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. 

Butler’s Golf Course’s 90th Anniversary

March’s Story… The Tornado of 1963

1963 was a year full of developments for Butler’s Golf Course.  Tom Fox, Sr., who had started as a mechanic in 1937 and followed his brother-in-law, James Sinclair, as superintendent, moved on to Lakeview in West Virginia.  Help was needed at the course, which was then run by J.W. Butler’s two daughters, Mildred Nill and Eva Waldbaum.  It was after Tom’s departure that Mildred and Eva asked Mildred’s 24-year-old son, Ralph Nill, to begin work at the course.  Prior to this, Ralph had no experience in the golf industry and had worked at the family car dealership after college and the Army.  An old photo of the Standard Auto, probably taken in the 1920s, is included below.  This building is currently Sunray Electric’s warehouse in McKeesport.

Ralph entered the picture while the third nine was being constructed, making his transition into his new role that much more difficult.  The clubhouse at the time was in a location that would now be directly in the middle of the parking lot, in between the current clubhouse and cart barns.  This building was originally a roller rink at another location,then J.W.moved and repurposed it here as a dance hall, as early as 1925.  Acts including Slim Bryant brought in large crowds.  Although it was a very popular venue in the early years of the course (pictured below), the dance hall wasn’t used much in the 60’s.  There was a bar at one end, run by an independent operator, Nick Manisotis, who also ran Airways Lounge.  Ralph, Mildred, and Eva already had their hands full with running the daily businesses and overseeing the third nine’s construction.  They were not prepared for what was to come.

On the evening of August 3rd, 1963 just before 9:00 pm, terror struck Western PA in the form of a tornado that registered as an F3 on the Fujita Tornado Damage Scale.  Wind speeds for a tornado such as this are estimated at 158-206 MPH and damage is classified as “severe,” with roofs and some walls torn off of well-constructed houses, trains overturned, most trees in forests uprooted, and heavy cars lifted off the ground and thrown.  Tragically, this particular tornado was the cause of two fatalities in Glassport and 70 other injuries in the area.  Thankfully nobody was injured on Butler’s property, but as can be seen in the photos below, damage to the clubhouse was devastating -- the structures were leveled.  Parts of the roof were found in Buena Vista.  The pump house and the old ticket shack for greens fee payments were also destroyed.

Like many members of the community, Ralph, Mildred, and Eva were tasked with recovering from the terrible storm.  Trees on property were uprooted and needed to be hauled away, and construction of the new nine was slowed considerably.  What was left of the old clubhouse needed to be cleaned up and cleared so the process of reconstruction could begin.  Pictured to the right of the destroyed building is a smaller former home that was used for storage in the 60’s.  We believe this building was also removed at that time,and temporary clubhouse activities took place in the end of the house by the cart barns.  This is the old McKnight farmhouse, and an addition to this building had been built and used as a cafeteria for the course until 1938, long before it became office space.  The porch roof on this building was damaged in the storm.  Still more damage was done to the former Patterson farmhouse, between the barn and practice area, which lost its second story then sat semi-abandoned for several years, until a pack of wild dogs moved in.  When originally built, it resembled the house at the corner of Rock Run Rd. and Parkway St.

A builder from Liberty Borough, Al Johnson,did the work on the project of finding a design for and erecting a new clubhouse, and it is pictured below.  Perhaps you recognize the old bag line?  Tee times didn’t start at Butler’s until the 80’s, so back in the day, reserving your group’s place on the tee was done by placing your bag in line.  This also encouraged golfers to show early and consider ordering breakfast prior to play (or to sleep in their cars after working the night shift).  The building should look familiar, as it still exists as the center of our current clubhouse.  The entire left end of the building in the photo used to be the Pro Shop / locker room area, but it is now our banquet room.  The peaked roof in the center represents the Vista Room, and the lower ceiling on the left is now the Fairway Room.  Our current Golf Shop was built to the left, and the Rock Run Inn restaurant (formerly The Mulligan) has always been on the right end of the building, though there have been several additions.The first few gas-powered golf carts weren’t purchased at Butler’s until 1965.

The tornado of ’63 wreaked damage to the surrounding community, and the need to build a new clubhouse at Butler’s was only a tiny portion of the rebuilding and healing process for those affected.  Even now our hearts go out to the families that suffered much greater losses.  We were lucky and thankful to recover so quickly from a storm so destructive. 

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 April. 


Butler’s Golf Course’s 90th Anniversary

April’s Story… The Third Nine

From 1928 to 1962, Butler’s existed as an 18-hole public golf course.  When constructing the original design, J.W. Butler didn’t intend to add more holes, but his daughters, Mildred Nill and Eva Waldbaum, began to have different ideas.  Although Standard Auto, the car dealership, still remained the family’s main business, the golf course was beginning to attract more attention and justified some expansion.

After it was decided that the course could be expanded, Mildred and Eva hired Golf Course Architect Ed Ault.  He, along with then Superintendent Tom Fox and the family, set to design an additional 18-hole layout that worked well with the existing 18 holes.  This project came about in conjunction with the installation of the sewage system in Elizabeth Township.  For those who are interested in the details, the final photo included below is a map of this original 36-hole design that never came to fruition.  Many years of considering the 4th nine led to rerouting it from the original Ault plan.  For financial reasons, only 9 additional holes were built in the 60s.  It was important that all 3 nines returned to the clubhouse, and from the start it was determined that one course would normally be reserved for 18-hole play and another for 9 holes only.  They eventually became known as the 18-hole Woodside Course and 9-hole Lakeside Course.  Each nine would also eventually receive a designated color, though these evolved over time.  First, Woodside was red, and Lakeside was green.  Later Woodside front and back were red and blue respectively – the back was ‘Vista’ for a few years.  Lakeside would be yellow, and eventually when Lakeside back was built in 2000, it would be green.

In 1963, Tom Fox moved to West Virginia, and Ralph Nill, Mildred’s son, was asked to begin working at the course.  One of his first tasks was overseeing this construction project.  As a reminder from March’s story, the tornado also blew through in August 1963.  Many people believe that the original 18 holes is what is now the Woodside Course and what is now the Lakeside front was a separate new nine holes of golf built in 1963.  This is not the case. We have included a sketch below done in 2008 which depicts how the new nine was configured. 

Analyzing this picture may make your head spin at first, but once you understand the assignment of different colors it becomes clear.

In the drawing, everything that is green was original and is still in use today.  Everything that is red was original but eliminated in 1963.  Everything in yellow was new after the renovation in 1963 and is some part of what are now the front nines of the Woodside and Lakeside Courses.  You can see that the Lakeside Course actually utilized the first 5 holes of the original course.  Hole 6 was new, and so were holes 7-9 (not pictured).  The first 3 holes of what is now the Woodside front nine were built in 1963 and the remaining holes utilized the original course, with TWO original holes (6 and 9) split into FOUR separate holes.  You can see that what are now Woodside #4 and #8 greens were built directly in the center of the original course’s fairways.  We believe these areas were played as Ground-Under-Repair during the construction to allow for normal play before the greens opened. 

We have also included a photo of Lakeside #9 green shortly after opening.  The oak tree that was over 200 years old is to the left, and the old bridge over the road which was replaced in fall 2017 is also in the picture.  Although the original design is still evident today, you can see the effects of mowing patterns and the use of mechanical sand rakes over the course of 55 years.  Gradually, the shapes of greens and bunkers nearly always change from their original outlines.

The course would remain 27 holes for 37 more years, all the while golf becoming more popular.  Leagues were developed, often from local businesses and the steel mills, and quite a few were started when we gathered new players who had just taken lessons at the course.  All three nines were eventually used in rotation to accommodate the growing number of groups.  Ralph and the family would eventually plan expanding to 36 holes in 1998, but alas, that is another story.

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 May.