Owners Meredith and Jennifer Johnson and Director of Golf Peter Harris in front of the mini-golf course.

A Family-Friendly “Oasis” at the End of 12A

Nestled at the southern end of the Route 12A commercial corridor – past the Best Buy, Walmart, and Applebees, and tucked behind the Home Depot parking lot – comes something of a surprise, if you haven’t been. The destination in question is the Fore-U Golf Center: an all-ages “oasis” that boasts a double-decker driving range, mini-golf course, batting cages, and ice cream – a local business shaped by economics, family ties, and an impressive level of community engagement.

Owned and run by sisters Meredith and Jennifer Johnson, the story of Fore-U began in the 1970s, when their father, Peter, partnered with a local farmer and landowner named Paul Korpela to develop the 12A corridor. The first business to result from their handshake deal was Johnson’s Home Center, which opened in 1972, and was located on the current site of the recently-opened Jersey Mike’s Subs. The partnership would eventually bring a laundry list of businesses to the area: Wendy’s, Walmart, Price Chopper, Home Depot, Golf & Ski Warehouse, BJ’s, and Staples – and, of course, the Fore-U Golf Center.

The mini-golf course

The mini-golf course

The business has changed over the years, starting as a simple driving range in the ’80s and growing into the well-rounded family fun center of today. In 1988-89, its modest center of operations shifted from a garden shed to the snowboard corner of the Golf & Ski Warehouse. In 1996, they added mini-golf and a short-lived Par 3 course – though the mini-golf course has relocated since then. Meredith and Jennifer had worked there since they were fifteen, but by 1998, Meredith had just gotten out of college, Jennifer was getting out of teaching, and it seemed like a good time to sign on to be owners of the family business. Their first official act? Expanding into ice cream sales with the opening of the aptly-named Ice Cream Fore-U. Later, in the mid-2000s, the Home Depot moved in, and the mini-golf course shifted to where it is today, a pocket of green between the double-decker driving range and the Connecticut River.

But the business was shaped by more than simple economics. “Our parents took up the game of golf in 1980, and our grandfather as well,” Meredith says, “and they just fell in love with the sport.” That love was clearly passed on to the next generation: not only do the sisters now own Fore-U, but their brother Mark is also a golf professional, the COO and general manager of a golf development down in North Carolina. “Family is a huge priority for us,” Meredith says, “and that’s an environment we try to foster here.” It’s a priority that’s clear in everything from the free mini-golf admission for children three and under, to the playground setup next to the ice cream shop, to the simple number of parents and children in evidence at the driving range.

Bringing newcomers – children and adults alike – into the world of golf is the job of Peter Harris, Fore-U’s director of golf. A PGA teaching professional and longtime friend of the Johnson sisters, Peter is “one of the most enthusiastic people you’ll ever meet. He loves the game and loves to share his knowledge,” says Jennifer. He runs clinics for beginners and juniors, offers private and group lessons, and even works with First Tee, a national youth development program that uses golf instruction to build important life skills, “like honesty, sportsmanship, respect, and integrity,” Peter says. He describes his teaching as “a way to connect people outside, as well as introduce them to the game of golf.”

Thea Olsen enjoying some Fore-U ice cream

Thea Olsen enjoying some Fore-U ice cream

All three of them are connected to and invested in the community, says Meredith. “Peter lived in Hanover in high school, we grew up in Lebanon, I went to Dartmouth and coached for Lebanon, Jenn taught in Lebanon…we’re all pretty invested.” And that investment shows. The company donates to (and sometimes acts as a stop for) Project Graduation, a substance-free way for high school graduates to celebrate. Last year on the Lebanon Public Libraries website you could find a link to their “Summer Reading Program,” where if you read ten books, (adults, too!), you could get a free coupon for an ice cream, courtesy of Fore-U – and they’re running that program again this year. And if you have a good enough swing at the driving range, you might just hit (and set off) a Hollywood-style “velociraptor” hanging out downrange – a result of a partnership with the Hartford Area Career and Technology Center.

The connection with people is the most important part, says Meredith. “We have a lot of people that come to the ice cream stand that we talk to on a weekly basis, and they share their lives, their ups and downs…I think we’re a really positive place for people to connect.”

“I’ve been here twelve or thirteen years,” adds Peter, “and you get to see them evolve into golfers – young adults, older adults, families – it’s just the connection of people that we’ll see, either people who are here for the first time, or regulars. It’s a welcoming environment, a family environment, and a little oasis.”

And if that oasis comes with over fifty flavors of ice cream, thirty of soft serve, eight flavors of Italian ice, and several non-dairy ice creams as well? “We’re lucky,” says Meredith, “we’re giving them a product that makes 99% of people smile.”