In 1916 the park board opened its first golf course at Glenwood (Wirth) Park. The nine-hole course was an immediate success even though it had only sand greens. The course was such a success, and revenue-generator, for the park board that in 1919 the Glenwood course was expanded to eighteen holes and new six-hole course was built at Columbia Park. By 1920 it was evident that the park board needed more golf courses, especially one in the southern section of the city, because both existing courses were in north Minneapolis.
In the 1920 annual report, Wirth suggested that perhaps the only available and affordable land in south Minneapolis that would provide the minimum of 150 acres needed for a golf course was between Rice Lake and Cedar Avenue. The idea caught on. In the next year’s report, board president William Bovey “strongly” advised the board to acquire the land around Rice Lake—but only what was ”absolutely necessary” to provide a suitable golf course and playground. He repeated the advice the following year.
In 1922 the park board followed that advice and designated for acquisition not just Rice Lake, but the land to the west of the lake for a golf course, and the entire valley of Minnehaha Creek from the lake to Minnehaha Falls. While the final acquisition was much larger than contemplated years earlier, so was the price tag. With increasing development of southern Minneapolis, certainly aided by the creation of Lake Nokomis and the surrounding park, Rice Lake was no longer priced as just a swamp. The park board paid $550,000 for the lake, surrounding land and creek bed. Rice Lake had been acquired not to provide a reservoir for Minnehaha Falls, or to be filled in as meadow; it had been acquired in large part to become a golf course. The cost of the acquisition was assessed 100% against “benefited” property over five years, the steepest assessment in park board history not spread in part over property city-wide.
The method of financing the acquisition by local assessment essentially prevented development of the property until it was paid for. The park board didn’t feel it could add an assessment for developing the property on top of the assessment to acquire it. Nonetheless, Wirth submitted his first plan for the property in 1924, which showed the basic layout of the golf course and a playground southeast of the lake. The plan also included a man-made island in the southwest corner of the lake.
In an effort to provide some use of the new parkland that the neighborhood was paying for, in December 1924 the park board responded favorably to petitions from the neighborhood and established the first skating rink on the lake.
Construction of the golf course and dredging of the lake began in 1929 after the assessments for acquiring the property had been paid. Wirth noted that he believed the optimal depth of the lake should be 14 feet and that was approved by the board. His plan to create the island was abandoned, he reported in 1930, when dredging revealed a lack of sand deposits that were needed to build an island. The material dredged from the lake was used primarily to construct rolling terrain needed for a more interesting golf course —more “sporty” was Wirth’s description. Dredging of the lake was completed in 1931 and work began in earnest on the golf course. With the completion of dredging, the beach on the east shore of the lake also opened in 1931.
The final touch to the new golf course was a clubhouse with the appearance of a “very cozy cottage,” according to Wirth, which was constructed in 1932. The same year the golf clubhouse was built a shelter was also built in the northeast corner of the park to serve the playground. Playground equipment was installed in 1931-1932. The tennis courts along Minnehaha Parkway were also built in 1932.
The golf course was finally in playable condition and the first nine holes opened for play July 30, 1934. The charge for playing nine holes was set at $0.35. The full course opened the next summer. Almost immediately, the new course was the only profitable course operated by the park board. While waiting to build the Hiawatha course, the park board had also created two more golf courses, Armour (Gross) and Meadowbrook in the mid-1920s. Both courses enjoyed initial popularity, but with the coming of the Great Depression golf play everywhere dropped off dramatically. Throughout the 1930s, Hiawatha was the only profitable golf course.
The course was heavily used despite repairs several years where fill from dredging had settled and required new fill. In 1939, a federal work relief project added shore walls to prevent erosion at Lake Hiawatha, as had been done at most other city lakes. Park superintendent Christian Bossen explained that shores created by dredging were especially susceptible to erosion from wave action.
One of the only major changes to the layout of the park since it was created was the addition of a second ball field made by filling land north of the lake in 1968. In 1977, the original recreation center was demolished and replaced.
The park did not have full time recreation supervision until 1999, the same year that a Learning Center was added to the golf course northwest of the clubhouse and Tiger Woods made an appearance at the course for the Fairway Foundation and the Minnesota Minority Junior Golf Foundation.
In June 2014 record rainfalls caused a devastating flood that forced the entire course to close for months. Water receded enough for workers to repair and reopen the front nine holes in fall 2014. The back nine full course reopened in 2016.
History through 2008 written by David C. Smith, with updates from 2009 to present written by MPRB.