AVCC History

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article about AVCC's 18 hole architect,
Howard Watson

The following is an excerpt from The Golfers' Journal, authored by Will Bardwell, written after a visit to AVCC during the 2019 St. John Valley Amateur Labor Day tournament.

Autumn comes early in Aroostook County. More to the point, autumn comes first to Aroostook County. As the northernmost county in New England's northernmost state, winter's tidings naturally land here soonest. Summers are usually mild; even in July, temperatures stay below 80 degrees about as often as they go above it. Winters, of course, can be brutal: The area received 60 inches of snow in January 2019 alone.

But in autumn, when the first brisk wind blows across the border from Canada and the birch trees trade in their green for orange, Aroostook County is a picture book.

And its dramatic hills make it a breathtaking place for golf.

A small group of hearty New Englanders founded Aroostook Valley Country Club in 1929 and built their unassuming clubhouse mere feet beyond the United States' border with Canada. But it wasn't the hills that inspired them—it was alcohol. From 1920 to 1933, the 18th Amendment banned the sale of liquor within the United States; in response, several golf clubs, including Aroostook Valley, sprouted up in the borderlands, just to the Canadian side of the line.

Today, nearly 90 years after Prohibition's end, Aroostook Valley Country Club's members and visitors are here for the remarkable golf course. That the golf course is here at all, though, is proof that some people will do anything for a drink.

U.S. Highway 1 runs north, tracing Maine's eastern border less than 3 miles away from Canada. With the exception of the occasional farm or cemetery, the rolling land is mostly undeveloped; the towns here are small and pass from notice as quickly as they appear. At Mars Hill (population 1,400), in far northeastern Maine, the highway breaks away from the border and begins winding alongside the Aroostook River as it runs north toward Caribou (population 7,600). At Caribou, Highway 1 and the river part ways; the highway stretches northward toward what little of America is left, but the river turns east toward the border. Where the river turns east, so does one-lane Highway 89. The river and the road continue together, past Fort Fairfield (population 3,300). The road winds on, past another cemetery and up one last hill. At the edge of America, the driveway turns into Aroostook Valley Country Club's parking lot. The car parks; its passengers step out. And, somewhere in the spit of grass between the parking lot and the clubhouse, at an invisible 5,500-mile-long line that means nothing and yet means everything, the passengers immigrate into Canada.

Here, on the line separating the world's second-largest and fourth-largest countries, it is easy to see why Aroostook Valley's founders would have deemed it an ideal site for their retreat from the 18th Amendment. To call this area “remote" would be to sell it short; the traveler drives hours through the remote to get here. This place is farther north than Geneva, Switzerland—one of the last areas in America that John Q. Law would come looking for rabble. And if the isolation ever proved too inadequate a barrier, the 18th Amendment's power ended somewhere back around the parking lot. Aroostook Valley's members always had the border on their side—the Feds' version of white stakes.

After less than a decade and a half, America's experiment with Prohibition ended in failure. Thankfully, the same is not true of Aroostook Valley, nor of many of the borderland golf courses that the era inspired. To be sure, Aroostook Valley Country Club (AVCC) and the valley with which it shares its name are largely unchanged by the past century. This corner of extreme northeast Maine is still rugged and rural, still heavily dependent on potato farming. But today, more than 90 years after its genesis, AVCC is more than just a course on the border. It is an oasis of stunning, rollicking golf. Some of the course's elements followed the Prohibition era: It opened in 1929 as a nine-hole course, but by 1960 had grown to 18 holes under an expansion designed by Thompson's apprentice, Howard Watson. (Watson, like his boss, was known for his fondness of brown liquor —an appropriate quality for an architect laying out holes just a bump-and-run outside of Prohibition's reach. Legend has it that Watson once ordered a scotch and water at an American Society for Golf Course Architects function, with very specific instructions. “I prepared a very healthy drink for him, but he quickly wrinkled his nose and pushed it back at me," the bartender wrote. “He then had me get another glass and told me when to stop. Well, I poured Scotch in this tall glass until it was about two inches from the top. Howard then said. Top it oft' with water."')

Aroostook Valley's design still features the flattish sand traps reminiscent of its era. In 1929, it was small and exclusive. (“The membership," the Windsor Star newspaper reported that August, “is limited to 150, after which it is not surprising, in view of the varied attractions of borderland golf, to discover that there is a long waiting list.") Today, Aroostook Valley is semi-private with about 200 members, roughly half of whom are American and half are Canadian.

The meeting of these two countries is part of Aroostook Valley's character. Both the Canadian and American flags fly above the first tee and compose the club's logo; every few hundred feet, white obelisks serve as border markers between the two countries. (One of them stands prominently to the left of the first fairway, and a tee shot pulled too far left on the first hole can begin in Canada and finish in America.) An old, rusted sign near the pro shop commands, “Avoid Penalty—Report to Customs—Vehicles Entering United States Must Be Reported," and on the double green that serves as the exclamation point for both the ninth and 18th holes fly two pin flags: the Stars and Stripes and the Maple Leaf.

But it would be a mistake to suggest that this course is a borderland gimmick, or to confuse Aroostook Valley and the other Prohibition-era borderland courses as outdated excuses to build booze-friendly clubhouses. Aroostook Valley's routing climbs uphill to stunning views of the valley below, then back through the ancient forest and still farther down the hill before climbing back up to begin the second nine, diving farther down into the valley and then back around the hill to the clubhouse again, where relief (in all its forms) awaits. The course's greens rarely sit level with their approach shots, forcing the player into uncomfortable and challenging guesswork. And the greens themselves are full of creativity — tilted and contoured, but always fun.

Each Labor Day weekend, the club hosts the St. John Valley Open, one of the area's last amateur golf hurrahs before the elements send local golfers hibernating until spring. The course's rambunctious layout draws a wide diversity of ages and skill levels; the 2019 tournament's winner was more than twice the age of the final group's youngest player. Golfers begin arriving on Tuesday for practice rounds—many of them camping in tents along the practice green, just narrowly on the Canadian side of the border—before tournament rounds on Saturday and Sunday. Late in the afternoon each day during the St. John Valley Open, the real party begins. Impromptu putting matches break out on the practice green, a beer bottle or plastic cup dotting the green's edge here or there while its owner lines up his next shot. The air is just cool enough to whisper autumn's approach. The sun eventually goes down; the golfers do not. Flashlights and glow sticks keep the putting contests going, and spirits do the same. It's not debauchery. But it's not boring, either. It's an appropriate nod to Aroostook Valley's origins, and it's not hard to understand why players from hours away return year after year.

AVCC History from 1930-2022

At Aroostook Valley Country Club you will find the Stars and Stripes and the Maple Leaf flying side by side - and why not - for here is a golf course that is the success story of the combined efforts of members from both sides of the border. The site was chosen on land located a few miles from Fort Fairfield, Maine and near Four Falls, New Brunswick. A nine hole course was laid out on the Canadian side -- but so close to the border that a right-hander's hooked ball on Number 1 or Number 9 went right out of the country! They also chose the Canadian side for the clubhouse, probably as Maine was in the throes of prohibition. However, the parking lot was allocated for the American side. On October 4, 1927 they applied for letters patent. Renowned golf course designer, Howard K. Watson, was commissioned to redesign the original 9-hole layout in 1959. By 1960 the "new" 9 holes were ready and officially opened when Slammin' Sammy Snead played an exhibition match at AVCC. AVCC has also seen other professional tour players play our course, including Babe Zaharius and 1990 PGA Player of The Year, Wayne Levi.

The first by-laws limited membership to 150 men--family membership--wives and children between 16 and 21 years. Associate membership to unmarried ladies over 21 or a daughter or widow of a deceased member. A lady, if sponsored by an unmarried male member, was entitled to the privileges of the club for the current season. Members were elected by secret ballot--two nays and he's out!! Membership quota was Fort Fairfield 50, Presque Isle 40, Caribou 27, Perth-Andover 10, Grand Falls 3, Washburn 4, un-allotted 10. Dues were $40. The golf course was not opened to the ladies on Sunday until 2:00 PM and players were warned not to drive from the tee until players in front were past the distance markers - 175 yards. In July, 1929 a meeting was held at the clubhouse and a committee was given $5,000 to complete the clubhouse, furnish it, complete the four tennis courts, and grade the grounds.On August 26, 1929 they held their official opening with an exhibition match between the pros from Woodstock, Houlton, Saint John and Aroostook Valley. The big celebration ended with a dance, music furnished by the Ritz orchestra.The depression years were hard on the club. It was decided to do without a pro and employ a manager who would run the dining room and also collect the green fees. Dues were reduced to $20, and a still greater effort was made to encourage new members. One scheme was to give complimentary passes to clergy in the area, another was to see that all hotels had information about the course and their guests could pay green fees without a member sponsor. In 1933 the directors were delighted when the dance committee showed a season's profit of $15. Homemade breads and ice-cream were house specialties in the dining room and gourmet Sunday dinners were 50 cents. By 1935 AVCC changed its by-laws and opened the membership to anyone in the area - associate membership to anyone living beyond a 35 mile radius. Fees were now $30. Membership increased and in 1954 land was purchased to enlarge to an 18 hole course. After a tremendous amount of work and cooperation from various members and organizations, including Loring and Presque Isle AFBs, the new course (one of the finest on both sides of the border) was complete. By 1971 there were 316 playing members and 54 social members. In 1976, under the chairmanship of Gary Hatchard, AVCC hosted a 3-day, 54 hole Pro-Am event. It was a great success and the eventual winner was Wayne Levi, who, 14 years later, became the 1990 PGA Player of the Year.

AVCC is blessed with a tremendous staff and corps of volunteers. We have made significant updates to our facility with a tee-to-green irrigation system, a state of the art POS computer system which includes an online tee time booking system for our members and we added a new teeing area to our practice tee. All these additions have been done with relatively little increase in cost to play as a member or guest at AVCC. In 2009 AVCC experienced huge changes. Due to the changing world we live in and due to our most unique location, AVCC will not continue to experience the relatively free access our US and Canadian members and guests have enjoyed. US Homeland Security has determined our location a border security problem and will now require all visitors to AVCC, originating from Canada, to enter the US through a manned port of entry. This presents new challenges for AVCC. We have been fortunate for the past 80 years as a country club and will face this challenge head on, continuing to offer our members and guests the same professional service they have grown accustomed to. AVCC celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2009.

In the spring of 2012, the replacement of the 15 casement windows in our clubhouse was initiated. The former 40 year old windows were replaced with energy efficient windows. The project was started by member and director Jeff Murchison and member Himie Towle III. Through their efforts and the generous contributions of many, financial and otherwise, the success of this project was realized in short time.

On Friday, June 29, 2012, AVCC was hit hard by a violent thunderstorm and microbursts. Approximately 200 trees were lost and a substantial amount of damage was inflicted on the clubhouse, Pro Shop and cart sheds. Fortunately, the damage was restricted to AVCC property. The 20 or so members and employees present were unharmed, although shaken by the experience. As always the staff and membership of AVCC immediately responded and the course was playable within two days. It will be during the 2013 season before AVCC fully recovers from Mother Nature's wrath as fallen trees are removed, cart shed(s) rebuilt and/or  repaired.

Of all the hardships AVCC has faced over the years, 2020 will likely go down as our largest threat. As the COVID pandemic hit home in March 2020, our unique location along the Maine-New Brunswick international border has proven to be problematic. Respective US and Canadian government departments have seen fit to totally transform how our American and Canadian members and quests are to access AVCC. The affect of this decision has reduced our membership by nearly 50% and our total annual revenue by substantially more. We continue to carry on with determination to survive and restore some semblance of past normalcy. Our core membership and a huge contingent of friends of AVCC have supported our efforts.


© Aroostook Valley Country Club - 2021