by Carla Occaso
MONTPELIER — The Montpelier Elks Country Club, a local recreation staple since 1902, has been in the hands of the Elks Club since the 1950s. Lately, though, with a huge decline in interest in golf and with higher operating costs, the Elks can no longer afford to run the golf course and facilities up on the hill across from Agway out on Route 2.
Scott Cameron, chairman of the Elks Club Golf Committee, and Tim Hutchins, exalted ruler of the Elks Club, came to The Bridge’s office recently to explain their situation. The heyday of social clubs where people went outside and did things together in groups has long passed, according to Cameron. Membership in the Elks was at its highest — around 1,600 members — at a time before the Internet, and social clubs and service clubs were popular. Membership in the Elks Club has dwindled to 458 members today, Cameron said, adding, “It is a trend that people are not as eager to join organizations.” In addition to golf, the Elks organize youth programs, including a dictionary program for younger students where they distribute dictionaries to local schools. And the Elks Club offers scholarships to seniors in high school. They also offer a drug awareness program, a basketball hoop shoot, a soccer shoot, a golf clinic, and they help for local churches.
Cameron and Hutchins went on to discuss the history, function, and future of the Montpelier Elks Country Club:
Hutchins: We offer a lot for local families who are in stress. We donate a lot. We have two great dining facilities, and we have a large room at the club that can fit 300 people.
Cameron: It is a 15,000-square-foot facility on 120 acres. That is part of our problem. It is difficult to financially sustain that. When we had 1,600 members, it fit us better.
Hutchins: So a lot of times we donate that room. We set up food and help families out that are in need.
Cameron: Some have been Elks and their families, other are not. A year or two ago there was a family from a nearby community, the kid had cancer. His mother had no automobile … very distressed. We did a fundraiser. People donated all kinds of things. We did a silent auction. We raised over $15,000 for the family. The Humane Society also has been using our facilities once a year for their big fundraiser.
Occaso: Does the country club have anything like ski trails or hiking trails, or is it all golf?
Cameron: In the winter we have activities that are non-golf up on the golf course. Maybe you’ve seen those bikes with the fat tires? We put snowmobile trails up for them and, they would have some competitions. I am sure people go cross country skiing up there as well.
Occaso: Is it open to the public, or do just Elks go there?
Cameron: It is a private club, but it is open to the public. The public can lease the facilities for parties, weddings, and fundraising activities. We run the golf course, which is one of the nicest 9-hole golf courses in Vermont. You don’t have to be an Elk to use the golf course. Anyone, whether they are an Elk or not, is free to use the golf course, including the bar and the dining room.
Occaso: So it is like a clubhouse where you can play golf and have lunch?
Cameron: Yes. The Elks Club is nondiscriminatory. Men and women are equally involved.
Hutchins: Women do a ton for us up at the lodge. They are very important to our membership.
Cameron: At our golf course we have statewide and internal tournaments, we have a men’s golf league on Tuesdays, and a women’s golf league on Wednesdays. It is very popular with the women who golf up there. Golf has the reputation of being an exclusive sport, but I would say ours is a working-man’s golf course. We’ve got a blue collar tinge to it. The country club is very well taken care of, but it is a very relaxed and friendly place, and a great place to come and learn golf.
We hosted the Montpelier High School boys and girls teams until last year, when their coach made a decision to take them to Barre. We were disappointed. U-32 didn’t have a golf team last year, so U-32 players folded into Montpelier. They play matches there. We open our courses to them.
Interest in golf in this country has dwindled quite a bit since 2008, and Vermont is no exception. Since the recession, people have to make decisions about how they are going to spend limited funds. So, golf is a tough thing for two reasons: Money and time. Nationally, in recent years, over 1,000 golf courses have closed. There are 4 million fewer people playing golf. We are kind of fanatics about it. We are trying our best to build it back up.
Occaso: You guys love golf. What is so great about golf?
Cameron: Well, the best thing is that you are outside. Unlike other sports, at the end of the day it is not whether the other guy is bigger or stronger or faster than you, it is a matter of whether you can control your own emotions and everything else and play the golf course. It is your swing. Your putt.
Hutchins: It is you against your own mind.
Cameron: It is more of a psychological game, in many ways, than a physical game. Once you’ve gotten down the physical components, you have to conquer the mental. It is a wonderful social game, too. You play with your friends. When you are out on the golf course, you don’t think of the little worries that bother you. You see fox, deer, pileated woodpeckers. It is a calming place to be.
We make enough money to cover our operational costs — the superintendent, grounds crew, pro shop and such, but we are unable to meet all our expenses, such as the property taxes. We’ve been trying to sell the whole facility. We are hoping we will be able to retain some space there for the Elks Club and keep running the golf course, or build a smaller facility for the Elks Club up there, but there is a lot of uncertainty right now.
We are hoping people join us as members and come up and play the greens because that is the only way that we’ll be able to keep the course there. We’ve been stewards of that golf course for the last 50 or 60 years. We’ve kept it alive for the people in the city of Montpelier and central Vermont. The message we’d like to get out to the folks who read The Bridge is that if this is something that is important to you, we need your support. We need you to join. We need you to come up and play golf.