Sunflowers at Three Waters Reserve

The maturing sunflower field at the Three Waters Reserve on the site of the former Decatur Lakes GC in Brodhead.

Here’s an intriguing twist on the old exploding ball trick.

In Brodhead, the recently formed Southern Wisconsin Land Conservancy is moving full speed ahead on converting nine holes of the former Decatur Lake Golf Course into a public conservation park.

What might be a sad development for area golfers is at least a rallying movement for conservationists. The land where fairways and greens long served the recreational needs of area golfers will be returned to native plants and grasses, with trails for hiking and contemplation. The former clubhouse will become a place for science and nature education but also, as before, for community gatherings and events.

Last summer, the former front nine of Decatur Lake was planted in a colorful cover crop of sunflowers, which in addition to helping refresh the long fertilized soil produced nearly 25,000 pounds of sunflower bird seed and oil that is being sold (about half is already gone) to help finance the restoration. The burst of color also became something of an accidental tourist draw, which brought additional attention to the project.

In December, the first controlled burn reduced sunflower seed and stubble and as soon as snow and frost are gone in spring the land will be seeded with prairie, wetland and savanna wildflowers, grasses and sedges on what is now called the Three Waters Reserve.

OK, back to golf.

“Try this out with your readers,” wrote Steve Apfelbaum, president of the conservancy formed to convert the course to conservation park.

“How would golfers like to become directly involved in seeding the Three Waters Reserve. One idea is to pelletize seeds (which we have done before) and then with a driving range format, have golfers (and others) pound away at the golf ball-sized pelletized balls of seed to distribute them over the reserve. We could have blue ones that need to be distributed into the wetlands; yellow ones for the prairie zone and red ones for the savanna zone. Now, isn’t that an interesting idea?”

Yes, and sign me up for a swing or two. Where else would even the nastiest hook or slice actually do good?

Decatur Lake isn’t the first Wisconsin golf course to go out of business, and won’t be the last. The back nine remained open for play in 2018, even as restoration of the front nine was underway, but Apfelbaum said it won’t reopen in 2019 and will be converted to another use, likely agriculture. What differentiates this closing from others, though, is the swift action by new owners to give a struggling golf course a productive new life that will serve the community in new ways.

It’s hard to mourn that, even if the Brodhead golf community mourns its loss. And it does; one Brodhead native posted on the course’s Facebook page that he played Decatur Lake as a kid, served as assistant coach for the high school golf team, scored his first ace while playing with his grandparents and will greatly miss the longtime community golf course.

Decatur Lake opened its first six holes in 1926 as Brodhead CC, its members soon declaring it “The Sportiest Course by a Dam Site.” It expanded to nine holes a few years later, made clubhouse improvements through the year and added another nine holes in 1994. Its website called the course “a hidden gem and a true beauty to this day.” The course was used by area residents and high school golf teams; the clubhouse was, Apfelbaum said, “kind of a hallowed location for graduation parties and class reunions” through the years.

Except, of course, in recent years the golf course was struggling and eventually listed for sale.

For conservation-minded neighbors, that meant opportunity. One day not long ago two women were walking by the course when one remarked that if she had the money she would buy the property and product the land. That night they talked with their husbands and soon what could have been mere passing notion became accomplished fact. Using their own money as down payment and a bank loan for the rest, the newly formed Southern Wisconsin Land Conservancy bought the front nine, 57 acres in all, for $535,000, closing the deal on April 31.

Within days, the first moves to return a manicured golf course into native prairie were underway.

Apfelbaum is the president of Applied Ecological Services, which some years ago worked with the Ozaukee-Washington Land Trust in converting the former Squires GC in Port Washington into a birder’s paradise called Forest Beach Migratory Preserve. He believes as more courses continue to struggle for viability there will be other groups that see “the opportunity to view golf courses as a conservation investment and built back into our communities as open space.

“Those are the real possibilities here. There are so many courses that are in the red, including many that are so important to the community, as this one (is).”

As the Conservancy put it in a recent online post, “For nearly a century both human visitors and wildlife found solace and refuge on the shady slopes of the golf course.” It is the Conservancy’s hope that “that experience will remain untouched for centuries to come.”

As for the sunflowers? They may be back, by popular demand. Apfelbaum said there have been so many requests for more that sunflowers may be planted again on a smaller scale, either on the front nine again or on neighboring property. There have also been requests for a sunflower maze, a sunflower festival and other events.

Golf is gone, but long live the land.


A Wisconsin native & longtime newspaperman, Dennis has been writing about golf for more than 20 years. When not profiling golf's colorful characters or the courses they play, he can usually be found golfing at beautiful Apostle Highlands GC in Bayfield.