Recently, some friends and I were out playing miniature golf, and the attraction attendant told us that Chattanooga played a big part in the history of mini golf. Can you tell me more?
Dear Puzzled Putter,
While Chattanooga doesn’t lay claim to the very first miniature golf attraction in the United States, Rock City co-founder Garnet Carter was the first person to franchise the pastime as we know it today.
Carter created Tom Thumb Golf in 1928 to entertain guests at his Fairyland Inn while a larger, full-scale golf course was being constructed. Carter’s wife, Frieda, who was of German descent, had a fascination with European folklore, which influenced the attraction’s name.
The story of Tom Thumb, dating back to 1621, is one of England’s oldest recorded fairytales and is about a boy who was no larger than his father’s thumb. The tale fit in perfectly with the whimsical nature of the Fairyland Inn.
When Carter created Tom Thumb Golf, miniature golf itself had already been established as a way for golfers to practice their short game. But while those greens provided a place to practice putting, they lacked the creative and quirky elements prevalent in today’s miniature golf.
When it opened in the late 1920s, the Tom Thumb course featured a myriad of obstacles that required players to hit their ball through sewer pipes and hollowed-out logs, and the course required a certain skill set not necessary with other miniature putting greens. Carter’s course was also dotted with gnomes and other fairytale characters, and the surface for each hole was created from recycled cotton hulls, which were a byproduct of cottonseed oil processed in Chattanooga.
The success of his miniature golf course led Carter to patent Tom Thumb Golf, and he assisted in opening what some suspect is thousands of Tom Thumb courses across the United States. The trend of mini golf exploded, and when the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, mini golf served as an inexpensive entertainment option and respite from everyday life.
The game became so popular that Chattanooga hosted the first Tom Thumb Open in 1930 with over 200 players in attendance, though the trend of competitive mini golf would die down by the end of the decade. By the late 1930s, it was estimated that Carter had made more than $1 million from the game. Regardless, due to the uneasiness of the stock market, Carter sold all the rights to Tom Thumb Golf to W. H. Robinson, a Heinz pickle manufacturer from Philadelphia, for $200,000.
Carter then took the earnings from his miniature golf venture and reinvested them in a new attraction on Lookout Mountain, creating what is known today as Rock City Gardens. While many Tom Thumb courses have been shut down, a few restored attractions still remain to this day and can be found throughout the United States.
Hope this helps!
Resident History Hound
Photos Courtesy of Picnooga, Chattanooga Public Library’s Paul A. Hiener Collection