By Tim Eberly
Clarence "Dutch" Boe turned 90 on Aug. 12. And the golf course he purchased with some of his friends is 73 years old.
Boe, who has been playing at the Chinook Golf and Country Club for 64 years, moved to Chinook in 1937 from Outlook. Upon arrival, he found a piece of land one and a half miles northwest of Chinook that a handful of men were renting for use as a makeshift course.
"It didn't look like much of a golf course at the time," said Boe, a retired teacher. "It looked like a piece of pasture land. They didn't have any means of taking care of it. We had no traps of any kind. The native grass that grew along the fairways was hazard enough."
Boe's soon-to-be partners had been renting the course since 1929. When Boe joined the pack, the group rented for another decade until a local rancher suggested they purchase the 160 acres, which were owned by the state.
"He said, I don't know why you fellas don't get busy and put on a bid,' " said Boe, who still golfs at the nine-hole course once a week. "He offered to protect us if somebody tried to match our bid. And nobody matched us.
"None of us were wealthy. But we all chipped in money and borrowed a little from the bank and got the whole 160 acres."
The land cost $1,600 $10 an acre. The golf course, a 110-acre spread, is one of a few member-owned courses in Montana. It costs approximately $50,000 a year to maintain and its 174 members chip in any way they see fit.
"We wouldn't be able to run the course without the volunteers," said Dave Boles, the president of the club's board of directors, which also includes two vice presidents, a treasurer and a secretary. "Because we wouldn't have the manpower to pay the contractors to do all the work."
In 1990, the members borrowed $100,000 from a local bank to plant dirt and install a sprinkler system. Six years later, the board of directors took out another hefty loan to replace the canary-colored grass with healthy greens. Members volunteered their time and equipment to contruct golf cart barns in 1986 and 1997. And the concrete foundation for a new clubhouse has been laid down recently to replace the old clubhouse, the casualty of a grease fire in 1997.
"You go from sand greens to grass greens, and we're pretty much a manicured course," Boles said.
Most unique about the course's system of operations is its honor code. There are no tee times. If golfers arrive and find another group on the first hole, they patiently wait their turn or jump ahead. And save for the busy summer months, the board of directors does not keep employees on hand to collect money from nonmember golfers. Therefore, a price list hangs on the front of the "starter shack," along with a warning that violaters will be prosecuted, and golfers are left to their own discretion, to drop their money down a wooden slot outside the shack. Remarkably, the golf course has never prosecuted a person for playing without paying.
"It hasn't been a problem," Boles said. "We trust pretty much anybody that comes and plays golf that they'll pay. Most of the members know each other."
Resting comfortably in the Milk River Valley, the slanted course overlooks a splendid view of the Bear Paw Mountains, located 20 miles south. "You couldn't get a better view," Boles said. "One of the reasons why the clubhouse is up on the hill is because it overlooks the view."
And evidence still remains of the pasture from which the course evolved. Cattle from a bordering ranch often gather in bunches near the No. 2 hole, just on the other side of the fence. A stone's throw from the No. 5 hole are two cylinder-shaped grains bins larger than a three-story building. Adding to the water hazards on the No. 1 and No. 9 holes is the occasional rattlesnake that slithers onto the fairway. The course itself is dotted with patches of yellow grass, a humbling reminder of what once was.
"Sometime in the future, there will be 18 holes out here," said Roy Case, the first vice president on the board of directors. "It will be a compact 18 holes, but there's talk about it."
The Chinook High School golf team calls the course home, playing nine matches there each season. A Havre businessman organizes a youth golf club to come out and play once a year. But most of the money raised to keep the course afloat hails from raffles, donations and tournaments. The Rocky Boy's Pow-Wow tournament, which once drew participants from Canada, is held each July.
Every Wednesday, 19 teams convene for the men's league, which runs from April to September and is culminated by a Toyota-sponsored club championship on Sept. 15. Blue jeans appear to be the standard dress code during league play, which is equal parts barbecue and golf tournament. One team is chosen each Wednesday to work the grill, cooking hamburgers ($2), double burgers ($3) and selling domestic beers ($1.50) and soda pop. Though the club will pull in up to $6,000 from the concession stand, which is parked under an old equipment shed next to the starter shack, two-thirds of that money pays for prizes for tournament winners.
"People won't come if you don't have the prizes," said Matt Williams, a member for seven years who was working the grill on Wednesday.
Later this year, the Chinook course and Malta-based Marian Hills Golf Club, which used to be member-owned, will raffle off a 2001 Dodge Stratus. Members of both clubs divied 800 tickets to be sold at $50 apiece, and both courses hope to make $10,000 for their efforts.
Not having a clubhouse for the past several years has hampered the club's growth. In it, members used to stay late into the night, playing cards and drinking beer. Membership is down 18 people from last year, and includes only 30 female members. However, the members expect the clubhouse to be fully constructed and waterproofed by fall. It may not be as plush as some suburban country club courses, but it's comfortable. Just expect to be treated equally.
"Everyman golfs here," said Williams. "We have bankers, lawyers, farmers and construction workers. There's no social stratification out here. There's no country club atmosphere."