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A look back at the glory days of Putt-Putt

Hannah Swayze • Feb 12, 2018 at 7:00 AM

Almost immediately after its inception, Putt-Putt was a hole-in-one. 

Miniature golf for most people today is a game played on vacation or at a child's birthday party. However, in from the late 1950s to the early 1980s, the Putt-Putt in town was the place to be for anyone who was anyone, no matter their age.

“That was the recreational thing to do," said Tony Seaton, whose father was the first to bring the Putt-Putt franchise to the Tri-Cities. "It was about as big as bowling. And that's really all anyone had to do they didn’t' have video games and things like that so everybody would go on Friday and Saturday nights and they'd go play Putt-Putt."

The Putt-Putt franchise was founded in Lafayetteville, North Carolina by an entrepreneur named Don Clayton in 1954. Tony's father, Jack Seaton, knew Clayton as an entrepreneur, had the idea to bring the franchise to his home in Johnson City.

Around 1956, roughly two years after Putt-Putt was started, Jack opened three locations: one in Kingsport, one in Bristol and one in Johnson City.

Then it took off.

In its heyday in Johnson City, Putt-Putt was, according to Tony, "almost as big as bowling."

"North Johnson City was huge and was really building," said Tony. "People would just drive by and say 'Oh gosh! I'm going to the Putt-Putt. Let's all stop! And the more people that would stop, the more people that you had there, the more people that would keep stopping!"

The courses stayed in the Seaton family for thirty years, growing more and more popular, in Johnson City and in other places. The popularity even sparked the creation of local and national Miss Putt-Putt USA beauty pageants and the Professional Putters association. 

Tony was too young to remember much of the pageants; he and his brother worked at the family business growing up.

Tony remembers busy weekdays and even busier weekends. He worked non-stop from Friday night, until Monday morning. They often hosted multiple birthday parties every weekend on top of the crowded Putt-Putt courses. 

"That was before malls. ... It's like the only thing people had to do was go to car hop drive-ins and they'd go play putt-putt," said Tony.

As the 1980s rolled around, other trends caught on and Putt-Putt tried to keep up by adding in arcades and more family fun activities. But, ultimately, the fad, like others, gave way to new technology.

While it decreased in popularity, Putt-Putt didn't disappear. The franchise was ultimately sold and rebranded and is known today as Putt-Putt Fun Center.

Though the Johnson City location no longer stands, it's easy to imagine what it looked like when the huge crowds would gather and wait in like to try their hand at a hole-in-one. The three locations in the Tri-Cities were almost completely identical with quality outdoor grass and the signature bright orange and green colors. They are located at 346 West Stone Drive in Kingsport and 319 Bluff City Highway in Bristol, Tennessee.

Note: These photos were taken by Jimmy Ellis, the photographer of the Johnson City Press-Chronicle and are believed to be taken somewhere between July 1958 and March 1960. Do you recognize the local beauty queen?

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