By Jim Palmer
The year was 1921. The city of Sauk Centre was coming off a decade of growth, both in population and in business development. The dirt roads and horse-drawn carriages had been replaced with primitive highways. Several new businesses were popping up and others were starting to beef up their operations. Chatter in many of these downtown businesses often turned to Sinclair Lewis, an award-winning novelist from Sauk Centre who was getting national attention after publishing Main Street (1920), a novel that featured a community modeled after Sauk Centre. World War I was over and things were getting back to normal. People in Sauk Centre and across America were feeling a new sense of optimism. It was the start of the “roaring 20s.”
Dave Caughren, a childhood friend of Lewis, was a banker in Sauk Centre in 1921. Caughren was having stomach issues and decided to visit a doctor at a health spa in Battle Creek, Michigan. That doctor recommended drinking soda water and getting a lot of exercise. He also suggested golf as a way to get that exercise. Caughren took that suggestion to heart. He came back to Sauk Centre, teamed up with Julian DuBois, a respected doctor, and got to work on the development of a golf course. Caughren talked to business owners and farmers about his idea. Stocks in the course were sold for $100 each to help finance the project and lots along Sauk Lake were sold on a first-come, first-serve basis to the highest bidder.
When money was secured, 150 people with 25 teams of horses came to level the terrain, build bunkers and seed grass for the fairways and roughs. Sand was originally used as the “greens,” and a wire fence surrounded the entire course to enclose the sheep, who were the full time grass mowers. After a few years, the sand greens were replaced with bentgrass, the sheep were relieved of their duties, and the Sauk Centre Country Club started to evolve and flourish. This evolution continued for the better part of a century.
In 2013, the Sauk Centre Country Club board agreed to sell the golf course and country club so that it could purchase the Greystone National Golf Course, which was built in 2000 and located a few miles north of town. Steve Klick and the Centre Graphics, Inc., purchased the historic course and changed its name to the Old Course Sauk Centre to reflect its rich history. Under the purchase agreement, Klick was restricted from offering public golf or running the facility at full capacity for a 10-year period. That period of time recently expired and the course is open for full use once again.
Klick used the last seven years to plan, maintain and improve the entire property. The golf course has been fully restored to its old glory. New features have also been added to enhance the entire experience.
Besides these improvements, Klick felt the need to make more people aware of the course’s history and the impact it has had on the community. So he decided that a book was needed. In 2020, Klick approached Jim Umhoefer, a Sauk Centre writer, who took it from there. The book is called The Old Course on Main Street--A Century of Life and Golf on the Minnesota Prairie.
“Steve wanted to tell the story of a beloved golf course that was supported for 100 years by a small community and the challenges it faced to built it and keep it going for all that time,” said Umhoefer.
Sauk Centre has had some successful individuals and teams play the course through the years, both locals and visitors. One of those regular visitors was Tom Lehman, who golfed the course as a high school and college player, before going to become an accomplished professional golfer. Lehman wrote the foreword for the book.
Here is one paragraph from Lehman’s foreword, “Golf, to me, is far more than a game -- it is a way of life. I am indebted to my upbringing, the people of Sauk Centre, and the experiences I’ve had there, for being such integral influences in my life. Long live the memory of the Old Course!”
During his research and interviews, Umhoefer learned a lot of about the main players and interesting characters who made the course what it was. He was also impressed with the golf course’s board, who navigated it through some very challenging times, and the community, who supported the course in good times and bad.
“This community has shown a commitment to their golf course that has lasted several generations.” he said. “Also, despite different opinions and different political views, the board kept this course going strong because they respected each other and put their differences aside so they could maintain their common goal -- keeping this golf course going strong and improving it when they could.”
Umhoefer said the founding board “was very smart” in the way they approached the original development of the course.
“They bought 120 acres to start, which was more than what they needed, including some prime Sauk Lake shoreline,” he said. “Then they would sell some of the lots when they wanted to make improvements to the golf course.”
Umhoefer also noted that the board recognized that Sauk Centre was a farming community and farming was an important part of their economic base. They would have special Farmer Recognition Days at the course and they would also ease the membership rates when the farm economy went south.
“For a couple of years during the Great Depression, the board even offered free memberships for farmers,” he said.
Umhoefer added that a focus for the Old Course board was always to provide a golfing experience that was accessible and affordable, and they always encouraged youth golf.
“There were many kids who basically grew up on this course,” he said. “The board recognized that these kids were their future.”
One golfer who enjoyed the course as a child is now its owner. For Klick, some of his favorite childhood memories came from small town community golf courses, especially the ones in Long Prairie and Sauk Centre.
“My roots in the game of golf and in Sauk Centre run deep,” he wrote in the book’s afterword. “I grew up in nearby Long Prairie, Minnesota, but my parents took me to Sauk Centre frequently to watch the trains come and go at the depots.”
Klick met area businessmen at the Sauk Centre course and even caddied for some of them.
“In later years, I was a businessman in Sauk Centre who loved to golf at the country club,” he wrote. During his business career, Klick developed a real appreciation for the effort that was required to keep a golf course running successfully for 100 years.
“Interdependence, hard work, ingenuity and persistence applied to a shared goal that was key to its success,” he wrote in the book. “Business leaders, farmers and community members worked side by side, even if they did not golf. They did so when the course was carved out of farmland.”
That same spirit of cooperation showed up time and time again over the last 100 years, Klick noted, when the clubhouse was built and remodeled, when the first watering system was installed and when other improvements were needed.
“The risks were economic -- not life or death,” he wrote. “Yet throughout the decades, the community rallied behind the course. When hard times came and resources were scarce in the Great Depression and World War II, the country club board tightened their belt and kept membership dues static. The Ladies Auxiliary raised money for needed course equipment on many occasions. Innovation, persistence and cooperation kept the course breathing when some thought golf could not weather the national and worldwide storms.”
The book covers the factual history of the course. It also has many first hand accounts from regulars and family member of regulars who are now gone. These stories reveal the fun that was had on the course and in the clubhouse and the impact this course had on those who played it.
“I learned a lot by putting this book together and I’m really grateful for the experience,” said Umhoefer.
Today, the Old Course is in tip top shape with several new unique features recently added. It appears ready for the next 100 years.
“It is a neat course,” said Aaron Feltman, manager of the Old Course. “It is now a nine-hole reversible course, which is really unique. I wasn’t sure if I would love the reversible course but I do. And it gets better the more you play it. You can play the course forward and get the nostalgia of the course and then play it backwards. This is a 100-year old course and the front nine is really close to the way it was, with only slight modifications made to hole number four. The history of his course is amazing. And playing the course backwards is interesting and adds a new challenge.”
The clubhouse, guest lounge and outdoor patio have been renovated, making it a great place for special events including corporate events, fundraisers, class reunions, family reunions, birthday gatherings, bachelor/bachelorette parties, etc. The clubhouse seats 100 comfortably and there is also an outdoor patio seating area available. “We have a bar/restaurant and are now offering flame-fired pizza, calzones and appetizers,” said Feltman. “The food is great quality and is a great place to have a social outing or family night out. And starting mid-summer, our restaurant will open and we plan to have that open year round.”
Fun activities were also added, giving the Old Course a family friendly atmosphere.
“We have a pickle ball course, croquet, bocce ball, cornhole, horseshoes and shuffleboard so families can come and play any of these,” said Feltman. “We also have a new challenge putt course, lighted practice area and a driving range. It is really unique and great for a family fun night.”
Feltman said all the improvements and additions were designed to make the Old Course a fun place for all ages and “kind of recreate that social club that a country club used to be.”
Sauk Centre is now home to three golf courses -- the Old Course, Lynx National and Greystone. With a population of about 4,500 in Sauk Centre, one could consider having three golf courses as a real challenge for all three courses, but Feltman (and other community members) view it is an opportunity. He is optimistic that Sauk Centre has a strong potential to develop into a golfing destination that would allow all three courses to be successful for many years to come.
“We all offer quality products and we are working together to make this a destination for golfers,” he said. “It is a great town with awesome shopping options in town for those who don’t golf and there is more great shopping a short drive away in Alexandria and Glenwood and other areas around us. We also have the Lake Wobegon Trail running through town and Sauk Lakes is a great fishing and recreation lake. There is just about everything you would want to do here in town or very close to Sauk Centre.”
The Old Course on Main Street-- A Century of Life and Golf on the Minnesota Prairie is in the final stages of printing and will be available for purchase at the Old Course, Amazon and some shops in Sauk Centre by mid-June.
If you would like to experience the Old Course reversible course in person, it is located at 606 Lake Shore Drive in Sauk Centre. Call (320) 238-8001 or stop by for a tee-time.
This is a paid business profile. If you would like to learn more about promoting your business in the Sr. Perspective with a business profile, call Jim at 320-334-3344.