The venerable Aroostook Valley Country Club faces unique financial challenges because of the pandemic. Since the closing of the U.S.-Canadian border, club members from New Brunswick cannot access the course even though it is located in Canada. Aroostook Valley Country Club photo

During the days of prohibition in the United States, if you wanted an alcoholic libation at Aroostook Valley Country Club, you simply walked from the pro shop to the clubhouse.

The pro shop, parking lot and entrance are all located in Fort Fairfield. The clubhouse and golf course are in Canada. The club’s unique location has made for interesting tales, as well as a bond between golfers on both sides of the border.

But that location is now a problem, threatening the club’s existence and denying Canadian golfers a chance to play on a course in Canada.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic and the closing of the U.S.-Canada border, Canadians cannot access the club. The only entrance remains in the U.S.

“We’re caught in the COVID situation and our location works against us,” said head pro and manager Stephen Leitch.

Leitch, 52, has been at Aroostook Valley since 1994. He said the membership usually averages “around 50-50” between the two countries. Last year, there were 106 American members and 85 Canadian members.

This year: 94 Americans and 27 Canadians. Those Canadians paid their dues but cannot visit the club. Leitch said they will get either a credit or refund, depending on when the border is open again.

Like everything with this pandemic, timetables keep changing. Canadian Prime Minster Justin Trudeau recently extended the border closing another 30 days, to June 21.

Without the Canadian members, as well as greens fee from other Canadians – the course is open to nonmembers – the club has some financial challenges.

“We’re hoping to stay open,” Leitch said. “Revenues are down, but that’s not uncommon for anyone (because of the coronavirus). We’ve made accommodations with far less staff.”

Leitch and six others work at the club. The clubhouse now has a limited menu and service. Members call ahead with their orders, but don’t stay in the clubhouse.

The staff, including Leitch, are Canadians who commute daily. Leitch said the U.S. and Canadian governments grant those with jobs across the border “essential worker” status, allowing them to travel back and forth. They are exempt from Canada’s 14-day quarantine requirement for those entering the country, as well as Maine’s 14-day quarantine rule for nonresidents entering the state.

Supporters of the club want Canadian members to have the same privileges as the workers.

“We want to get the members to be considered essential, and be able to come across (the border) and not be subject to quarantines,” said Bruce Bickford, executive director of the Maine State Golf Association.

“We call them essential because they are essential to the viability of (Aroostook Valley).”

Bickford said the MSGA is trying to help Aroostook Valley “just as we would any golf course – and this is a unique course with a unique challenge.”

Bickford said Canada Golf, the nation’s governing body of the sport, has pledged its support, and he’s hoping the U.S. Golf Association will lend its lobbying effort. He said the MSGA and club members have also reached out to U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, an Aroostook County native from Caribou.

While the club is 300 miles north of Portland, the club attracts golfers from across the state.

“It’s a real special place,” said MSGA President Curt Jordan of Portland. “I’ve been going annually for five years on Labor Day weekend for the St. John Valley Open. It’s a fantastic experience with Canadian and U.S. players – golfers of any ability. What’s great is how welcoming the membership is there.”

That “friendly atmosphere” is what attracted club member Herrick Hansen to join in 1972. Hansen, 70, said the course is a gem, too: “It’s not a long course, but it has lots of challenges, with hills, and very good greens.”

But Hansen has not been allowed to play there this year. He lives in Perth-Andover, New Brunswick. “I’ve made a few trips to local courses (in Canada) and I know some have joined other clubs. But I don’t want to make that move. I’m hoping for June 21, but I’m not optimistic.”

The course – which Bickford said would be one of the top five courses in southern Maine if it were located here – was opened as a nine-hole layout in 1929. According to the country club’s website, the clubhouse’s location in Canada allowed golfers to avoid the Prohibition ban on alcohol. The course expanded to 18 holes in 1960, with golf legend Sam Snead playing in an exhibition for the grand opening. Another legendary player, Babe Zaharias, played at Aroostook Valley.

Canadian members enjoyed relatively easy access to the course until the 9/11 tragedy eventually forced changes along the border. Starting in 2009, Homeland Security required visitors from Canada into Fort Fairfield to use a single, manned entry. That seemed a relative inconvenience, but now that entry is closed to everyone but essential workers.

“Ultimately, in a perfect world, we would get our Canadian members over here,” said Leitch, the golf pro.

“People on both sides of the border consider this their golf club. We’re not Americans and Canadians; we’re all just golfers.”


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