Cloquet backyard course continues tradition

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It may take less than an hour to zip around Kendahl Miniature Golf course, but just chat with owner Bill Erickson and you'll hear that the memories made last forever.

That's because the 18-hole course covered in green artificial grass, brown wooden sideboards and epic obstacles just off Minnesota Highway 33 north of Cloquet has been a staple in the community for over five decades, creating plenty of summertime laughs and entertainment since 1965.

"It's just gives you a good feeling to see people having so much," said Erickson, 64, who's been working at the course since he was 11 and has had plenty of help from his family and friends over 53 years. "It's always been a family thing."

The mini-golf haven, which lies in Erickson's backyard, was built by Cliff Dahl and Erickson's father, Kenneth Erickson. Both creators have since died, but left their mark on the town when crafting their putting path.

Furnished with wooden fencing around its lot, plenty of overhanging trees for shade and winding walkways of cement sits the classic avenue of holes. With a par 42, the course is as challenging as any, with the creativity of the holes offering fun for novice players, yet keeping competitive putters honest.

"If you could master this place in one or two rounds, people probably wouldn't come back," said Erickson, noting tourists enjoy dinner at Gordy's Hi-Hat, followed by a round at Kendahl's. "I used to be good, but that was a long time ago. I don't think I could do any better than a 50 here nowadays."

Playing a round doesn't take long before you're putting against some of the most imaginative and artistic structures of their time in the 1960s. The lighthouse, windmill and castle are amongst some of the best on the front nine, along with the double dog leg, loop-the-loop and finishing ramp on the back. Yet, the course's signature hole is No.10 — the pivotal start of your back nine push — when you go up against the vaunted water wheel.

The water wheel is an incredibly crafted hole, which features a painted, wooden and moving wheel where a player needs to putt their ball up a ramp with the correct timing to enter the ball inside the less than 24-inch area of the wheel. If that weren't enough, the wheel rotates around, then drops the ball into another wooden ramp, which delivers one's ball onto the putting surface.

From there, you need to make a putt on a partially slanted green. One must do this all within three strokes.

"People tell me all the time that this place is tough; it's one of the most challenging," Erickson said. "Some shots, the odds are 1 in 500. But it's got character. People just love it. I think it's why we've been here so long."

Along with Erickson, his daughters, Sydney, 27, and Kennedie, 17, work at the course, as well as their mother, Cindy Erickson, and Bill's sister, Kathy Skutevik. Erickson's close friend, Lee, has also been a good help in recent years.

"It's the biggest crew we've had," said Erickson, who has battled back from two heart attacks, yet was seen earlier this month blowing off the carpeted holes, selling rounds of mini-golf and continuing to keep up with his venue in better health.

"Someday, somebody may be pushing me around to paint the sideboards," Erickson said with a laugh. "But I feel good."

Speaking of feeling good, don't look far past Denny Nelson and Melanie Maniekee. Those two hold the course records, which sit written on the clubhouse whiteboard in black marker. Nelson used a minuscule 32 shots to set a men's mark, while Maniekee marked her 36-stroke women's record last fall, attending the course a couple of times per week for the previous four years, Erickson noted.

"She's just so competitive," Erickson said of Maniekee.

"And that's a 50-year-old record," Erickson added of Nelson, who set his not long after the course's grand opening.

Records and scorecards aside, Kendahl's is about making memories with friends and family, Erickson said. Some of his fondest recollections have come while he was playing golf, whether with his daughters and while watching others relish their time around the old-school course.

"We've had people from Denmark, Norway — some that don't even speak English," Erickson said. "But it makes me feel good — that it's been so much fun to so many people."

Erickson, who also works in maintenance at Pinewood Inc. in Cloquet, said that the course opens for weekends in May. It's in operation seven days a week in June, July and August from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. The last day is Sept. 10.

As for the course's condition itself, it's a solid shape, Erickson explained. He noted that he resurfaces the carpeted-holes and wooden sideboards every several years, using a rotating basis per hole. He paints it yearly, sweeps and blows off the course daily, and often buying newly-colored golf balls before spring and summer. The putters themselves last much longer; they're replaced every decade.

As for replacing Erickson, that is still to be determined, as the lover of mini-golf still loves offering fun to others.

"It's a fun little backyard thing," Erickson said with a smile. "It makes me feel good about my job. It means a lot."