Irv Cowen was 'the driving force' behind major transformation of the resort.
by Steve Harron
Irv Cowen was a visionary and a risk-taker. And those qualities allowed him to see the potential in a 9-hole golf course with no irrigation and a small, rundown clubhouse with sinking floors.
He also had to look past the poor condition of the motel and lodge and five cottages that were part of the real estate deal that brought him and his family from Toronto to operate Pike Lake Golf Centre in 1961.
Fifty years later the 500-acre property west of Mount Forest has been transformed into a golf and camping resort with 27 championship holes, 340 seasonal camping sites, 140 permanent homes, a 20-room motel and a long list of amenities.
"This was his dream…his vision and he loved every day he came to work here," said his wife Joan. "He was the driving force behind this."
When the Pike Lake property came up for sale, Irv was running a confectionary in Toronto and playing his regular Wednesday golf game at Humber Valley Golf Course.
A real estate salesman who was a regular customer at the store noticed that he played golf and was able to convince him to take a drive to Pike Lake to view the property.
They were able to strike a property swap deal which saw the golf course owner, Cyril O’Reilly of Toronto, take over the store and Irv take over the golf course property.
There was plenty of work to be done at Pike Lake but Irv was no stranger to hard work. In fact, to make ends meet in the early days he found various winter jobs in the area and at one point drove a coffee truck in Toronto while still living at Pike Lake.
"He left at 3 o’clock in the morning, drove the coffee truck from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. in Toronto then drove home and cut fairways at night," said his son Herb. "He did that for two years."
His worth ethic was passed along to his children and, with all of them involved in the business, that has been a big part of Pike Lake’s success.
And with Irv’s death in December - on the eve of the family’s 50th anniversary at Pike Lake - the resort has been left in the capable hands of the experienced ownership/management team which consists of his wife Joan, children Herb, Tom and Jeanne Cowen-Brown and brother-in-law George Forrest.
Under Irv’s direction, they have been part of the remarkable growth in the business over the years through a series of key developments.
Chief among them was the move into camping, which opened the doors for mobile home sales. The camping came about largely as a result of the Harriston Hockey School because parents wanted to camp at Pike Lake while their children attended the hockey school. This grew each year even when the hockey school moved to Ayton.
By 1983 the camping was strong and the owners were heavily involved in building a second nine holes. They were so busy in fact that they didn’t want to get involved in selling mobile homes. But a persistent salesman from Northlander Industries convinced them to keep a trailer at the resort one weekend to see if it created any sales interest. It did, of course, and that trailer and another were sold in one weekend.
With this immediate success, the owners decided to devote time to trailer sales and Pike Lake is now the number one Northlander dealer in Ontario with sales as far away as Newfoundland and Alberta.
While this opened up a whole new side of the business, they continued to work on the golf course and by the spring of 1986 a new nine designed by Canadian Golf Hall of Fame member Robbie Robinson was opened for play.
Robinson, who worked for the legendary Stanley Thompson early in his career, was in his 80s when he designed the course and it was one of his last projects before his death on Dec. 29, 1989.
The owners couldn’t really afford a designer of Robinson’s stature but they got a break on the price because of two factors: Robinson was extremely impressed with the picturesque Pike Lake property and his brother ran a Ford dealership in nearby Harriston.
With 18 holes in operation, the next move was to enlarge the clubhouse to accommodate bigger tournaments and functions.
|The Pike Lake Golf Centre owners are, from left, George Forrest, Tom Cowen, Jeanne Cowen-Brown, Joan Cowen and Herb Cowen.
||The 15th hold on the Links Course at Pike Lake Golf Centre.
|When the renovated clubhouse opened in 1989 it could handle crowds of about 230 people - double the previous capacity. That allowed for such popular tournaments as the Pike Lake Open which now attracts 210 golfers and is one of the biggest invitationals in Ontario.
But not ones to rest on their laurels, the management team had by that point already started plans for a third nine and a new motel. The motel opened in 1999 and the Shawn Watters-designed new nine was opened in 2002.
At that point, the links-style Watters holes were integrated with the parkland-style Robinson holes to form a new 18-hole configuration. And the original 9 holes - dramatically redesigned by then - formed a separate 9 holes known as the Lake Course. (Only one green remains from the original course, all 9 tees have been replaced and one hole has been relocated).
While Pike Lake has grown into a successful golf and camping resort it has never lost sight of one of Irv Cowen’s messages of dealing locally and supporting the community.
One annual golf tournament - the Mary Lynne Forrest Memorial in memory of George Forrest’s wife who worked at the club for 23 years - has raised more than $390,000 in six years for hospitals in Mount Forest and Palmerston.
And this year the resort is holding a Fundraiser Draw in memory of Irv Cowen with the funds raised going to volunteer fire departments in Minto and Mount Forest. The resort is donating more than $15,000 in prizes plus promotional funds for the Sept. 3 draw.
To celebrate the family’s 50 years of operating the resort, a number of special activities are planned for the Civic Holiday weekend.
While plans were still taking shape at press time, it is known that the weekend will include a Friday night social in the clubhouse, a Saturday barbecue with a live band and outdoor dance and a Sunday 2-Ball golf tournament and a fireworks display.
- The resort is located between Mount Forest and Harriston on Pike Lake Road, just off Hwy. 89.
- Amenities include: Mile-long spring-fed lake, sandy beach /swimming area, new recreation building & games room, heated in-ground pool, 18-hold mini golf, tennis & basketball courts, playground, baseball diamond, shuffleboard, horseshoe pits, beach volleyball, fishing "Catch & Release," non-motorized boat rentals, public washrooms & showers, laundromat, convenience store, propane filling station & night patrol.
- The resort employs about 130 people from April 15 to Oct. 15 and 36 year round.
- The club's CPGA head golf professional is Greg Shaw, who played his junior golf at Pike Lake.
- The club's course superintendent is Steve Stein, one of the four brothers who work as superintendents.
BRIEF HISTORY OF PIKE LAKE
The book Families, Facts and Fables - Minto Memories - indicates the natural beauty of Pike Lake was first discovered in 1854 when natives encamped on the shore.
William Reynolds bought the property from Thomas Chapman in 1871 then sold it to Robert Grieves, whose goal was to turn it into a summer resort.
In 1899 Grieves bought a steamboat which was used for touring the lake. In 1901 William "Black" Schwartsmeier took over the resort and remodelled the hotel and added a few cottages. He also built a dance pavillion, which marked the beginning of an era of dancing and romancing by the water.
In 1919, James Reynolds, C. Abbott and J.J. Pritchard took over.
The Downey family took possession in 1931 and sold it in 1951.
When the Cowens purchased the property in 1961 it was owned by Cyril O'Reilly of Toronto. The origin of the Pike Lake name is shrouded in mystery as there are no pike in the lake. However, there are lots of theories but no proof as to why this is so.