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The Brief 1930s Craze for ‘Tom Thumb Golf’

Miniature golf courses had been around before, but Garnet Carter gave it a roadside attraction spin

An unidentified player takes a putt at the original "Tom Thumb Golf" built by Garnet Carter. (Garnet and Frieda Carter Facebook page)
smithsonian.com

Garnet Carter, born on this day in 1883, was a man of many business talents. He’s partially responsible for Rock City, a Georgia tourist attraction, and he’s responsible for the American introduction of mini-golf, which he called “Tom Thumb Golf” after the English folk character.

In the early twentieth century, leisure activities like mini-golf were just becoming a popular idea in America, writes John Shearer for The Chattanoogan. And roadside attractions like Rock City only make sense when you have a large enough group of touring drivers to visit them. Carter’s innovation was seeing a hole in the market and going for it.

The story of Tom Thumb Golf comes to us  from 1926, write Dale Samuelson and Wendy Yegoiants in their book on amusement parks. The game was invented atop Lookout Mountain, Georgia, where Carter owned 700 acres that he and Frieda Carter, his wife, built attractions on and billed “Fairyland.” 

According to one story, Carter invented mini-golf to keep his inn guests entertained, naming it Tom Thumb to keep with the theme. “Other accounts claim either that Garnet built the course to occupy regular golfers while the big course was being completed or to entertain the children of his guests,” they write.

However it happened, the public response to the little course convinced Carter that he was on to a good thing. There were mini golf courses already, but they were miniaturized versions of real golf. Carter's whimsical course was something new.

“Previous designs had concentrated on the scaling down of the real golf experience into a garden-sized course, complete with natural grass,” Samuelson and Yegoiants write. “Although Carter’s course did indeed feature natural grass, he added pieces of tile, sewer pipe, hollow logs and other obstacles as well as fairyland statues as decoration, and the little links took on a new twist.”

Carter cut a deal with Thomas McCulloch Fairbarn, who had invented the less-charming form of mini golf, to use his previous innovations and in the late 1920s patented Tom Thumb Golf, they write. Carter franchised his idea, and it took off big time. One 1930 Popular Science article describes the sport of “midget golf” as “America’s newest big industry.” “In August 1930,” write Hilary Greenbaum and Dana Rubinstein for The New York Times, “the Commerce Department estimated that of the 25,000 mini-golf courses in the country, more than half had been built since January.”

But, they write, the mini-golf fad was the last of the 1920s crazes for quick-run ideas like flagpole sitting, mahjong and dance marathons. The original mini-golf craze quickly faded, and wouldn’t be picked up again until the 1950s.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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