Proof in the Spirits

A toast to the thirsty souls who brought golf to the U.S.-Canada border in the face of Prohibition
Photo By: Tristan Spinksi
Listen to a reading of this feature by the author

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. 

Photo by: Tristan Spinski
The outlaw roots still reverberate at Aroostook Valley Country Club.

In May 1921, a small, seemingly innocuous paragraph appeared inside the Express and Standard newspaper in Newport, Vermont: “The Dufferin Heights Golf Club will hold the first meeting at the links Tuesday afternoon, May 24th. The public are cordially invited. Tea will be served at the Dufferin Heights tea house.”

Just a little more than a year had elapsed since the onset of Prohibition. Coincidentally, Dufferin Heights Golf Club sat a mere 5 miles north of Canada’s border with Vermont—just beyond the reach of American jurisdiction. Yet even more coincidentally, golf clubs had little tradition of drinking tea. Most coincidentally of all, “tea” was a common 1920s code word for alcohol.

Prohibition intersected with American golf at a fortuitous moment: Liquor might have been off the menu (at least publicly) during the 1920s, but the American middle class was exploding, and so was golf. Migration from rural areas to urban centers and suburbs carried the golf-crazed to land that could accommodate both courses and the country clubs that called them home. According to one contemporary account, America was host to more than 750 golf courses in 1916; by 1930, the figure had topped 5,800, with more than 4,600 of them private.

Geoffrey Cornish, the prolific Canadian golf-course architect who died in 2012 at age 97, had another theory concerning the proliferation of private clubs: They were as much about skirting Prohibition as they were about golf.“[Cornish] had talked to the old-timers. He had done work in New England for years and years and years,” says history professor Pete Moss, the author of Golf and the American Country Club and a friend of Cornish. “And he was adamant that one of the motivating factors for building clubs in the ’20s was to have a private place to drink.”

Dufferin Heights, of course, took that approach to a completely different level. It didn’t just hold its “tea parties” behind closed doors; it moved the doors to a completely different country.

Its approach was creative, but not unique. Several clubs popped up in the 1920s right on the U.S.-Canada border: Aroostook Valley Country Club, running along New Brunswick’s border with extreme northeastern Maine, opened in 1929; Gateway Cities Golf Club, which straddles the border just north of Portal, North Dakota, opened in 1928; and, that same year, Peace Portal Golf Club in Vancouver opened a well-struck drive north of Blaine, Washington.

These clubs’ memberships were mostly American. Yet, somehow, their clubhouses always seemed to fall in Canada.

Photo by: Tristan Spinski
Herrick Hansen, manager of the Aroostook Valley Country Club.

Much of America looks today as it did 100 years ago: untouched and unchanged by the human progress of the past century. Its border with its northern neighbor is emblematic. For more than 5,500 miles, the United States’ partition with Canada stretches across lakes, forests and mountains, from Earth’s largest ocean to its second-largest—the world’s longest international boundary between two countries. The expanse is massive and largely undeveloped, and the American government struggles today with the logistical nightmares of how to patrol it—much as it did 100 years ago.

Back then, that made this wilderness a prime territory for liquor trafficking. During Prohibition, countless bootleggers crossed the woods and rivers near the Canadian border to bring alcohol to the United States in quantities great and small.

Objects in the rearview mirror are closer than they appear, and Prohibition is no different: To a nation populated today by people born mostly after World War II, Prohibition feels like ancient history. It is anything but. America’s 13-year experiment with banning the distribution of alcohol ended in December 1933; for comparison’s sake, former President Jimmy Carter was born in 1924, and businessman Warren Buffett was born in 1930. 

Relatively recent in American history though it may be, for modern Americans, Prohibition is nearly unthinkable—a constitutional amendment to banish the country’s fifth-largest industry and, along with it, an elixir that had been part of the American experience from its beginning. In truth, to many Americans, Prohibition was unfathomable even at the time; it was championed most strongly in rural states, and there is no evidence that a majority of Americans ever supported it.

Like most public-policy overreactions, underneath Prohibition lay a legitimate concern: America’s decades-long, bottle-in-glove relationship with alcohol. Today, American adults consume an average of about 13.6 drinks per week, or a little less than two per day. But in 1830, adult Americans were drinking 1.7 bottles of 80-proof liquor per week—and that was on average, even including the country’s millions of teetotalers. That worked out to 7 gallons of pure alcohol every year. Alcohol was so freely available in the 1820s that it was less expensive than tea. And this was the hard stuff—beer didn’t drench the national conscience until the second half of the 19th century, when pasteurization, refrigeration and railways made broad distribution more feasible. When beer began pouring, it flowed like a river. In 1850, Americans drank 36 million gallons of beer; by 1890, they chugged more than 850 million gallons.

The social cost of this obsession went beyond the revulsion of religious fundamentalists and killjoys. America was drunk. More accurately, its men were drunk. Habitually drunk husbands and fathers were habitually violent and undependable. To divorce these drunk husbands and to protect children from their drunk fathers, women needed changes in the law that could come only from voting. In this way, champions of women’s suffrage became the first in a collection of strange bedfellows that made Prohibition politically possible—and not all of them were motivated by such lofty ideals. In Prohibition, anti-immigration nationalists found a vehicle through which to attack the Western European immigrants who led America’s brewing industry; white supremacists used it as a platform from which to slander African Americans as crazed and untrustworthy.

These forces fell far short of forming a majority coalition, but they didn’t have to. The Anti-Saloon League (ASL) wasn’t the first political organization to fight the drink, but it was by far the most effective. Between the ASL’s formation in 1893 and the ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919, the League amassed hordes of state legislators and congressmen beholden to its only policy objective. To maintain its vice grip on America’s political system, the ASL employed an ingenious strategy that used its minority coalition to sway election after election. As Daniel Okrent explained in Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, “The ASL did not seek to win majorities; it played on the margins, aware that if it could control, say, one-tenth of the voters in any close race, it could determine the outcome.…The ASL had no problem supporting a Republican today and a Democrat tomorrow, so long as the candidates were faithful on the only issue the league cared about.”

The League and its allies were buoyed by the fact that their chief opponents, distillers and brewers, were comically unorganized and distrustful of one another. “The Non-Drinkers had been organizing for fifty years and the Drinkers had no organization whatsoever,” the writer George Ade observed in 1931. “They had been too busy drinking.”

Even so, just a few years before Prohibition became reality, its opponents scoffed at the possibility that the United States constitution—which, omitting the three Civil War amendments, had been altered just four times in nearly 130 years—might be changed to incorporate Prohibition. In December 1914, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, James Beauchamp “Champ” Clark, recounted to the Detroit Board of Commerce that Congressman Richmond P. Hobson—a zealous “dry” supporter—had predicted that nationwide prohibition would be accomplished within 10 years. Clark turned to the assembled reporters and reiterated, “Have you got that? Hobson is a lunatic.” Okrent’s history of Prohibition also recounts that before the end of Clark’s speech in Detroit, “his hosts had felt it necessary to turn off the lights and cut him short. Clark was so drunk he had lapsed into incoherence, his words slurred, his gestures unsteady.”

The overconfidence of Prohibition’s opponents was not rooted in complacency alone; it was rooted also in American tax policy. In 1910, the federal government derived more than 30 percent of its income from taxes on alcohol. The Supreme Court had held income taxes unconstitutional in 1895, and without that source of revenue, the federal government simply could not afford to ban the sale of alcohol. But that changed in 1913. That year, the 16th Amendment was ratified, establishing Congress’ authority to levy an income tax and effectively overturning the Supreme Court’s 1895 ruling. Suddenly, Prohibition was not only politically possible, but financially possible too.

By the time the new Congress was seated in 1917, the Anti-Saloon League finally had all of its pieces in place. Decades of social engineering and political maneuvering had led to the moment; what followed occurred, by comparison, at breakneck speed. The proposed amendment breezed through Congress in December 1917. (The House of Representatives passed the measure by a 282–128 vote; in the Senate, it drew only eight nays.) Next came ratification by three-fourths of the states: Mississippi was first, in January 1918, and little more than a year later, Nebraska hammered the final cork into the nation’s bottles. After a one-year waiting period (included in the amendment to soothe liquor moderates), the sun set on Jan. 16, 1920. When it rose the next morning, the United States was dry.

Tristan Spinski

Even at the time, the motivation for golf clubs to locate just the other side of the border was no secret. In its earliest, scariest days, Prohibition was widely flaunted (“Prohibition was better than no liquor at all,” went a popular joke); it was the law of the land, but so were speed limits. The federal government’s initial commitment to enforcing Prohibition was funded with just $2.1 million, and even at the enforcement effort’s peak, the feds committed just 3,000 agents to the task. (The New York City Police Department currently has about 36,000 officers.)

Some of the border-straddling golf clubs opened with a wink and a nod. During Gateway Cities’ construction in 1926, the Associated Press marveled at the cross-border routing: “The first tee is in the land of the Stars and Stripes but the holes are in the land of the Union Jack.” The report never mentioned alcohol, but its closing sentence answered the obvious question: “Customs and immigration regulations have not up to the present interfered with the good fellowship of the game.”

Other clubs were even more brash with the solution they’d discovered. In April 1928, Francis Ouimet—legendary champion of the 1913 U.S. Open who helped fan the flame of America’s early golf craze—announced plans to open Richford Country Club on just shy of 1,000 acres stretching across the Canadian border just north of Richford, Vermont. Conveniently, the clubhouse was sited on the Canadian side.

“The inference is obvious,” wrote United Press sports editor Frank Getty, “and already has been brought to the attention of the state department, the commissioner general of immigration, [and] the Anti-Saloon league.” Getty wrote that federal officials had expressed “considerable agitation” at Ouimet’s plan. On the other hand, Getty reported, “[t]he Canadian government is undisturbed by the proposal.”

Canada’s receptivity to American golfers in search of an above-board 19th hole reflected that nation’s broader willingness to help their southern neighbors tip a glass. The attitude stemmed from more than simple neighborliness: Alcohol was big business, and Canadians were more than happy to step in as Americans’ new supplier. In 1921, the federal official charged with keeping New York dry estimated that 40 million gallons of whiskey remained hidden in the state’s rural areas, thanks largely to Canada’s 114 entry points guarded by just 18 men. “Enough whiskey comes through Canada to float the United States Navy,” he complained.

The symbiotic relationship between American golfers in search of a drink and Canadian hosts eager to capitalize was personified by Stanley Thompson. Thompson is widely acknowledged as Canada’s greatest golf-course architect; his designs include Banff Springs Golf Club and the Jasper Park Lodge Golf Club. He had an eye for dramatic scenery and, purportedly, a taste for Canadian Club. During Prohibition, he designed at least eight courses on or near the U.S.-Canada border. 

But Thompson’s pocketbook wasn’t the only one that thirsty American golfers helped pad. In 1921, Thompson designed the course at Beach Grove Country Club in Ontario, just a short ferry ride from Detroit, Michigan. As Golf Canada magazine recorded in 1999, “The president of the club was Harrington E. Walker, and Hiram Walker was a director. The Hiram Walker distillery turned out Canadian Club rye whiskey.”

Tristan Spinski
U.S. Border Patrol demands Canadian golfers drive to a nearby American border station, submit to an inspection, then travel on American roads to play AVCC.

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 off 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 New England 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.

“It’s just an awesome piece of land, an awesome layout,” says Steve Hansen, Aroostook Valley’s assistant manager—and, on the occasion of the St. John Valley Open, also a participant, tournament organizer and groundskeeper. Hansen grew up at Aroostook Valley—as a kid, he would chip balls onto the greens with his father’s Ping 9-iron—and returned home after playing college golf in Georgia to help the club’s manager run the place. “Every single hole is different, and they just seem to be laid out perfectly in sequence,” he says. “You can play the course eight different ways. You play up and down the hills, with a flow that feels a lot like Augusta National.”

Photo by: Tristan Spinski
The lengths some people will go to for a drink: At Aroostook, an erratic tee shot can mean one’s ball just went out of bounds and across international borders.

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 glowsticks 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.

“A lot of the guys know each other,” Hansen says, “and maybe when they were younger, they played a lot of tournament golf. The camaraderie that they feel at their home clubs, they feel the same thing here. We know most of them by name, because most of them have been coming for years. But even the ones that haven’t been coming too long, it just feels like home to them when they come up here.”

Contrary to popular belief, the stock market crash of October 1929 did not begin the Great Depression. But it did make the Great Depression inevitable. For two reasons, it did the same for the end of Prohibition.

First, the crash led voters to turn dramatically on Prohibition’s chief political supporters. For much of the history of its political rise and establishment as law, Prohibition had defied political affiliation: Some of its supporters were conservative and some were liberal, while some were Democrats and some were Republicans. But by 1930, the battle lines had crystallized into more of a conventional partisan issue: Democrats had become far likelier to oppose Prohibition than Republicans (who controlled both the White House and Congress; as the party in power, they were more attractive a target for the Anti-Saloon League’s support). So, in the shadow of economic calamity, when voters turned on Republicans in the 1930 congressional midterm elections, their verdict ushered into power a wave of booze-friendly Democrats and brought the 18th Amendment into sudden and unexpected jeopardy.

Photo by: Tristan Spinski
Prohibition is long gone, but hearty border clubs like Aroostook remain in play.

Second, the stock market crash crippled the federal government’s sources of tax revenue. By 1932, nearly one in four Americans was unemployed. Fewer jobs meant less income. Less income meant diminished income-tax revenue: Between 1930 and 1932, it dropped an astonishing 60 percent. Without incomes as a meaningful source of tax revenue, the federal government began looking longingly at its old, taxable friend: alcohol.

The 1932 presidential election signed Prohibition’s death warrant. On the promise of “a new deal for the American people,” voters swept Franklin Roosevelt into the White House; he won 42 of the nation’s 48 states, the most lopsided victory of any challenger in the history of the American presidency. Less than three weeks after taking office, Roosevelt signed the Beer and Wine Revenue Act, which allowed for the sale of beer and wine with up to 3.2% alcohol. (The 18th Amendment forbade the sale of “intoxicating liquors”; FDR’s law cleverly avoided the Amendment by deeming beverages with so little alcohol not technically “intoxicating.”) In December 1933, the 21st Amendment—the U.S. Constitution’s only instance of one amendment repealing another—was ratified. Prohibition was dead.

Legal booze did not kill the borderland clubs. Aroostook Valley added its second nine after World War II; Peace Portal, Richford, Dufferin Heights and Gateway Cities all remain open today, all affordable and accessible to public play. (Beach Grove, the Stanley Thompson design just outside Detroit, remains private.) But the end of Prohibition also ended the necessity of Americans situating golf clubs on the edge of their nation’s soil. Nevertheless, after the Great Depression ended, country-club growth never returned to its frenetic 1920s pace, so, in many cases, the borderland courses remained the best golf option for their isolated regions.

And so they are today: remote and isolated, with nearly the entirety of the United States to one side. In many ways, that country in the distance has changed since these clubs opened some 90 years ago. Prohibition is gone; for drinkers, America is no longer a desert. Even so, the borderland clubs are still oases. For the hearty players who know them, the courses still slake their thirst.