Butter Valley Golf Port

John Gehman is one of a long line of family who have lived on and cared for their land in the “butter valley” (so called for its history of dairy farming) lying between Hereford and Boyertown. The Gehmans have owned the property since 1788. But the mooing of cows is a distant memory in this corner of the valley. Today you’re more likely to hear the thwack of golf balls and the whir of airplane engines at Butter Valley Golf Port.

“In the 1960s my parents wondered if it made sense to continue operating the dairy farm. Even though it was one of the larger, more progressive operations, the income didn’t justify the investment,” Gehman explains. Neighbors and friends thought the farm’s rolling terrain would make a great golf course. “So my dad did a feasibility study by visiting courses on Sundays. When he saw the full parking lots, he decided this would be a good alternative,” says Gehman with a chuckle.

The Gehmans designed and constructed the course themselves with the help of golfers who went into the fields to hit balls. “My dad did all the irrigation, even though he had no training,” Gehman remembers. Butter Valley Golf Port’s 18-hole course opened in 1969.

In the late 1980s, the course was lengthened, and new holes were added. Recently, the 6th green was rebuilt, and the 3rd hole was made into a par 5. “Even though we’ve made the course more challenging,” Gehman explains, “it’s not too hard for the average golfer.” Course pro, Gary Brooks, is available for lessons; and there are several leagues for ladies, men and seniors. Butter Valley has a fully stocked pro shop and a six-bay indoor driving range. These are housed in the former dairy barn, along with the Runway Grill, open for breakfast and lunch.

When his parents retired in 1988, John and his family took over. “I was scared to death,” he remembers. With no special training, he learned the hard way when the course suffered an agronomic meltdown in 1994 and much of the grass was lost. “Jim Loke from Bent Creek Country Club near Lancaster, whom I knew through Central Penn Golf Course Superintendents Association, helped me get things back in order,” he says. Since then, Gehman has kept up with trends and practices through membership in numerous golf associations. Newly added is a GPS caddie system on carts that measures distances and provides yardage and playing tips to duffers.

What about those airplanes? Gehman’s father learned to fly in 1946 and built a runway on the farm. A longer strip went in before the course was built and is now part of the playing experience, lying between the 10th and 15th fairways. Visitors are greeted by the sight of small planes parked nearby and may see increased fly-ins on weekends. Airport services include tie-down, hangar space and repair.

Gehman hopes to eventually hand Butter Valley over to his children, but “due to the tough economy, it’s just not feasible now,” he explains. His son Josh is grounds superintendent, and other family members work there as well.

What’s in the future for golfing? “Until the early ‘90s, the golf industry was a ‘field of dreams,’” Gehman says. “If you built it, they would come. But players became more serious and new courses meant more competition. Owners forgot about the people who made the game boom: the average player who goes out to have fun.” He wants to encourage more families to golf and bring young people into the game. One way Butter Valley does that is by holding a (Grand) Parent-Child Tournament in July using modified alternative shot play. (2011 date is Monday, July 25.) “It’s great to see the smiles of satisfaction on their faces as the teams come off the course,” Gehman says.

Even though the cows and cornfields are a distant memory, some things haven’t changed at Butter Valley Golf Port. The rolling countryside terrain gives players the natural feeling they experienced on golf courses decades ago. It’s the perfect place to “renew the spirit” with family and friends, Gehman says.

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