Kildonan links hit 100
Despite delays, city's first municipal golf course proved popular with public
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/06/2021 (597 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Kildonan Park Golf Course, the city’s first municipal links, celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. It is the remnant of a failed $2-million plan to turn the park into an entertainment supersite.
Calls for the City of Winnipeg to create a municipal golf course began in the early 1900s. By that time, communities such as Virden, Portage la Prairie and Brandon already operated their own. In the Winnipeg region, golf was strictly a private affair with the opening of the Winnipeg — now Southwood — Golf Club in 1893, the St. Charles Golf Club in 1905, and Pine Ridge Golf Club in 1912. In August 1912, the Winnipeg Free Press ran a story headlined, “Time is now ripe for municipal golf course for the city of Winnipeg.” It included an interview with Tom Bendelow of Spalding and Co. of Chicago who had a hand in designing Pine Ridge.
Bendelow extolled the virtues of municipal golf courses and noted that many cities in the U.S. had already established them to make the game affordable for the masses. “The municipal golf course is simply an evolution of the municipal playground and the success of the latter scheme is a criterion of the success that awaits the former when the authorities have awakened to a realization of the needs of the community,” Bendelow told the Free Press.
Winnipeg’s parks board was finally ready to wade into the matter at its Oct. 21, 1914 meeting when it requested the board of control, the city’s finance committee, investigate if there was enough land available at the “new exhibition site” at Kildonan Park to include a golf course. Much of the land for Kildonan Park was purchased in 1909 on the recommendation of George Champion, the city’s superintendent of Public Parks. He worried that if the city did not act soon, finding land for a park in the north part of the city would be lost forever due to its rapid urbanization.
Kildonan Park formally opened on Victoria Day, May 24, 1911, and was an instant hit with its wooded stands, vast lawns, and easy access to the Red River. “Wild in the beauty of unrestricted nature, Kildonan Park will in time become the most beautiful of Winnipeg’s big recreation grounds,” a Free Press reporter wrote.
Champion had a master plan for the park that included a grand avenue, aviary, formal gardens, marina, bandshell, and three-building pavilion to be added over time. Before he could get started on the work, promoters of the Winnipeg Industrial Exhibition intervened.
Since 1891, “The Ex” had been housed on a 68-acre piece of land bounded by Selkirk and Jarvis avenues and McPhillips and Sinclair streets. The site, which drew hundreds of thousands of admissions per year, was now cramped, filled with aging buildings, and landlocked due to urban development around it.
The exhibition’s board convinced many city officials that Kildonan Park’s 91 acres, with the addition of another 80 or so acres to the north, would make the perfect setting for the exhibition’s agricultural pavilions, arena, show rings, and even a new horse racing track. The total investment was thought to be as much as $1.5 million, about $35 million in 2021 dollars.
The first step towards creating the new exhibition grounds was to put before voters a money bylaw that would allow the city to spend up to $500,000 to purchase the additional land. The vote was held in September 1913 and passed 1,445 to 627.
As the city got busy acquiring land, a series of events scuttled the new exhibition grounds project.
As 1913 wore on, Winnipeg found itself in the grips of a recession as the threat of war in Europe slowed the flow of capital investment from the U.K. to Canada down to a trickle. Once the war began, many large infrastructure projects, including the development of the new exhibition grounds, were put on hold. The final blow came in early 1915 when the exhibition itself was essentially put out of business when the war office took over the existing grounds to house 600 troops.
There was an attempt to get the project back on track after the war, but the exhibition was in disarray both corporately and financially, and the city moved on to other priorities. By the late 1920s, it was clear that there would be no new exhibition grounds built at Kildonan Park.
There was some development in the park during the war years. An additional 90 or so acres of land were added, some landscaping was done, formal flower gardens were created, and scaled-down versions of a pavilion, bandshell, and boat launch were built.
These developments made Kildonan Park a popular spot for people wanting to get away from the city and forget about the war. On most summer weekends, it hosted multiple corporate, charity or church picnics that attracted thousands of people. This was another reason why there was little political appetite after the war to redevelop the space.
Kildonan Park’s largest amenity, the municipal golf course, also began to take shape during the war years. Work got underway in 1916 with an initial $5,000 expenditure and it was expected to take at least two years before it was ready for play.
The man credited with constructing the golf course is contractor James McDiarmid.
McDiarmid was born in Scotland and came to Canada in his late twenties. He established a building firm in Winnipeg and by 1900 had built an impressive array of warehouses and small commercial blocks. His best-known projects today include Pantages Playhouse Theatre (1913) and the Manitoba Legislative Building (1916).
The development of the golf course was beset by delays.
A 1919 opening was ruled out when the turf would not take. Despite its proximity to the river, an irrigation system had not yet been installed and workers struggled to haul the water needed to the site. On a hopeful note, the Winnipeg Tribune reported in March 1919, “The municipal golf course, which has been held up because proper turf would not develop, is showing indications of rounding out into a course with as many hazards as the gutta percha chaser could wish.”
In 1920, there was more bad news when Champion told the parks board that the course would not open for the season because he wanted further improvements made to the grounds.
The parks board announced at its January 1921 meeting that after more than four years of preparation and an investment of around $18,000, the golf course would be opened once the snow melted and the grounds groomed.
A silver lining to the long delay was that the site would include a clubhouse. Initially, it was decided to wait until the course had been open for a year or two to add such an amenity as a way of spreading costs out over a longer period.
McDiarmid is credited with constructing the single-storey, $20,000 building that contains a waiting room, locker area and showers.
The 5,900-yard, 18-hole course welcomed its first players on June 9, 1921, and the clubhouse was completed in mid-July. The official opening ceremony for both took place on July 28 and featured a tournament of local amateur “all-stars,” including McDiarmid.
The green fees were 40 cents for men and 25 cents for women, or season tickets could be had for $16 and $8, respectively. (The tickets were reduced to $12 and $6 in July.) A set of five clubs could be rented for 50 cents.
Attendance-wise, the course was a resounding success attracting an average of 146 players per day in its first month. When the season ended in early October, 31,083 rounds had been played with a peak of 600 green fees paid on Labour Day.
It was noted in the attendance figures that nearly a third of the players were women as the municipal course was the only one of the six in the Winnipeg region that gave them the same access to play as men.
The golf course was also a financial success. Despite the late start to its first season, it took in $18,740.40 and made a surplus of $700.
“The board expressed satisfaction at the showing made by the club for the first year and passed a resolution expressing appreciation of the official management of the golf course and the patronage given by the general public,” the Free Press reported from the parks board’s November 1921 meeting.
Christian Cassidy is a Manitoba Historical Society council member and a proud resident of the West End. He has been writing about Winnipeg history for over a decade on his blog, West End Dumplings.
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