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"I love to climb mountains all over the world," says Maurice “Mo” Burke. "Here, the highest thing I have is Mo’s Mountain."
Mo's Mountain is a hole at Sandwich Mini Golf, a course Burke began building 66 years ago out of a boggy tidal plain on Cape Cod. Running the summer business hasn’t always been easy for Mo and his wife, Sylvia. Their land is now worth over $1 million, and even though they’re beyond the traditional age of retirement, they say they won't sell.
The Family Cranberry Bog
I’ve played Sandwich Mini Golf almost every summer since I was 5 years old. It’s a lovable little course, wedged between Rt. 6A and a salt marsh. A bubbling brook flows under the course’s many bridges, around a simulated giant lily pad and past a white whale and a tiny lighthouse.
Earlier this summer, Mo, Sylvia and I sat down inside a little barn filled with landscaping equipment and a Model A Ford that gleams like it’s just been driven off the lot.
Mo tells me that the land on which the course is built has been in Burke’s family for about a century.
"My grandfather had a kind of little farm on the edge of the marsh, and it had a cranberry bog," he says. "In 1930, the state decided to put a super highway through. And it split up the cranberry bog. So it was just a few cranberries left. Enough cranberries to eat, but the swamp had no real value at the time."
As a kid, the only thing Mo spent money on was mini golf. So he came up with a plan. In 1950, at the age of 15, he began work on a course, single-handedly.
"It was swamp reclamation, so it took a few years just to fill in the swamp," Mo says. "My dad had an old truck, so I could get five loads of sand in an hour if I shoveled really fast. My first goal was to get nine holes."
Step By Step
Cape Cod tourism grew steadily in the 1950s and '60s. So Mo had every reason to believe his course could be a money-maker from the outset, even in sleepy, traditional Sandwich, a town that has always maintained tight control on development. Mo knew his mini golf would have to win the approval of tourists and town fathers. So he focused on the land’s natural features.
"I was just kinda working along the stream and then another hole that came quickly after was Treasure Island, when I diverted the stream and we had to dig all these tons of mud and dirt and sand out to make an island," Mo says. "A lot of people thought I was crazy. 'That’ll never work!' Luckily, when my wife married me, she didn’t put her foot down and say, 'What are you doing?'"
"I just had faith that if I built it, someone would come.”
Sylvia told me at the outset that she didn't want to be part of the interview. But when Mo started talking about their lives and their golf course, she couldn't help herself.
"When I married this man, Maurice Burke, it was a great blessing," she says. "He is a gentleman with a heart of love."
I look over at Mo. Sylvia’s words have him fighting back tears.
"I believed in him, even when the mini golf only had nine holes," Sylvia says. "We had a sign: '18 Holes.' And people would say, 'Where are the other nine?' I said 'Well, you play these twice.' And that’s the way we started"
"We’ve been married for 59 years this summer," Mo says. "She’s gone through the good times and the bad. When I opened, there weren’t a lot of customers. If I took in $10, that was a lot, because we only charged 50 cents. I just had faith that if I built it, someone would come."
They didn’t come to the Burke’s putting greens of dreams. Not right away. But Mo and Sylvia had another kind of faith. So, while they waited for their business to take off, they took missionary jobs in South America.
"From ’64 to ’68, we were in Ecuador, teaching in Christian schools. When we came home, we continued. I’m sure there were times when we weren’t sure how we were gonna pay our next bill. We’ve prayed over the golf course, every step of the way, because it’s what you’d call a faith type thing. For the next 10 years, I pretty much finished it. By the mid-'70s, it was starting to take in some money. It took a few years before it really was a legitimate mini-golf."
By this time, Cape Cod’s tourism industry had exploded. There were more attractions everywhere, including bigger, glitzier mini-golf courses. But Cape Cod is a summer destination, and the Burkes felt there was more missionary work to do overseas. They went to Taiwan for 12 years.
"We would just come home in the summer," Mo says. "But usually every summer, I would add a hole. So by the end of our stay in Taiwan, which was ’96, I think we had it well underway towards 36 holes."
A Labor Of Love
After more than three decades, the Burkes retired from teaching. They remain in the mini-golf business. As parts of Cape Cod have gone the way of mega-malls, shopping outlets and gated condo villages, their throwback mini golf has endured, quaintly and defiantly. Mo is now in his 80s. He and Sylvia could sell the course, pocket the million dollars and just relax.
But they won’t sell. After 66 years of working on the course, Mo just doesn't seem to know how to stop.
"Even in the winter, he’s repainting," Sylvia says. "In the evening hours, he’ll be busy carving signs. Every sign that’s on the mini golf is all hand-carved by him."
Some of those brown and white signs depict little smiling whales that indicate hole number. Some contain rules, directions to the next hole or snippets of Psalms. There must be 200 of them. Mo says he plans to give the business to his son, David. But for now, there are customers on the course. He needs to get back to water flowers, reposition cobblestones, tidy the parking lot and greet visitors.
I love Sandwich Mini Golf because each time I play there, I feel like a kid. My wife and children seem to love it as much as I do. It’s one of our very happy places.
When we left the course after a recent visit, Maurice Burke told me he looked forward to seeing us again at his mini golf. Barring that, he said, someday we’d meet in heaven.
I wonder … does Mo Burke see any difference between the two?
This segment aired on August 27, 2016.
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