Bob Ellis and his wife, Alice, lived in Payson for a full year without knowing about the existence of the defunct Southard's Stampede Miniature Golf Course. And they live directly behind the place.
"We'd driven by many times and saw all of these wonderful little buildings, and we wondered, 'What the heck is it?'" Ellis remembers. "Then one time we stopped, looked around, and decided we liked it. We figured, 'All the kids around here are getting into a little more trouble than they should be. Let's let 'em wear off some energy out here.'"
So now Bob Ellis, a lifelong bricklayer, and Alice, a soon-to-be-former cigarette store manager, are miniature golf magnates. They've leased the property, which had been closed and collecting leaves, weeds and rainwater for nearly two years.
Although the Stampede reopened for business last weekend, "Hardly anyone knows we're open because the weather's been so bad," Bob Ellis says. "But that's gonna change."
Both Ellises know they are confronting a sizable marketing challenge, since their new enterprise is nestled between the Pueblo Inn and the 260 Cafe on Highway 260, at the bottom of a hill that slopes down from the highway.
"It's really hard to see the place from the road," Ellis admits. "But there's really nothing we can do about that. There's an easement out front that belongs to the town, so we can't even advertise out near the highway. But once people get to know it's here, like before, they'll come."
Ellis sounds unusually confident especially for a man who had never given a previous thought about running a miniature golf course ... who didn't even bother even researching the business before leaping into it ... and who has never actually played a round of miniature golf himself.
"We just went flat into it broke," he says with a laugh. "But we just know that the market is here, and that's really all we needed to know."
The prime demographic targets of Southard's Stampede (the name will remain the same) and what Ellis calls its "18-hole championship golf course" are families and young people with the accent on young people. Students will receive a $1 discount for each age-appropriate book they've read, plus a dollar off for report card reflecting grades no lower than a B.
"At this point, I think we're going to leave the prices of golf course admission right where they were before," Ellis says, "which is $3.75 for adults, $2.75 for seniors and the under-18 crowd, and zero charge for children under 6."
Golf, however, is not the sole attraction at the Stampede. The main building houses a snack bar, two coin-operated pool tables, three video games, two pinball machines, with three or four more on the way, an electronic dart game and an air-hockey table.
While the hours of operation have yet to be carved in stone, Ellis expects to be open from 3 p.m. to 9 or 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays, with the caveat that, "If there are customers here, we'll stay open later than that."
Tuesdays through Thursdays, the hours will be 3 p.m. to 8 p.m., "So the kids aren't enticed to ditch school in order to come over here, because we've got the video games and all that."
An all-American tradition
Southard's Stampede is part of a strictly all-American tradition that was adapted from an early Scottish form of golf by James Barber, right in his own back yard.
Barber was a wealthy North Carolinian who, in 1916, dreamed up a new and unique use for the property surrounding his estate. He installed a scaled-down 18-hole golf course that allowed his guests to putt their balls along a short grassy path to a tin cup dug in the ground.
By the 1920s, the concept reached new heights in New York City, where one entrepreneur built miniature golf courses on the rooftops of skyscrapers and charged patrons 10 cents a round.
The game's popularity continued to grow, peaking in the late '70s when ESPN latched onto miniature golf to help fill in its 24-hours-a-day sports programming schedule.
Today, themes are the norm in miniature golf from simple windmills and clown mouths to elaborate jungle settings with waterfalls and spectacular fountains. Computerized animatronics are being added to the mix, and computer games where players combat the enemy by making putts instead of shooting guns are being developed.
That is what seems to have held the interest in miniature golf over the years: the chance to escape. Just like James Barber and Bob and Alice Ellis did.
Right in their own back yards.