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How the Hess Family Transformed An Old Oil Boomtown to One of the Region’s Most Popular Golf Courses

KOSSUTH, Pa. (EYT) – Fifty-five years ago, the Hess family took an old oil boomtown and turned it into a golf course, and things continue to go well for Hi-Level Golf Course.

(Byline: Andrew Bundy)

(Pictured above: Robert and Ed Hess, founders of Hi-Level Golf Course. Photo submitted by the family.)

“The golf course was started by my grandfather and father,” Trina Hess said. “They started it in 1965. The first nine holes were completed by the seventies, and the back nine were done after that. My grandfather wanted to create another nine, but he passed away before that happened.”

Her grandfather, Ed Hess, grew up in the area of what was called Fern, an old oil boomtown.

“My grandfather was one of eight, and he’s the one who stayed on the land and bought up the land around his homestead,” Trina Hess said. “He learned how to do oil and gas well drilling from his dad, and decades later, he farmed the land around his homestead.”

In the 1800’s, when oil was struck, towns quickly sprung up to feed that industry. But, when the well dried up or another town had a better well, the towns would fade. The oil industry in the area first hit a place called Cogley, which no longer exists as a town. Then, it went to Fern.

“Fern was one of the wickedest towns in America at one time because it was the oil boomtown, competing with Cogley nearby,” Hess said. “Now Cogley’s just a dirt road and woods, but back then it was a boomtown. People flocked there until oil was struck here. When that happened, Cogley became an instant ghost town.”

The same eventually happened to Fern, leaving behind only those who were not directly connected to the industry or already had land there. The waning years of the oil industry there gave Ed Hess a useful skill. He learned how to work in the oil industry as a teenager and then started his own business doing oil and gas drilling. Eventually, he bought the land around his homestead to open a new business.

Fern in the 1800's

Fern in the 1800’s

“He decided he wanted to have a dude ranch,” Trina Hess said. “He bought eight or nine horses and used buildings for different antique museums. People could come see the antiques, ride the horses, and have picnics. Things like that. He did that for 10 years, then he decided he wanted to build a golf course. I don’t think he even knew how to golf, he just wanted to build a golf course and see what would happen.”

Trina Hess’s parents, Robert and Kathleen, were teaching at Ford City and Kittanning after graduating from what was Clarion State Teachers College. They moved back to Fern to help build Hi-Level Golf Course. Hess said that the whole community came together to help achieve the vision.

“Everything he did was a community project,” Hess said. “The dude ranch employed several neighbors who cared for the horses and equipment. Area businesses brought their company outings here. My dad took the PGA teaching course so he could give golf lessons. Grandpa hired the different neighborhood kids to work here to plow out the land, pick up rocks, paint, make greens, and mow grass.”

According to Hess, her grandfather built a Par-6, 670-yard hole to make sure his golf course had something unique. The unfinished nine holes became a five-hole practice course. That is where many local golfers continue to learn the game.

Aerial shot of Hi-Level Golf Course. Submitted by the Golf Course.

Aerial shot of Hi-Level Golf Course. Submitted by the Golf Course.

“A lot of the people came here as beginners, and my dad taught them golf lessons,” Hess said. “A lot of people learned how to golf here. It was something new and unique, and they wanted to give golf a try. My grandfather already had a lot of people coming here when he had the dude ranch, so people knew this is where things were happening.”

Hess added that many of the current golfers helped build the course as teenagers, so they feel like they are a part of the course.

“They feel like they helped create this,” she said. “The golfers know they can feel welcome, see friends, and feel relaxed. They’ve known this place for most of their lives.”

During Hi-Level Golf Course’s 50th Anniversary Celebration, many of the teens who helped build the course came back to talk about what they learned from Hess’ grandfather.

“Twenty-five or so came back for our 50th anniversary, and they were talking about how grandpa said they should always carry a pocketknife with them,” Trina Hess remembered. “All but one of them pulled out their pocketknives.”

Visitors at Hi-Level Golf Course show their pocketknives.  50 years ago, founder Ed Hess told them to carry one, and they never forgot.

Visitors at Hi-Level Golf Course show their pocketknives. 50 years ago, founder Ed Hess told them to carry one, and they never forgot.

Golf education continues at Hi-Level. Trina’s sister Mindy Hess is the golf coach at Keystone Area School District, and also offers golf lessons, continuing the tradition of their late father Robert. Mindy has seen interest in golf growing, especially among younger players.

“We’ve been seeing, in the past 10 years, a lot of youth getting interested in golf,” Trina Hess said. “Kids even as young as five and six. That’s probably the biggest segment that’s growing, the number of young kids who want to learn how to golf.”

55 years later, Hi-Level Golf Course is still going strong, long after its founder Ed Hess had a vision for land that had once been a boomtown and became little more than a field. Trina’s brothers, Brian and Eric, continue what they learned from their father: how to work the land and create something new. A lesson that has been handed down through the generations.

“Grandpa was resourceful, growing up here in Fern and a small area, and he knew how to get people to work together and help him reach a goal,” Hess said. “He knew how to motivate young kids and have them help him build a golf course. Grandpa had Penn State Extension people teach him how to work the soil for the greens and make the sprinkler system. If he didn’t know how to do something, he knew how to ask for help. He had a lot of different visions and knew how to make all of them come true.”