Butler’s Golf Course’s 90th Anniversary

January’s Story... Remembering the Beginning

John W. Butler didn’t have much of a formal education, having dropped out at age 11 after his father’s death in the mines, but his determination and entrepreneurial spirit guided him in life. He had been a coal miner; farmer; operator of a greenhouse, a lumberyard, and a brickyard; a builder of roads; proprietor of an automobile dealership; and ultimately a golf course owner.  In the early 1920’s he owned only a portion of what is now Butler’s Golf Course in the form of a pick-your-own strawberry farm.

Farming wasn’t the only use for Butler’s property.  The 1920s was a golden era for American airshows and he kept up with the times by using what is now #10 Woodside as a grass airstrip to be used for this purpose.  This allowed for the community to enjoy shows with barnstormers.  Pilots would travel to various farms across the country showcasing their skills and sparking America’s interest in aviation.  Shows were performed for a number of years on Butler’s farm, but family lore is that J.W. closed the airfield immediately after a stunt pilot took Butler's daughter, Mildred, for a ride and did a loop-di-loop.

Butler was always thinking of his next project and had been keeping an eye on the nearby Youghiogheny Country Club, a private course established in 1911.  Its success sparked interest in creating a golf course of his own, but he needed more property.  Butler began purchasing the deeds to several nearby farms.  Some of the family names related to these properties were McKnight and Patterson.  While making these acquisitions, Butler improved and paved Rock Run Road.  He then hired several individuals, including some from Youghiogheny, to assist with the design and construction of his 18-hole golf course.  Horses with scoops were employed to simultaneously create bunkers and use that dirt to build up greens.

By 1928, Butler had succeeded in opening one of the first public golf courses in the state of Pennsylvania, opening the door for a much larger portion of the community to enjoy the great game of golf.  J. W. Butler never became a golfer himself, evidently content with providing that opportunity to others.

This was just the beginning of what is now a 90-year history between the golf course, Butler’s family, and surrounding community.  Happily, one branch of Butler’s great-grandchildren proudly own what is now a 36-hole public facility, including the Rock Run Inn Restaurant and John Butler House Bed & Breakfast.  His legacy continues.

Thank you for helping us celebrate our 90th Anniversary.  Please stay tuned for February’s story as we highlight another piece of history. 

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. 

Butler’s Golf Course’s 90th Anniversary

March’s Story… The Tornado of 1963

1963 was a year full of developments for Butler’s Golf Course.  Tom Fox, Sr., who had started as a mechanic in 1937 and followed his brother-in-law, James Sinclair, as superintendent, moved on to Lakeview in West Virginia.  Help was needed at the course, which was then run by J.W. Butler’s two daughters, Mildred Nill and Eva Waldbaum.  It was after Tom’s departure that Mildred and Eva asked Mildred’s 24-year-old son, Ralph Nill, to begin work at the course.  Prior to this, Ralph had no experience in the golf industry and had worked at the family car dealership after college and the Army.  An old photo of the Standard Auto, probably taken in the 1920s, is included below.  This building is currently Sunray Electric’s warehouse in McKeesport.

Ralph entered the picture while the third nine was being constructed, making his transition into his new role that much more difficult.  The clubhouse at the time was in a location that would now be directly in the middle of the parking lot, in between the current clubhouse and cart barns.  This building was originally a roller rink at another location,then J.W.moved and repurposed it here as a dance hall, as early as 1925.  Acts including Slim Bryant brought in large crowds.  Although it was a very popular venue in the early years of the course (pictured below), the dance hall wasn’t used much in the 60’s.  There was a bar at one end, run by an independent operator, Nick Manisotis, who also ran Airways Lounge.  Ralph, Mildred, and Eva already had their hands full with running the daily businesses and overseeing the third nine’s construction.  They were not prepared for what was to come.

On the evening of August 3rd, 1963 just before 9:00 pm, terror struck Western PA in the form of a tornado that registered as an F3 on the Fujita Tornado Damage Scale.  Wind speeds for a tornado such as this are estimated at 158-206 MPH and damage is classified as “severe,” with roofs and some walls torn off of well-constructed houses, trains overturned, most trees in forests uprooted, and heavy cars lifted off the ground and thrown.  Tragically, this particular tornado was the cause of two fatalities in Glassport and 70 other injuries in the area.  Thankfully nobody was injured on Butler’s property, but as can be seen in the photos below, damage to the clubhouse was devastating -- the structures were leveled.  Parts of the roof were found in Buena Vista.  The pump house and the old ticket shack for greens fee payments were also destroyed.

Like many members of the community, Ralph, Mildred, and Eva were tasked with recovering from the terrible storm.  Trees on property were uprooted and needed to be hauled away, and construction of the new nine was slowed considerably.  What was left of the old clubhouse needed to be cleaned up and cleared so the process of reconstruction could begin.  Pictured to the right of the destroyed building is a smaller former home that was used for storage in the 60’s.  We believe this building was also removed at that time,and temporary clubhouse activities took place in the end of the house by the cart barns.  This is the old McKnight farmhouse, and an addition to this building had been built and used as a cafeteria for the course until 1938, long before it became office space.  The porch roof on this building was damaged in the storm.  Still more damage was done to the former Patterson farmhouse, between the barn and practice area, which lost its second story then sat semi-abandoned for several years, until a pack of wild dogs moved in.  When originally built, it resembled the house at the corner of Rock Run Rd. and Parkway St.

A builder from Liberty Borough, Al Johnson,did the work on the project of finding a design for and erecting a new clubhouse, and it is pictured below.  Perhaps you recognize the old bag line?  Tee times didn’t start at Butler’s until the 80’s, so back in the day, reserving your group’s place on the tee was done by placing your bag in line.  This also encouraged golfers to show early and consider ordering breakfast prior to play (or to sleep in their cars after working the night shift).  The building should look familiar, as it still exists as the center of our current clubhouse.  The entire left end of the building in the photo used to be the Pro Shop / locker room area, but it is now our banquet room.  The peaked roof in the center represents the Vista Room, and the lower ceiling on the left is now the Fairway Room.  Our current Golf Shop was built to the left, and the Rock Run Inn restaurant (formerly The Mulligan) has always been on the right end of the building, though there have been several additions.The first few gas-powered golf carts weren’t purchased at Butler’s until 1965.

The tornado of ’63 wreaked damage to the surrounding community, and the need to build a new clubhouse at Butler’s was only a tiny portion of the rebuilding and healing process for those affected.  Even now our hearts go out to the families that suffered much greater losses.  We were lucky and thankful to recover so quickly from a storm so destructive. 

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 April. 


Butler’s Golf Course’s 90th Anniversary

April’s Story… The Third Nine

From 1928 to 1962, Butler’s existed as an 18-hole public golf course.  When constructing the original design, J.W. Butler didn’t intend to add more holes, but his daughters, Mildred Nill and Eva Waldbaum, began to have different ideas.  Although Standard Auto, the car dealership, still remained the family’s main business, the golf course was beginning to attract more attention and justified some expansion.

After it was decided that the course could be expanded, Mildred and Eva hired Golf Course Architect Ed Ault.  He, along with then Superintendent Tom Fox and the family, set to design an additional 18-hole layout that worked well with the existing 18 holes.  This project came about in conjunction with the installation of the sewage system in Elizabeth Township.  For those who are interested in the details, the final photo included below is a map of this original 36-hole design that never came to fruition.  Many years of considering the 4th nine led to rerouting it from the original Ault plan.  For financial reasons, only 9 additional holes were built in the 60s.  It was important that all 3 nines returned to the clubhouse, and from the start it was determined that one course would normally be reserved for 18-hole play and another for 9 holes only.  They eventually became known as the 18-hole Woodside Course and 9-hole Lakeside Course.  Each nine would also eventually receive a designated color, though these evolved over time.  First, Woodside was red, and Lakeside was green.  Later Woodside front and back were red and blue respectively – the back was ‘Vista’ for a few years.  Lakeside would be yellow, and eventually when Lakeside back was built in 2000, it would be green.

In 1963, Tom Fox moved to West Virginia, and Ralph Nill, Mildred’s son, was asked to begin working at the course.  One of his first tasks was overseeing this construction project.  As a reminder from March’s story, the tornado also blew through in August 1963.  Many people believe that the original 18 holes is what is now the Woodside Course and what is now the Lakeside front was a separate new nine holes of golf built in 1963.  This is not the case. We have included a sketch below done in 2008 which depicts how the new nine was configured. 

Analyzing this picture may make your head spin at first, but once you understand the assignment of different colors it becomes clear.

In the drawing, everything that is green was original and is still in use today.  Everything that is red was original but eliminated in 1963.  Everything in yellow was new after the renovation in 1963 and is some part of what are now the front nines of the Woodside and Lakeside Courses.  You can see that the Lakeside Course actually utilized the first 5 holes of the original course.  Hole 6 was new, and so were holes 7-9 (not pictured).  The first 3 holes of what is now the Woodside front nine were built in 1963 and the remaining holes utilized the original course, with TWO original holes (6 and 9) split into FOUR separate holes.  You can see that what are now Woodside #4 and #8 greens were built directly in the center of the original course’s fairways.  We believe these areas were played as Ground-Under-Repair during the construction to allow for normal play before the greens opened. 

We have also included a photo of Lakeside #9 green shortly after opening.  The oak tree that was over 200 years old is to the left, and the old bridge over the road which was replaced in fall 2017 is also in the picture.  Although the original design is still evident today, you can see the effects of mowing patterns and the use of mechanical sand rakes over the course of 55 years.  Gradually, the shapes of greens and bunkers nearly always change from their original outlines.

The course would remain 27 holes for 37 more years, all the while golf becoming more popular.  Leagues were developed, often from local businesses and the steel mills, and quite a few were started when we gathered new players who had just taken lessons at the course.  All three nines were eventually used in rotation to accommodate the growing number of groups.  Ralph and the family would eventually plan expanding to 36 holes in 1998, but alas, that is another story.

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 May.  



Butler’s Golf Course’s 90th Anniversary

May's Story… Honoring Our Long-Term Staff

With two 18-hole golf courses, golf shop, restaurant, and Bed & Breakfast on property we need a lot of staff!  In fact, during any regular golf season we’re proud to employ 75-80 citizens of Elizabeth and the surrounding communities.  Without them we amount to a large piece of property, several buildings, and a lot of machinery.  The people are what set us apart.  They are responsible for creating the welcoming culture our guests deserve.  Their knowledge, dedication, and hard work account for the finished product we present, whether it’s in the form of a well-manicured golf facility, delicious meal, or outstanding event.  Because the history of this property is so dependent on their hard work, we only felt it appropriate to dedicate May’s story to our current long-term staff.  Over the years, there have many more people who have had significant impacts to our history.  With much respect to all of them, we are honored to introduce six individuals who have worked at Butler’s for at least 25 years, though a few had brief breaks in service, and they can still be found serving you today.

Ann (Cookie) Collins is well-known as many people’s favorite bartender.  She started at the Rock Run Inn in ’93 and heard about the opening through Nancy West’s daughter.  Nancy managed the restaurant at the time and was responsible for hiring Cookie.  She began part-time and recalls the days when there was no modern POS screen to ring in items — only an old register with buttons for draft beer, snacks, soda, and so on.  Throughout her tenure, she worked full time and took on supervisory roles including office work, especially when the management team needed some time off.  When asked what her favorite part of working at Butler’s is, Cookie was quick to respond.  She places a great deal of value on the relationships built with golfers and diners over the years.  Sharing stories, cracking jokes, and just spending time with them has given Cookie a family away from home.  Perhaps her appreciation for these connections is what draws people toward her and keeps them coming back.

Hired the season before Cookie in ’92 was Deanna Sampson, known around these parts as the Hot Dog Queen!  In the early 90’s, Deanna’s children were all grown and out of the house and she was looking for part-time work.  Two of her daughters were already employed at Butler’s, one in the kitchen and one at #10 Stand on the Woodside Course.  She also took a position at #10 Stand and has been there ever since.  She enjoys conversations with our golfers as they make the turn and starters when they’re on the tee.  Between customers she has always passed the time with radio talk shows.  She loves her stand so much that even when the new one was built for the Lakeside Course, she preferred her old building; the new one just didn’t feel like home to her.  A fun fact about Deanna is that she just used a computer for the first time when taking her most recent Responsible Alcohol Training Class!  It took her a little longer than some, but after she learned how to use the mouse she worked her way through it.  She has no desire to use a computer again any time soon!

Coming on board prior to Cookie and Deanna was Colleen Kiger.  The name may not be as familiar to our guests because she has spent her career at Butler’s mostly behind the scenes.  She began in ’89, hired by then Kitchen Supervisor Helen Bergman as a Line Cook.  Colleen has always had a passion for cooking, and it shows in her food.  Most of her efforts are recognized during breakfast and lunch shifts, although she serves banquets as well.  Being a team player, Colleen used to launder table linens and napkins when she wasn’t needed in the kitchen, prior to this service being outsourced to a local vendor.  In her 27 years of being on this property, Colleen has not once played a round of golf!  She has tinkered with the idea on a number of occasions, but she is content focusing on her work in the kitchen.

A staple at Butler’s and perhaps our most highly respected and well-known staff member is Helen Bergman.  Helen joined the team in ’84 as a dishwasher.  By ’86 she was promoted to Line Cook and by ’88 had the title of Kitchen Supervisor, adding administrative duties like hiring new staff.  She remained in this role until accepting the position of Co-Manager of the Restaurant with Nancy Kite in ’95.  When Nancy moved on in ’04, Helen remained the sole Restaurant Manager for the next five years, doing it all on her own.  She was responsible for creating menus, ordering, scheduling, guest services, and anything restaurant-related you could think of.  It was in ’09 when Helen earned the title of Sales Director and became responsible for the sales of all events including banquets and golf outings, and now she manages the Bed & Breakfast as well.  We are proud to have her in this role, communicating directly with our event coordinators.  Customer reviews consistently sing praises of Helen’s professional work, and she continues to mold the culture of Butler’s Golf Course & the Rock Run Inn.

Not all of our most tenured staff is on the customer service side of the business, but their hard work plays a big role in providing a well-manicured product.  Kenny Jarmon was hired onto the maintenance crew as a general laborer in ’82 by Ralph Nill.  Ralph taught Kenny the ropes of the maintenance business and he quickly became well versed on all the equipment.  In the 80’s, the maintenance crew was smaller than today, equipment was not as advanced, and the staff didn’t always work standard hours to get the course in shape for early morning golfers.  Kenny recalls mowing approaches to the greens from 12:00AM – 8:00AM, and then washing golf carts so they were ready for play.  For most years Butler’s has been in operation, each member of the maintenance crew was responsible for the equipment they used and needed to be mechanically inclined to maintain and repair the assets of the course.  Over the years, Kenny excelled in this area, and in 2012, he earned the title of Mechanic.  At times, he seems like a magician, creating usable equipment out of old parts and fixing what appears to be the unfixable.  The regular maintenance he performs on our large fleet is imperative to creating a smooth operation, and we appreciate his efforts.

Another member of our maintenance team is the last of our staff members with over 25 years’ experience at Butler’s.  Hired by Ralph Nill in September ’74, Frank Tekavec began work as a general laborer.  Back in the 70’s, the automatic irrigation system had not yet been installed, and Frank remembers working double shifts to get the course in shape.  The staff would alternate turns coming from 7PM – 11PM each night to water greens and fairways.  Valves needed opening manually to water the greens, and hoses with sprinklers were hooked up to the water lines and placed by hand in areas needing water.  Frank says there were even 7 holes on the Lakeside Course at the time with no fairway water lines, so they depended on what Mother Nature provided.  Because Frank was performing well on the team, after a few years Ralph sent him to turf school to better learn the trade.  Much later in the 90’s, Frank obtained his chemical license through classes at CCAC.  This allowed for more of his involvement in the chemical and fertilizer spray program designed each year to improve course conditions. His continued dedications to the grounds and education over the years have earned Frank his current position as Foreman and right hand to the Superintendent.  In addition to being a great manager of the crew, Frank is the “go to” for any questions related to the property.  There is nobody currently employed at Butler’s with more knowledge of the property and its history than Frank, and that quality often proves to be most valuable.

Thank you for helping us celebrate our 90th Anniversary as we honor staff members who continue to play crucial roles, as they have over the past few decades.  Three of the longest-tenured prior to this were Superintendent Tom Fox, with 26 years (’37-63), eventual superintendent Jack Deutsch, with 45 years (’65-2010), and bookkeeper or ‘office force’ Ardith Bates, with 53+ years (’49-95).  Of course, many more have completed work here and others have recently begun, but we are proud to highlight these key people in Butler’s family this month.  We look forward to sharing another piece of Butler’s history in June.


Butler’s Golf Course’s 90th Anniversary

June’s Story… Butler’s and Our Community

Golf has a longstanding history of giving back to society.  It starts with the values of sportsmanship, respect, and integrity that are inherent in the game and passed on to children who learn the game, and continues with billions of dollars raised annually for charities across the country.  Butler’s Golf Course is proud to play a small role in this much larger movement. As we reflect on the past 90 years, this month we celebrate the importance of giving back to the community, and the various ways our property has been involved in doing so.

Sometimes the business itself is responsible for direct donations.  Sometimes we’re the venue for events that succeed in truly making a difference in so many lives.  Regardless of the nature of our involvement we take great pride in this portion of what we do.  Over time, many details of the early years have been forgotten, so we will concentrate on more recent activity for this article.

In great times of need, the nation will come together to provide support to our fellow Americans. Late August of 2005 was one of these unfortunate occasions. As news of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina spread, and the death toll climbed, the rest of the nation was coming together to provide assistance.  Our Pittsburgh family did their part right here at Butler’s.  In advance of Labor Day, the Nill family announced that on the holiday all green fees would be donated to the disaster relief fund.  Furthermore, golfers could pay any amount they deemed appropriate or could afford.  As a whole, our golfers were very generous and a $9,000 check was written to help our friends in the Gulf, quite a bit more than Butler’s would have normally generated in green fees.  Sending that check may have been a small gesture in comparison to the incredible need of the folks in and around New Orleans, but it was a moment of pride for Butler’s and its loyal golfers.

In addition to one-time fundraisers, Butler’s is happy to host many annual golf outings that benefit worthwhile causes.  We work with several Outing Coordinators and their teams to run successful events.  The vast majority of the work is done by them, seeking golfers, soliciting sponsors and donations, and organizing volunteers.  We are simply happy to do our part in executing the function and giving their guests an enjoyable experience.  It’s satisfying to see golfers coming together for a purpose, and makes us feel like we’re part of something bigger than just this game.  Although we have worked with hundreds of groups over the years we would like to highlight two successful outings already held this year.  We’re honored to have hosted The Pittsburgh Pink Tie Affair for many seasons now.  The funds they generate from their outing will assist breast cancer patients in their efforts to achieve social, emotional, and physical wellbeing. New to our schedule this year, we were proud to host The JeremeDudzinski Foundation.  This foundation was created in loving memory of a lost family member and friend, dedicated to providing aid to those faced with financial hardship due to medical expenses.  In combination, we estimate these two organizations, along with the rest of our Charity Events this year, will generate about $200,000 for their missions.  We applaud the individuals who sacrifice so much of their time and energy to make these events successful.  It’s a privilege to work with them on an annual basis and we strive to serve them better each year.

In 2012, we began hosting an in-house golf event to support our nation’s wounded and fallen heroes and their families.  We’re excited to announce our 7th annual outing will be held on Monday, August 13th, benefiting Operation Second Chance.  We are fortunate enough to have tremendous support from our golfers, the surrounding community, and our vendors to make this day successful each year.  We are also often blessed with special guests.  Just last year the members of VFW Post 7632 and American Legion Post 553 got us started by “posting the colors.”  Playing that day were wounded veterans Sergeant First Class Ramon Padilla, 9 years US Army, Staff Sergeant David Weiner, 6 ½ years US Army, and Lieutenant Aaron Ojard, 20 years US Navy.  In addition, Sysco always donates food, and prizes and giveaways are donated by companies like Callaway, TaylorMade, Bridgestone, FootJoy, Sketchers, Coors, and Budweiser.  As we don’t take any revenue for the donated food, and collected green fees are kept low, we have the ability to keep entry fees very reasonable, and much of the proceeds go directly to the cause.  Last year we were happy to send a check to Operation Second Chance for over $12,000 and we look forward to another great event this year.  Those who are interested in signing up or participating in any way should contact the golf shop at 412-751-9121.

This year provides yet another opportunity for charitable work as we will be celebrating our 90thAnniversary with a week full of different activities from Monday, July 23rd through Sunday, July 29th.  We have decided to team up with a new local organization called Elizabeth’s Guardian Angels.  They are dedicated to providing assistance to students in the Elizabeth Forward School District, those in the need of food, and families having difficulty providing for their children around the holidays.  Although there will be a few different ways to raise funds for this group, most notably we’ll be accepting donations during our Free Outdoor Concert on Friday, July 27th, and donating a portion of the proceeds from our 90th Anniversary Golf Outing on Saturday, July 28th.  We’re eager to use this celebration to give back to a community that has supported us for so many years.

Even though there are many more ways Butler’s has been involved in charitable work, we are happy to have named a just few here.  Thank you for the support you have provided us in each of our events, and thank you for sharing some memories with us as we celebrate our 90th Anniversary.  We intend to maintain our close relationship to charity moving forward, always preserving it as an integral part of our story.  Stay tuned as we will share another piece of Butler’s history with you in July.

Butler’s Golf Course’s 90th Anniversary

July’s Story… The Purple Martin

Purple martins are a kind of swallow.  In fact, they are the largest swallow native to North America.  They have a very interesting history in this part of the United States, one that eventually gets intertwined with the history of Butler’s Golf Course.  These birds and their story are so fascinating that The Purple Martin Conservation Association came into existence.  Its primary purpose is to increase purple martin populations through education, research, partnerships, and developing quality martin products.

Purple martins in the eastern portion of North America have always been cavity nesters.  They used to find their homes in crooks of trees, hollowed branches, or some other cavity nature decided to provide.  At some point this changed.  A well-accepted theory is that Native Americans began hollowing out gourds and hanging them around their vegetable patches, possibly to deter unwanted insects from entering their garden.  The purple martins began to nest in these gourds, one female and male to each cavity, called a nesting pair.  There they would breed up to 7 hatchlings, each growing and becoming strong enough to fly south at the end of the season.

The story is that colonists began mimicking the Native Americans by carving out gourds of their own, providing more man-made homes for the birds.  Eventually, they must have taken a greater interest in this species because the gourds turned into carved birdhouses, each able to hold many nesting pairs.  Over the decades and centuries the purple martin became so dependent on the man-made structures that they stopped nesting in the wild.  Although there are still some colonies that nest in the wilderness in the western part of our country, the species’ dependence on bird houses is so extreme that if you found a single nesting pair in the wild near Pittsburgh you might find yourself on the cover of National Geographic.

Adding to the allure of the purple martin are its migratory pattern and breeding-site fidelity.  In this part of the country, it tends to arrive around the beginning of April. Here, it nests in pairs, breeds, and nurtures its offspring into young adults.  Around August or early Septembereach colony will first fly north to the Lake Erie region in order to congregate with many other colonies.  As a large group they begin the many-week journey all the way to South America.  Unlike in their North American homes, the lives of the colonies in South America are transient.  They don’t nest and don’t have young to care for.  Instead, they migrate around the continent feasting on flying insects (their only source of nourishment) until it’s time to return north.  It’s not even certain that northern colonies will remain together while in South America, but what is certain is that colonies will return to the same location, and many times to the same cavity of a bird house they left 8 months earlier.

This breeding-site fidelity, however, leads to the question of how new northern colonies can be formed if birds always return to the same location.  There are a few reasons why a colony would circle their old home in search of a new one.  Sadly, they will do this if the bird houses no longer exist.  Martins will search for another home if their colony has grown beyond the number of nesting pairs allowable, given the amount of cavities available in the houses.  Finally, if breeding has been unsuccessful at a previous location they will seek out another.  This brings us to the beginning of the Purple Martin Sanctuary at Butler’s Golf Course.

As years go by, details are sometimes lost.  Some are taken to the grave, and others are misplaced or discarded.  Such is the case with the details of the first bird houses erected on our property.  It is known that the first houses were placed near the clubhouse in the late 1960’s.  It’s assumed that Ralph Nill was approached by a purple martin enthusiast, possibly aware of problems at a nearby colony forcing the birds to search for a new home.  As our golf course is home to fresh water and plenty of flying insects, it stood a good chance of attracting a new colony, and it worked.  Who exactly took care of the birdhouses and monitored the colony in the early years is unclear.  As it turned out though, the additional colony at Butler’s would prove pivotal in the upcoming years.

In June of 1972, Hurricane Agnes made landfall near Panama City, Florida and did $2.1 billion in damage with 128 lives lost.  The storm weakened and traveled east, only to re-strengthen and re-curve northwest to hit near New York City as a strong tropical storm.  The impact this had on Pittsburgh was well over a week of constant rain.  Although this didn’t have a significant impact on human lives, it was catastrophic for the purple martin.  Because they only feed on flying insects they can’t feed in the rain.  Huge portions of the population in this area starved, adult and young alike.  The following year, in April of 1973, the colony at Butler’s Golf Course was one of only three colonies in the Pittsburgh area to repopulate after Agnes.

The population at Butler’s has been monitored ever since, and has always been taken care of by an enthusiast not affiliated with the course.  Dr. Ken Schivley, a podiatrist from Liberty Borough, observed the Purple Martins from 1978 through most of the 1990’s.  He also monitored the colony at Youghiogheny Country Club just down the road.  In 1998, a man by the name of Jeff Hunt took his place at Butler’s.  In that year there were only 4 nesting pairs on property.  Under Jeff’s care, the population grew to 47 nesting pairs by 2007.  During that year, a young couple, Chris and Dawn Grainer, were spotted observing the birds with binoculars.  After a bit of conversation with the Butler’s staff, it was discovered that Chris had a Master’s Degree in Biology from Clarion University, and his thesis focused on the purple martin.  Chris and Dawn were put in touch with Jeff, and he was happy to pass the supervision of the colony into their capable hands.

Chris and Dawn, also members of the Purple Martin Conservation Association, have a number of duties to properly care for the colony.  During the season, they occasionally lower the houses to count the number of nesting pairs, and assess the success of breeding.  While doing this they are careful to look for signs of parasites that could pose a threat to the young.  They choose not to place any potential nesting material in the houses, rather allow the birds to bring what they collect naturally, often twigs, grass, straw, and mud.  This species must be protected from two other cavity nesters, the European starling and the house sparrow.  These birds are non-native to the US, but were brought here 150-200 years ago, and are aggressive.  Chris and Dawn must trap and remove them from the property when they can.

Toward the end of the summer season, after the birds have left, there is much work to be done.  All the birdhouses must be lowered and all nesting material removed.  Repairs are performed when necessary, and fresh coats of paint are applied.  The entrance to each cavity is closed to prevent the European starling and house sparrow from nesting while the purple martin is away.  The houses are kept at half-mast during the off-season, so as not to act as a sail in the wintery winds.  In March, just prior to the martins’ arrival, the cavities are opened, and the houses are cleaned and raised.  If the birds come back during a cold snap, and insects are yet to fly, our volunteers will hand-flick insects like crickets and mealworms until they can catch food naturally.  A link to a video clip of Dawn flicking mealworms toward the martins is included below.

Chris and Dawn have proudly observed the Butler’s Golf Course colony grow to 92 nesting pairs in 2018.  There are now 4 houses by the putting green near the pro shop, 1 house across the parking lot by the other putting green, and 3 houses by the lake beyond Lakeside #17 green, off Boyds Hollow Rd.  Most of these are Troyer’s T-14 Purple Martin Birdhouses (pictured below), named for their Amish creator, and the 14 cavities they supply.  The birds can be observed at these houses, and around the property hunting flying insects.  Those that are dark purple are known as “after second year” and have lifespans of up to 12 years.  To the untrained eye, one may confuse a barn swallow for a purple martin.  A noticeable difference between the species is that the barn swallow has a forked tail in flight while the martin’s tail has a straighter edge. 

So, next time you visit Butler’s, please take a moment to visit the Purple Martin Sanctuary and appreciate the incredible history of this bird, and its dependence on humans for survival.  And if you happen to see Chris and Dawn, don’t hesitate to engage in conversation.  They are happy to share their vast knowledge of this beautiful animal.  We thank them for their continued support, and for allowing us to play a small role in the preservation of the purple martin.  Thank you for helping us celebrate our 90th Anniversary by sharing this story.  Stay tuned as we will share another piece of Butler’s history with you in August.

Butler’s Golf Course’s 90th Anniversary

August’s Story… Irrigation at Butler’s

Discussing golf course maintenance can be boring for some, but it’s our thing!  For the month of August we would like to touch on one of the fundamental pieces of any golf course maintenance program, the irrigation system.  Getting the appropriate amount of water to fairways, greens, and tees will make a huge difference in the golfers’ experience.  Because we are celebrating 90 years, and the number of holes has doubled since the original design, our irrigation system has evolved quite a bit. 

The most basic need for irrigation is a reservoir, generally a lake, pond, or river from which to pull the resources needed to water the property.  Without this, the only way to get the water would be to purchase it from a company like Pennsylvania American Water, which would get incredibly expensive, not to mention possibilities of state imposed restrictions in times of drought.  Once a reservoir is identified, a pump house needs to be built near the water’s edge, which acts as the heart of the irrigation system.  The basic components of a pump house are the suction line, motor, and pump.  This system extracts water from the reservoir and pumps it through the irrigation system, composed of sections of pipe running throughout the property, strategically placed so sprinkler heads target greens, fairways, and tees.

The very first pump house at Butler’s was erected by what is now the pond in front of Lakeside #9 green. Records for its installation are unavailable and it is estimated to have been built in the 40’s or early 50’s.It contained only one pump and motor, which was sufficient to provide water to the original 18 holes.  This is partially due to original irrigation system only targeting greens, the most important feature of the hole, and the one that has the most impact on scoring and playing experience.  The rest of the course including tees, fairways, and rough received only what Mother Nature provided.  For this reason, course conditionswere much more dependent on weather than they are now.

A second pump house was built near what is now the lake on Lakeside #18 when the course was expanding from 18 to 27 holes in 1963.  Unfortunately, the tornado in August, 1963 destroyed the original pump house and it had to be replaced.  Once completed, the course was equipped with 2 pump houses, each with one motor and one pump, extracting resources from two difference reservoirs.  It was around this time the irrigation system became more complex with pipes added to supply fairways with irrigation. 

From 1963 to 1976, the entire irrigation system was operated manually.  Because sprinklers would get in the way of golfers, almost all of the watering was done at night.  Maintenance staff would rotate night shifts to get the work done, and they would alternate nights watering fairways/tees, and greens.  Greens were easier to manage because the sprinklers were built directly into the system.  All that needed done was turning a valve into the proper position near the green to kick them on.  The pumps were capable of watering 6 greens at a time.  The system was generally turned on for one hour for each 6 greens, so this meant it took 4-5 hours to complete the process for the 27 holes.  When watering tees and fairways, large sprinklers had to be locked into snap valves at various locations on the irrigation lines.  The pumps would accommodate the use of 18 sprinklers at any given time, so whoever was on duty was armed with a cart full of sprinklers that would cover 2-3 holes, depending on their size. This meant that only about half the fairways would get watered each night.  Because of the lack of technology at the time, it could have been 4 days between proper watering for fairways during dry spells.  Of course, manual syringing was done during the day for a few minutes at a time, balancing disruptions in play with wilting grass.  This practice is still done today in hot, dry weather.

This all changed beginning in 1976 with the construction of a new pump house by the large lake.  This came with better technology, 3 larger pumps, and 3 bigger motors.  It was placed where the current red and gold tees are located for Lakeside #18.  This pump house was so superior that the other house, replaced after the tornado, was no longer necessary to run the system.  Additionally, Toro sprinklers were installed along the fairways so manually locking them into snap valves was no longer required.  Irrigation lines were added to make it more effective and cover more of course.  Ralph Nill decided to put the old pump house to good use, and installed a 4” transfer line running from the pond on Lakeside #9, 3 feet under the surface, to the large lake.  Rather than pumping water directly into the irrigation system, the old house was repurposed to supplement the lake’s resources with the water in the pond.  Golfers may notice just a couple days after heavy rains, that the pond’s water level is low.  This isn’t because the course is being watered directly after the rain.  It’s because we have used the opportunity to add thousands of gallons to our main reservoir.

Arguably, the most impactful enhancement to the irrigation system happened just after the new pump house was built in ’76.  Slowly, through the addition of irrigation control boxes and wiring, the system became automated!  Gone were the days of staff coming to the course in the middle of the night to manually turn on sprinklers.  Instead, timers within the control boxes could be set to automatically turn them on, and shut them off.  Doing it this way made it more feasible to water the entire property in just one night.  Eventually, all of the control boxes were wired directly to the maintenance building so they could be controlled from one central location.

That system was quite sufficient to operate 27 holes, however the addition of the new nine in 2000 lead to the design of our latest pump house, located adjacent to the current red and gold tees on Lakeside #18.  This came with even newer technology, including the ability to fertigate through the irrigation system.  Pesticides are never used in this fashion, only fertilizer. This can be very useful during growing season.  The house came with three powerful pumps and motors, and an additional booster pump.  The booster pump raises pressure when it drops too low, which is especially helpful for pumping water uphill to the back of Lakeside.  Of course, when building the back nine, a whole new portion of the irrigation system had to be put in place.  This came with several OSMAC control boxes, which can be operated via satellite.  In addition to operating these from our central maintenance building, we can also control sprinkler heads using hand-held radios.  With the OSMAC boxes we can even control individual sprinkler heads.  The rest of the course can only be controlled in sections.

Throughout each season, we are constantly assessing the performance of our irrigation system.  Equipment in the pump houses are often replaced and modernized, but we also pay close attention to the sprinklers and piping.  Our mowers are trained to look for telltale signs that something is not functioning properly.  For example, pooled water could indicate a leak in the system.  Occasionally, a leak just below the surface can cause a large pillow of water trapped just under the sod layer.  You can walk across it and bounce, just like a water bed.  Dry spots are usually related to sprinkler heads that need replaced.  A green streak in one direction could be from a sprinkler head that is stuck, not rotating properly.  Whatever the problem, we address it as quickly as possible, knowing that water intake is so essential for the turf.  We take pride in maintaining this important piece of the maintenance operation, to provide the best possible conditions.  Still, no matter how hard we work at it, sometimes nature has its own course.  There is only so much any golf course operation can do in times of intense rain or drought.

We hope you had a small interest in learning a bit about the evolution of our irrigation program over the years.  Thank you for helping us celebrate our 90th Anniversary by sharing a piece of history of the course.  We look forward to sharing another piece of Butler’s history in September.
History Archives

January's Story - Remembering the Beginning
February's Story - Silent Park Lake and Picnic Grounds
March's Story The Tornado of 1963
April's Story - The Third Nine
June's Story - Butler's and Our Community
July's Story - The Purple Martin
August’s Story - Irrigation at Butler’s

Butler’s Golf Course’s 90th Anniversary

September’s Story… Butler’s and the Environment

Although dependent on the environment, golf courses are often criticized for their negative impact on their surroundings.  From ground water pollution caused by fertilizers and pesticides to loss of natural habitats and wetlands, the concerns are great.  But golf courses also have a great opportunity to make a positive impact through implementation of industry-recognized best practices.  At Butler’s we have always been sensitive to providing an enjoyable golfing experience while protecting the natural habitat for local wildlife.  Although we have done this since the beginning, we are proud to have been officially recognized for our efforts, beginning in 2015.

Audubon International is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) environmental education organization dedicated to providing people with the education and assistance they need to practice responsible management of land, water, wildlife, and other natural resources.  To meet this mission, the organization provides training, services, and a set of award-winning environmental education and certification programs for individuals, organizations, properties, new developments, and entire communities.  They have a specific certification program reserved for golf courses, and beginning in 2015 Butler’s became one of what are now 30 courses in Pennsylvania, and 905 across the world to be certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuaries.  We were informed of our recertification this summer for the next three years!

One of the factors taken into consideration is our commitment to water conservation.  We have several bodies of water on property, but as shared in last month’s story, two ponds are reserved specifically to supply the course with irrigation.  Although this benefits the conditions for golf, it also provides the lifeblood for many local animal species.  Furthermore, we maintain good water quality through practices such as “limited spray zones” that is confirmed through testing during Audubon International’s site visit.  Finally, during times of drought, our Superintendent makes sound decisions that treat stress on the grass, but ensure water conservation, such as using wetting agents in the irrigation system.  These allow for plants to require less water to maintain health.

In addition to providing water for wildlife, we have connective patches of native grasses between holes, particularly on the back of the Lakeside Course.  These offer wildlife corridors for movement, and when visiting the property you may see a number of species that make Butler’s and the surrounding area their home.  We have deer, turkey, fox, great blue herons and many other birds, coyotes, raccoons, and squirrels, just to name a few.  In addition, as shared in a previous story this year, we serve as a purple martin sanctuary, with bird houses located around the clubhouse and Lakeside #17 green.

We are also proud of the vast number, and variety of trees on property.  These oxygen providers house many little critters, and supply a good bit of food in the form of nuts and fruit.  Over the last 90 years we have planted hundreds of trees, and had to remove some.  Up until the 90’s when the old Oak finally rotted, Butler’s was home to the oldest living tree in Allegheny County, found next to Lakeside #9 pond.  Another fun fact is that we had two trees carved into beautiful animals by Chainsaw Sculptor Joseph T. King.  A Willow taken down in 1994 became a bear that used to overlook the pond on Lakeside #9.  A Maple taken down in 1996 was carved into an eagle, which has stood the test of time and can still be found in the entry way to the Rock Run Inn.

It’s our desire to not