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May 2017

Come Hell Or ‘Hi’‭ ‬Water

comehellorhiwater.jpg‭By Steve Donahue

The Hess family has owned and operated Pennsylvania’s Hi-Level Golf Course through three generations, and the household plans to continue that despite the passing last year of owner Bob Hess

Hi-Level Golf Course—a third-generation, family owned-and-operated public facility in continuous operation since 1965 in Kossuth, Pennsylvania—is a well-oiled machine.

This figures, since Hi-Level, Clarion County’s first 18-hole course, was constructed on the site of Fern City, an 1885 oil boom town. Ed Hess purchased the property as a farm in 1954 and hosted various community functions. And his son Bob and daughter-in-law, Kathy—both schoolteachers—visited on weekends and hit golf balls in fields on the farm.

Though he was a non-golfer, Ed thought locals might want to learn the game, and decided to build a golfer-friendly course. The family-centric golf course, which he passed on to Bob in the late 1970s shortly before his death, has been a staple in its community ever since.

Unfortunately, Bob Hess passed away April 1, 2016. Kathy, who operated Hi-Level with her husband, still lives in the 1879 farmhouse on property, and their children—Mindy, Brian, Eric and Trina—remain co-owners.

“We promised our dad we would keep going,” proclaims Mindy, Ed’s granddaughter, Bob and Kathy’s daughter and co-owner/operations manager/golf professional. “Our members and customers were so generous with their kind words, cards and hugs last summer as they expressed their sympathy for our loss.

“It was especially hard when my dad’s Shriner brothers and fraternity brothers held their scrambles here for the first time without my dad there to be the life of the party,” she adds. “He prepared us all to take over our roles, so that’s what we will do.”

Despite downturns in the economy and golf’s popularity since 1965, there are multiple reasons why Hi-Level’s customer base remains loyal, with approximately 30,000 rounds played in 2016.

“People say when they come in, and on the Fan Page, that there’s a laid-back, great family atmosphere here,” boasts Trina Hess, Hi-Level’s social media director. “One guy last summer said our greens are some of the best in the eastern United States, and he’s played all over the country.”

Hi-Level’s wide, level fairways, short rough and large, pristine greens made it—and still make it—the perfect place to learn the game. “If you did a survey of tri-county golfers, most would say they learned to play here,” Mindy says.

When the original front nine opened in 1965 it consisted of five par-3s, as Ed wanted to make the front nine easy for beginners.

“It was $1 to play nine holes,” Kathy recalls. “We purchased several golf carts, but most people walked because the land is level, and kind of on a plateau, so we named it Hi-Level.”

The back nine opened in 1967 with seven par-4s and two par-6s, one of which remains today— the 670-yard 16th hole.

“The course filled a void for sports and recreation in the area, as well as part-time jobs for area youth,” notes Kathy.

A five-hole beginner’s course was added in 1970. It costs $6, once or twice around.

“It’s been a great place to teach beginners, and many of my students like playing the course because they feel comfortable there,” Mindy explains. “As they become more confident with their games, they will graduate to the front nine. It’s been a great place to teach my juniors and high school teams. We opened a FootGolf course within our beginners’ course in 2015.  It’s been great for soccer teams, gym classes, and birthday parties, and has added revenue to the bottom line with very little investment.”

In August 2015, Hi-Level held a 50th anniversary party with a scramble, contests and a reunion/open house. Former employees, members and loyal customers were invited to attend.

“We loved hearing stories from some of the first employees, many of whom helped to build the course,” Mindy says. “Everyone had fun that day and thought we should have a reunion every year.”

There’s no secret formula for success at Hi-Level. Hard work and family values prove just fine in this place some call “in the middle of nowhere” but where the Hess family calls “magical.”

“We’ll keep running Hi-Level as a family,” Mindy vows. “It’s been a great life here. Dad taught us all to play golf, and my brothers and I, as well as my son, niece and nephew all competed on the high school golf teams. We have a little church on the golf course where my mom and dad were married and where my grandparents and dad are buried in a cemetery behind the church. We like to think they’re all watching what we’re doing. I’d like to think my grandfather is happy to see his vision has been a success.”

Steve Donahue is a Connecticut-based freelance writer.

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