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. 

History Archives

January's Story - Remembering the Beginning