Butler’s Golf Course’s 90th Anniversary

January’s Story... Remembering the Beginning

John W. Butler didn’t have much of a formal education, having dropped out at age 11 after his father’s death in the mines, but his determination and entrepreneurial spirit guided him in life. He had been a coal miner; farmer; operator of a greenhouse, a lumberyard, and a brickyard; a builder of roads; proprietor of an automobile dealership; and ultimately a golf course owner.  In the early 1920’s he owned only a portion of what is now Butler’s Golf Course in the form of a pick-your-own strawberry farm.

Farming wasn’t the only use for Butler’s property.  The 1920s was a golden era for American airshows and he kept up with the times by using what is now #10 Woodside as a grass airstrip to be used for this purpose.  This allowed for the community to enjoy shows with barnstormers.  Pilots would travel to various farms across the country showcasing their skills and sparking America’s interest in aviation.  Shows were performed for a number of years on Butler’s farm, but family lore is that J.W. closed the airfield immediately after a stunt pilot took Butler's daughter, Mildred, for a ride and did a loop-di-loop.

Butler was always thinking of his next project and had been keeping an eye on the nearby Youghiogheny Country Club, a private course established in 1911.  Its success sparked interest in creating a golf course of his own, but he needed more property.  Butler began purchasing the deeds to several nearby farms.  Some of the family names related to these properties were McKnight and Patterson.  While making these acquisitions, Butler improved and paved Rock Run Road.  He then hired several individuals, including some from Youghiogheny, to assist with the design and construction of his 18-hole golf course.  Horses with scoops were employed to simultaneously create bunkers and use that dirt to build up greens.

By 1928, Butler had succeeded in opening one of the first public golf courses in the state of Pennsylvania, opening the door for a much larger portion of the community to enjoy the great game of golf.  J. W. Butler never became a golfer himself, evidently content with providing that opportunity to others.

This was just the beginning of what is now a 90-year history between the golf course, Butler’s family, and surrounding community.  Happily, one branch of Butler’s great-grandchildren proudly own what is now a 36-hole public facility, including the Rock Run Inn Restaurant and John Butler House Bed & Breakfast.  His legacy continues.

Thank you for helping us celebrate our 90th Anniversary.  Please stay tuned for February’s story as we highlight another piece of history. 

Butler’s Golf Course’s 90th Anniversary

February’s Story… Silent Park Lake and Picnic Grounds
John W. Butler had been running a successful 18-hole public golf course for about 10 years when he had the idea of expanding the use of his property to satisfy the needs of the entire family, not just the golfers.  “Imagine the fellows playing golf on my course all day long, their wives and kiddies sitting at home waiting for them, dinner getting cold!” he used to say.  “I’m gonna change that.  I’ll build a lake, stock it with fish, and provide boating facilities and picnic grounds.  Then the men can bring their families out for the day and everybody can have a good time.”  Wow, has the typical family outing changed!  Today’s women and children are also likely to enjoy golfing.

Silent Park Lake and Picnic Grounds was opened on Saturday, August 3rd, 1940.  The area extended from Boyds Hollow Road to what is now the right side of Lakeside #10 fairway.  The lake Butler built and stocked with fish needed a well-constructed dam, plus it provided water for irrigation, and to this day it undergoes annual inspections by both the state and a private engineering firm to ensure its safety.  Members of the community would come to the park to enjoy hours of relaxation getting out on the water in a rowboat, picnicking, and playing games with the family.  Perhaps with a twist of irony, the lake that then provided such a tranquil environment, now serves as an ominous water hazard on the final hole of the Lakeside Course.  Golfers must clear the water with their tee shot to avoid penalty, then take the trip over the dam to get to their (hopefully) second shot.

We have included a short video of Butler, wearing the bowtie, and his family taking a boat ride around the date of park’s opening.  Look closely in the video for a small boy with light colored hair.  This is a young Ralph Nill, who would later go on to operate the course for most of his life, and is largely responsible for creating the current 36-hole operation.  J.W.’s wife, Emma, is next to him, with their daughter, Mildred, husband Henry Nill, and their children, Virginia and Ralph.  J.W. and Emma’s other daughter, Eva, and her husband, Hen Waldbaum, are also on the boat, along with J.W.’s son, Theodore.  Another son, Radcliffe, died at age 14 during the flu epidemic of 1919.

Nearby the lake, Butler provided the picnic grounds.  This area was a mix of outdoor space and at least one covered pavilion, which provided much needed protection from the sun.  Occasionally, those picnicking would play musical instruments, filling the park with song and dance.  Just adjacent to the picnic grounds, though, was perhaps the most interesting attraction to the park.

If you have ever played the back nine of the Lakeside Course, you may have wondered what the remnants of a structure was off to the right of the fairway.  Perhaps you’ve hit an errant tee shot only to find yourself behind a manmade wall you needed to avoid on your second shot.  Had it been 70 years prior, you could have been standing directly in the middle of a cage with a bear!  That’s right, Butler thought of it all.  If the lake and picnic areas weren’t enough to attract the community to the park, he kept three bears (black or sun bears) on display, which absolutely captivated the attention of children.  Don’t worry, they were kept a safe distance from the cages by an additional fence Butler built, as can be seen in the last part of the video clip.  Later, some of the fencing was relocated to be used as dog kennels at the farm operated by J.W.’s son, Theodore.  Fresh spring water still flowed into the bears’ concrete drinking basins until the 1990’s.  Back in the early days, one early plan for the golf course and farm was to interest Allegheny County in buying it and opening another county park, East Park.  The Depression was one factor that put an end to that possibility.

So as you start and complete the back nine on the Lakeside Course this year, driving in our electric golf carts over paved cart paths, imagine a simpler time when families were content to spend the entire day together by a lake that Butler built for this purpose.  Thank you for helping us celebrate our 90th Anniversary by taking a little trip down memory lane.  We look forward to sharing another piece of Butler’s Golf Course history in March.