Background photo of the beach at Whale Cove was made by Bryce Buchanan in 2004. (Via WikiMedia Commons, cc/by/SA)
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First, of course, he built some infrastructure: a water system, an airport, a golf course, and a first-class restaurant on the shores of a large artificial lake (the Christmas Valley Lodge). He knew that once all this was in place and looking great, potential buyers would see it as evidence that he was serious about developing Christmas Valley — that he wasn’t just a hustler selling chunks of useless land.
Once all this was in place, he started the hustle.
He ran advertisements that were wildly overoptimistic about the development potential of the Oregon high desert in national magazines, featuring “artist’s conception” drawings of gorgeous pastoral landscapes with stately willow trees, tidy board fences, and herds of cattle and horses. People bought parcels of Christmas Valley land, sight unseen, based on these.
For bigger fish, his salesmen would fly them out to Christmas Valley in a DC-3 airliner, squiring them around to a few carefully manicured showplaces near the artificial lake and feeding them a gourmet dinner at the lodge before flying them home again, providing a carefully curated experience designed to give as glowing an impression as possible of what Christmas Valley might one day be.
As it always had, it worked like magic. Within three months Phillips had sold almost all the lots.
But this time there was a problem. He had marketed them to investors, not homeowners, and the appeal had been a sort of impulse purchase: “For $10 a month, you can own five acres in this beautiful community, that you can retire to someday when you no longer have to live in Akron or Allentown or wherever your job is.”
So thousands bought in — but dozens came to live. And of those dozens, all but a handful turned around and drove away. Some of the ones who drove away went straight to their attorneys’ offices, and soon Phillips was dealing with legal issues as well as logistical ones.
A community can’t grow without people in it. Phillips had predicted a population of over 5,000; by 1967, there were still just 150 or 200 there. But Phillips had made almost all the money he could make on the project. It’s highly unlikely that Phillips ever set foot in Christmas Valley again after 1963, although his jovial Daddy Warbucks face and prosperous cigar appeared at the top of his front-page column, “Penn Points,” in every issue of the weekly newspaper his company published, the Christmas Valley Gazette.
Finally, in 1970, Phillips officially gave up, disbanded his company, and threw himself wholeheartedly into the comfortable and easy life of a retired millionaire. He died in 1979 at the age of 91, in Sierra Madre, Calif.
So Christmas Valley — although it still benefits from the amenities Phillips put into it — faded back to something like what it had once been. Today it is a biggish sort of high-desert town boasting 1,500 or so residents, most of whom live on lots and parcels platted by Phillips in ’61.
TODAY, THE PRESENCE of Penn Phillips is just a memory, warmed and softened with nostalgia as the years go by. Longtime residents of Christmas Valley still have some great stories of the crazy go-go days of 1962 and 1963, along with the lake, lodge, golf course, and airport — amenities they probably would never have gotten without Penn Phillips.
They also have a surprisingly active real-estate market. On the popular real-estate website Zillow, as of August 2018, a little under half of all properties for sale in all of Lake County are in Christmas Valley. There are 103 listings for property for sale there — roughly one property for sale for every 12 men, women, and children living in and around Christmas Valley. Mostly the properties are unimproved five-acre lots that sell for $3,000 to $5,000 apiece ... which, after inflation, is roughly 45 to 65 percent of what Phillips sold them for back in 1963.