually reached the club house.
After playing 12 holes, some twice due to snow restricting access to others, they waded back to the car, got it turned around and headed home, “and were well satisfied with the outing and the fact that we had opened the golf season for 1923 at the Winnipeg golf course.”
But bad roads were not the only difficulties facing golfers of the era. Perhaps the most pressing concern was the possibility of fire destroying all the hard work that went into building a club house. In fact, club house fires were a common occurrence. By the 1920s, the St. Charles Country Club club house had already burned down and been rebuilt twice.
The Birds Hill club house’s turn came on August 4, 1916. A fire caused by grease spilt on a stove by a careless cook resulted in the club house burning down to the ground.
Ironically, the WGC announced in the October 12, 1912, Free Press that architect W.P. Over had completed a tour of U.S. courses to come up with a design for the Birds Hill club house that would make it “one of the most up to date fire proof club houses on the continent.”
A day after the club house burned down, the Free Press reported the fire caused about $11,000 in damage and claimed some 120 sets of golf clubs. Sixteen members of the club were golfing on the course at the time of the fire, and lost about $200 when their street clothes and effects became victims of the blaze.
“The enthusiasm of the members of the club was not in the least dampened by the event, and many of them, who had arranged for matches today (August 5), spent last evening in selecting new clubs and completing arrangements to cover the course today.”
The new rebuilt club house was informally opened on June 9, 1917. A Free Press article two days later reported the club house was an “attractive and commodious building, with shower basins, plenty of wash basins, ample dressing rooms, large dining room, sun parlors and porches, a large wide verandah running all round the front and covered in with mosquito netting, while on the first storey are several sleeping rooms for the use of members of the club staff ... the whole building nestles snugly among the trees and close to the first tee.”
Besides the new club house, “air pressure water tanks” were installed to water the course, an innovation that was being used at other courses in and around the city.
In 1919, the Birds Hill course was described as one of the best in Canada, “the natural hazards and wonderful variety of each hole making it an ideal golf course” (Free Press, April 16).
While fire could not dampen the enthusiasm of the club members, other events would conspire to put an end to their playing days at the Birds Hill course.
On February 2, 1931, the Free Press noted that the Birds Hill course was to be liquidated and the WGC disbanded, as membership fees were inadequate to maintain the course (the Great Depression undoubtedly playing a role in the club’s financial difficulty). The land was then repossessed by the Hutchings estate.
“A thorough job was made of the seizure, even the cups on the putting greens being dug up,” reported the Free Press on February 2.
The only remnant of the course that continued to exist after 1931 was the greens, which were salvaged and used at the new 18-hole 6,000-yard Polo Park golf course. The transfer of the greens to Polo Park required the transportation of 540 tons of material (Free Press, June 2, 1931). The Polo Park course was located along Omand’s Creek with its club house near the southeast corner of Portage Avenue. It ceased to exist when construction on the Polo Park Shopping Centre began in 1956.
Charles Reith, the pro at the Birds Hill course, accepted an appointment with the nearby Elmhurst club.
As early as 1926, the WGC were involved in a dispute with Elisha F. Hutchings, who wanted to build a spur track across a portion of the club’s grounds to the Great West Land and Gravel Company pit. In order to get permission for the spur line, Hutchings was forced by the club to go to arbitration. The golf club was seeking $61,125 in damages, but this was reduced in December 1927 to $4,500 following a hearing. Despite the reduction, Hutchings announced he would appeal the arbitrators’ decision.
It was becoming evident that Hutchings and his family were more interested in other more profitable commercial enterprises than receiving a modest income from a lease negotiated years earlier with the WGC. It also didn’t help the golf club’s cause when its membership decided to take their original benefactor in Birds Hill to arbitration rather than negotiate a mutually beneficial agreement.
Hutchings, the president of Great West Saddle Company, who was also involved in numerous other business interests, had leased the land to the WGC in 1911. He died in 1930 and it was at this time that the interests of the Birds Hill course began to seriously clash with the interests of his heirs, some of whom were scattered across North America, including his partner-brother, R.J. Hutchings, of Calgary, and son Harold who resided in Arkansas. Ernest, another son, lived in Winnipeg. Two of his three daughters lived in Winnipeg as did his widow, Sarah, while one daughter lived in B.C.
Named as one of Winnipeg’s 19 millionaires in a January 29, 1910, Telegram article, Hutchings was a four-time city councillor who unsuccessfully ran for mayor. His business interests in Birds Hill included a sand and building supply company and a brick works.
Just a year after Hutchings’ death, the WGC golf course in RM of Springfield faded from history.
Over the years, the WGC, the first golf club in Winnipeg, contributed to the construction of five golf courses in and around the Winnipeg region: two at Norwood, and one along Portage Avenue, another along Roblin Boulevard (Alcrest) and one at Birds Hill begun in 1911 with the lease of the land from Hutchings. In the last case, the course was established by the members of the original golf club in Winnipeg (1894), but by 1914, and the creation of a corporation to sell Alcrest lots, the title of “first” club in the city was passed to the Norwood Golf Club membership. The Birds Hill members kept the WGC name, but were technically members of a new golf organization.
Although none of the five courses now exist, Winnipeg as a “golf city” owes a debt of gratitude to those early pioneers, who first took up the “amusing” sport primarily for the novelty of the moment, but subsequently fell in love with the “royal and ancient game,” and thus ensured golf’s local success.
Golfing in Winnipeg has come a long way from the time “when a man or lady carrying a bag of golf clubs and waiting at the corner of Portage avenue for a street car was an object of some curiosity, almost of alarm” (Free Press, September 5, 1908).