Popular Business Began With Humble Roots
By Tim Camerato for Laconia Citizen
Laconia mayor, Hugh Bownes, along with Bob & John Lawton and family cut the ribbon for Funspot's mini-golf grand opening in 1964.
LACONIA - On Aug. 1, 1964, Laconia mayor, Hugh Bownes, gathered with state legislators and the Lawton family to cut a ribbon, thus officially opening Funspot's outdoor mini-golf course 50 years ago today.
Funspot founder, Bob Lawton, said Funspot began in 1952, when he borrowed $750 from this grandmother to rent the second floor of Tarlson's Arcade in the Weirs. Lawton recruited his brother, John, to help build a nine-hole mini golf course inside.
“We opened on Friday, June 27 in '52 and of course we closed Labor Day,” Lawton said. “We grossed $2,900.”
Lawton said Funspot was “mobbed” after the opening, and lines of people waiting to play formed quickly.
Beautiful nighttime photo of Funspot's mini-golf taken shortly after its grand opening in August 1964.
“That first year was a pretty good sign for us that we would be able to develop something here in the Weirs,” Lawton said.
Around 1954, the Lawtons noticed that The Weirs was lacking in parking. “Every Saturday night by 7pm there were no spaces," Lawton said “Everybody would just drive around and leave again.” They began looking for another location in the early spring of 1964, with possibilities in Gilford and Laconia. Lawton said the space in Gilford wasn't suitable, so they decided to move to Route 3 in Laconia.
“The location were at now, was originally 21 acres and the price was $16,000,” Lawton said. “Another person wanted a two-acre section of the land which had a home and cabins on it and was willing to pay $12,000 for it. We bought the remaining 19 acres for $4,000. We often wonder whether we could have survived if we actually had to make the payments on $16,000, because we didn't have much money.” Years later, Lawton paid several hundred thousand dollars to buy back those acres.
After the initial land purchase, the Lawtons erected a small building (now home to Funspot’s Braggin’ Dragon Restaurant) and a mini-golf course. The mini-golf officially opened on August 1, 1964.
The Lawtons didn't stop there. Expansions in the 1960s and 1970s brought a pool room, driving range, Indian Trading Post, Indian Village, a slot car room, Storybook Forest, and several satellite arcades in NH, ME, FL. At one time, there were seven Funspots across the eastern U.S.
“We opened all of our other Funspots when video games came out,” Lawton said, explaining that video games were introduced to the company after a Concord video game business owner visited.
“He started walking around our little game room which had pinballs and a few other 10 cent games,” Lawton said, “He waved his arms and said, 'Let me get rid of this junk for you and put in some good games.’”
Funspot did business with the man for years and eventually bought out all of his machines.
In 1986, Funspot expanded to two stories, even after being turned down for a construction loan. “I was stewing about it,” Lawton explained, “so I said, ‘The heck with it.’ I got a contractor to put the foundation in and never told my brother anything about it. The expansion allowed us to install about 100 video games and we paid for the building in just a couple of years! We added another 200 games were after we built the kiddie room and bowling alley in ’88.
Funspot's Landmarks of NH mini-golf course as it appeared during its final season in 2014.
Lawton said Funspot was packed during the video game boom which lasted until the 1990s. “Video games are the reason we're still here and have been able to develop this property into the largest arcade in the world.”
While discussing development, Lawton mentioned that 2014 would be the last year for the outdoor mini-golf course that started it all. “In 1964 our course had no competition but today it competes with five nearby courses. What’s more, our ornaments are all hand-made and the take a beating in the weather. We have to restore them each year. I do most of the work myself every winter. It's just not practical anymore.”
Lawton said he and the Funspot team have decided to open an indoor 18 hole mini-golf course in a large room left unfinished after the last expansion in 1988. It's slated to open on Nov. 8 to coincide with Funspot's Military Appreciation Day.