Charles Demske has spent 25 of his 30 years as an active contributor to the De Pere, Wis. course, his family’s business where he is now Superintendent and co-owner. In addition to a spectacular setting for golf, the property offers a wide range of year-round outdoor attractions, including cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, hiking and photography, with fat-tire biking soon to come.
When you set foot on the property of Hilly Haven Golf Course in De Pere, Wis., you can instantly tell there’s a family feel to the business. Originally a family dairy farm owned by Norman and Hazel Demske, the course was then developed by that couple, along with their three children. And now the next generation of Demskes is involved in running the award-winning facility.
With the goal of providing customers more value than they pay for, Hilly Haven GC offers something for everyone, every day of the year. From golf to Friday Fish Fries, cross-country skiing, winter hiking, snowshoeing, weddings and celebrations, and more, Hilly Haven is the centerpiece of the community.
“We want people to have fun,” says Golf Course Superintendent and co-owner Charles Demske. “If there is something that people can do to have fun on our golf course, then we’re probably going to do it.”
In the past two years, Demske and his team have added golf simulators and put the finishing touches on a short course/practice facility, and they’re now preparing to add fat-tire biking. They’ll even let you bring your dog out to the course to run around during the winter—as long as it doesn’t play through.
For Charles Demske, the course has truly been his life. At a very young age (five), he was putting his mark on it, doing odds and ends to help out. And except for a brief stint working on another farm during high school, it is the only place he has ever worked. Imagine being 30 years old—and 25 of those have been spent on the grounds of the same golf course property.
But then again, as Demske tells us in this conversation, when it is in your blood, it is more than a job.
C+RB Tell us about your relationship with Hilly Haven Golf Course.
Demske We’re a family-owned business and I’ve essentially been at Hilly Haven my whole life. I grew up right on the golf course and basically started when my grandma was still helping out around here. My grandfather had already passed away. I must’ve been about five or six. She said, “Here’s a hammer. Go out to the porch and pound the nails. They’re all sticking up and somebody’s going to trip on them.”
So I guess it’s been about 25 years now. I’m 30 years old, so my whole life has been here.
My grandparents had three kids and they had a very progressive farming operation. My grandfather was a conservationist at the forefront of sod waterways, and he did reforesting of pastureland. In fact, that pastureland would later become a ski hill.
The three kids, Dale (my father), Ron and Karen, all grew up on the farm and then went their separate ways. The boys went into the Navy, but came back. My dad became the Superintendent and later retired. My uncle Ron had another business, but was involved in the construction here and helped to run things. Karen was a teacher, then came back to help, too. She has since passed away.
Ron and I are now co-owners. His daughter and my cousin, Kristin Stelzer, is the General Manager. So it is quite a family affair.
C+RB Were you destined to become the golf course superintendent?
Demske I think so. I always enjoyed being out on the course. The plan probably got sped up a bit because my dad had a stroke, so when I was 19 I went away to Rutgers to enroll in its short course. I graduated in 2010 and then came back and have been here ever since.
The good thing for me is that I could apply everything I was learning to our golf course at the time. The other people in the program had no clue where they were going to be. I knew everything about our course, so as I was learning I was thinking about how it applied to Hilly Haven. I lived on the course when I was young, and today I live right across the street from the maintenance facility.
C+RB How was the golf course created?
Demske This is an interesting story—and a bit of a long one. My grandfather bought the land in 1938 and farmed it until the 1960s. He and my grandmother started to age a bit and they were having some health issues, so they began to look for something else to do with the land that would be considered an up-and-coming business.
In 1964, they opened a portion of the land for downhill skiing. Then in 1968 they decided to get into golf. They began to lay out where the greens would be and went from there. My grandfather actually helped to design the golf course, and there was a local guy, Bob Ahsay, who provided some professional help with the design. My father Dale added some design ideas as well. It opened in 1970, so for quite some time we had downhill skiing and golf.
C+RB Where did Hilly Haven come from?
Demske Back in the days when the golf course didn’t exist and there wasn’t a ski hill, there was some consideration given to making it into a campground. One of the neighboring farmers was a cousin to my grandpa and had a farm named Hill and Gully Farm. We were considering calling it that, but church groups that came out to see the waterfalls and my family felt the land was such a haven. That stuck, so it became Hilly Haven. It made sense because we had downhill skiing. We just kept it for the golf course.
C+RB Descriptions say your land is along the Niagara Escarpment. What is that?
Demske Picture the structure of Niagara Falls. We have similar features here, with bluffs 200 feet high in the area. It’s a rolling hillside formed by glaciers that moved through and carved out the bluffs about four hundred million years ago—when Wisconsin was a tropical zone, actually. A layering of algae created limestone, and so we have limestone waterfalls that are one of the features of the Niagara escarpment.
It creates an interesting landscape here for us, because there are not drastically huge hills, but there is a rolling terrain. People love driving through these hills and it’s a really nice setting. It just creates a relaxing experience for people, and we’re nestled in the edge of that.
C+RB Why expand to 18 holes of golf?
Demske I guess it was about 1980 and we had some years where we started to naturally run out of snow and business slowed down. Plus, insurance premiums got crazy and they figured it was time to move on to something different. We closed downhill skiing, but made some cross-county runs that are still in operation today. Then in the early 1990s, we began buying some adjacent land with the thought of opening up a back nine, and we opened it in 1997.
C+RB Who’s your clientele?
Demske We get people from all over Northeast Wisconsin. During the week it’s mostly local, from the region between Appleton and Green Bay, but we’ll get people on the weekends from as far as 100 miles away.
Golf is very competitive in Wisconsin, with a lot of courses. I always say we give more value then they pay for. We have a fun setup. The course is very tidy and the conditions are very consistent. You can find your ball off the fairway. We are not aiming for a U.S. Open setup. We want them to have a fun time and come back.
The course is walkable. We’ve became a cart society, but you can walk it with no problem. There’s a great junior league and we do clinics for the juniors. We have women’s and men’s leagues, and have outside fundraisers for charitable events.
C+RB When is the golf season?
Demske We are dependent upon the weather. You just never know in Wisconsin. We are generally open in early April and go through October. By that time there isn’t enough sunlight to play after work and the weather can get cold, so we generally shut down. But there are some times during the day when we get play into November and early December.
This year, we actually could have opened in mid-March, but couldn’t due to the pandemic. But Wisconsin people love to golf, so they will get out early on the driving range. We’ll have people hitting on the range and cross-country skiing at the same time. I’ve also seen it where people are skiing one day and two days later the course is clear and they are playing golf.
C+RB Do you have water features?
Demske We have a lot of them. There’s a natural creek that runs through the property. It’s not always heavily flowing, but it does turn into a waterfall at the tail end of our property near the clubhouse. It runs along hole number nine, where it turns into a waterfall right along our signature hole number eight. It’s just a beautiful, beautiful setting where there’s a covered bridge over the top of the waterfalls. There are about 10 water features, and they all come into play.
C+RB Tell us more about No. 8.
Demske There was a piece of the property we gained, but had not used, when we added the back nine. We thought that it could be utilized for the front nine. There were a lot of trees, so we bought a mini-excavator and dug out the stumps. We manipulated the hill and used the limestone to build the tee box. It’s very picturesque.
C+RB What about your short course that’s in the works – how did that come about?
Demske We bought a 27-acre chunk of land adjacent to us to help with erosion and runoff. We built a dike system to curtail runoff and flooding, but thought it would also be perfect for a driving range, so we built that. We had some extra sod, so we created a chipping green with a bunker.
We were left with about three or four acres from a hayfield. When it got cut, it looked like it would make a perfect hole. Then we started to see more. So we built six holes, beginning at 40 yards and going up in 10-yard increments. We have seeded all the greens and think it will be fun. There’s a lot of excitement for it. It will be a great place to teach the youth.
C+RB What other course improvements are planned?
Demske Ever since the course was built, we have been continually improving it, always tinkering with something. We might have to slow down occasionally, but the focus is to make it better for the customer. We do like to make sure people have fun. So if we think people will like it, we’ll jump in and do it.
Some of the big things we plan on doing are making more rooms for tees. We have a very far-forward tee that is basically a stake in the ground. We are looking to improve those and other teeing areas. We also have a diesel pump for our irrigation that we would like to improve down the road.
C+RB Why install the six golf simulators?
Demske We used to be a year-round operation with the skiing, but since the downhill closed down we wanted to do something to keep business flowing. We were essentially shutting down in the winter. We had good people working at the course and we wanted to be able to keep them here.
So we began researching the simulators. It took us three to four years to find what we really liked and what our clients would like. We were traveling all over, looking for just the right ones.
We finally found new HD simulators. We’re very happy because they weren’t just an animated simulator, they have an actual picture that is used to produce the picture on the screen. The technology was very good for the simulators. They have been extremely well-received; we get traffic from the whole surrounding area. Actually, people as far as Milwaukee, which is a two-hour drive, come up to use them.
We added to the clubhouse to make room for them. They’ve also been very popular for corporate events, birthday parties, and retirement parties—you name it. It was only our second year this past year, and the pandemic hurt because we had to close down.
C+RB Tell us about the skiing.
Demske The cross-country runs are a bit of a blend. Some of them are on the course and some are on the open areas, and then some intertwine through the woods. The course and the surrounding land is about 200 acres. We have a groomer that is an old Snowcat that works great to form the runs.
About 10 years ago we added snowshoeing and that picked up our business. It’s popular here in Wisconsin. We also allow people to bring out their dogs as well, and that seems to attract people.
Skiing is not a big money-making business. Our goal is to recoup the expenses for operation, or perhaps make a little money. But since we’ve added the golf simulators, more people are coming out to ski, hit the simulators, and then they eat something while they’re here. So we are seeing an increase in revenues there.
C+RB What other changes are planned?
Demske This winter we’re going to create paths for fat-tire biking. It has become very popular in the region. We had a very popular yoga class in the summer that we’ve put on hold during the pandemic.
Our waterfalls, bridges and great landscaping make for some good photography opportunities. We allow people to hike in the winter, and would like to expand this to year-round. We have some small weddings here, too. Nothing too large, because our clubhouse does not allow big groups.
The golf team from Wrightstown High School also practices here. We’re all alumni, so we love having them here. And we’ve added some corporate outings and competitions set up on the simulators.
Super in the Spotlight
Current Position: Golf Course Superintendent and Co-Owner, Hilly Haven Golf Course, De Pere, Wis.
Years at Hilly Haven GC: 25 (Grew up on the course as it was a family-owned business. Began doing odds and end at 5 years old.)
Years in Golf Course Maintenance Business: 25
Previous Experience: Assistant Golf Course Superintendent, Hilly Haven GC
Education & Training: Fox Valley Technical School (Agribusiness); Rutgers University, Turfgrass Certificate, 2010.
Honors and Awards: Best of the Bay Award, 2019 and 2020 (also runner-up five times in public voting for best public golf course in Northeast Wisconsin).
Golf Course Profile
Hilly Haven Golf Course
Golf Course Type: Parkland with wooded areas
Golf Course Designer: Norman Demske (grandfather) and Robert Ahsay, 1968; Back Nine, 1994. Land was originally a dairy farm and then a ski area.
Year Opened: 1970 (9 holes); Back Nine (1997)
No. of Holes: 18
Yardage: Longest (Blue), 6,600 yards; shortest (Red), 4,800 yards
Golf Season: Primarily early April through October; golf simulators year-round.
Annual Rounds: 35,000
Grasses: Fairways & Tees – bluegrass;
Roughs – mixture of bluegrass, bentgrass and fescues
Greens – Pencross/poa
Water Features: Natural creek (Sand Creek) runs through property and becomes a waterfall near clubhouse; 10 other features, with two used for irrigation. Larger pond is three acres and one is just under one acre. All other features collect runoff and all come into play.
Bunkers: 25 (with 1 waste bunker)
Course + Grounds Operations Profile
Staff Size: 10 (in season, with two full-time); in the winter, two additional grounds crew members stay on part-time.
Water Source and Usage: Irrigate from ponds and supplement with well water
Aerating and Overseeding Schedules: No regular overseeding. Aerating is weather-dependent. Every year, an effort is made to solid-tine fairways, tees, aprons and greens. The greens are cored in the fall.
Upcoming Capital Projects: Continually seek to improve the golf course. Currently working on short-course area that will open in late 2020 or early 2021.