Full Town History

Early History of Christmas Valley, Oregon
by Melany Tupper

“Why do they call it ‘Christmas Valley?'” is often the first phrase out of the mouths of visitors to this desolate section of north Lake County. Even when the sagebrush and alfalfa fields of Christmas Valley are covered in a blanket of snow, visitors are hard-pressed to find anything “Christmassy” about the town.

The prevailing theory of how the community acquired its unlikely name is that some unidentified map maker clumsily mislabeled a lake in the area. On Christmas morning 1843 explorer John Charles Fremont and his men camped by and named a lake “Christmas,” located in what is now the Warner Valley. Some believed that the name of Fremont№s lake had been accidentally picked up and attached to a lake in north Lake County.

Maps published by Rand McNally in 1905 and 1907 show two separate lakes in Lake County with the name of “Christmas.” One of these two lakes is the lake Fremont named in the Warner Valley. The second lake is still known to residents of Christmas Valley and lies just to the north and east of that town. In the early 1900’s the community of Christmas Valley was called “Christmas Lake,” and the appearance of two Christmas Lakes on at least two maps of the day would seem to refute the idea that Christmas Valley was named ‘by mistake.’

  Three decades after Fremont another cartographic party would conduct a survey of north Lake County, having been summoned there after a rancher made the astonishing and bizarre discovery of a pleistocene-age fossil bed. “I have in my possession some bones which doubtless once belonged to some pre-historic animal of much larger size and different form from anything now known to exist in this country, or probably any other,” wrote former Oregon Governor John Whiteaker in an 1875 editorial that appeared in the Eugene City Guard. Whiteaker was describing some of the first specimens from Fossil Lake, the bones of a mammoth extracted by a “stock-keeper.” Whiteaker visited Lake County frequently during the 1870’s and 1880’s to check on personal ranching interests there. Christmas Valley was open range land in the 1870’s, and government records of the era show no permanent inhabitants. Numerous Summer Lake, Chewaucan, and Silver Lake ranchers used the valley as winter range for livestock, and the only structures were a few scattered range cabins used seasonally. “On all the neighboring ranches, the cattle were turned into the desert for food and shelter in winter,” wrote fossil hunter Charles Sternberg of his August 1877 visit. “It was the custom of the country at that day to consider food and shelter free to all.”

  Melva Bach, in her History of Fremont National Forest, stated that Christmas Lake had been named by what she called “early pioneers,” and maps of the period, dotted with the names of Silver Lake and Summer Lake ranchers who were pioneers in every sense of the word, stand to enforce Bach’s opinion. These maps offer a who’s-who of the day by associating names of the pre-homesteaders with various features like springs, creeks, lakes, and hills.

  Whiteaker spearheaded a government surveying expedition of Fossil Lake in 1877 that included four Summer Lake Ranchers, four men from the General Land Office, Whiteaker№s son Charlie, and George Duncan, the Silver Lake Postmaster. Whiteaker further wrote that a “herder” had made the initial discovery of the fossil bed in 1874, and although this individual is not named, he would have been one of the very earliest settlers in the region.

  George Duncan of Silver Lake had a spring named for him five miles to the east of Christmas Lake. Joel Langdon of Summer Lake had a set of springs named for him that lie about three miles east of Christmas Lake. A rancher by the name of Levi Button gained some notoriety for having appeared in Sternberg’s book, Life of a Fossil Hunter. Button is named as a business partner to Langdon in the 1880 census and had a ranch of his own and a set of springs named for him about 20 miles northeast of Christmas Lake. The Connley Hills are another geographic feature named for pre-homestead ranchers.

  A federal survey crew arrived on the scene to chart the remainder of the Christmas Lake Valley in 1882, and created a map and notes that mention two ranches near Christmas Lake. “Two settlers John Jackson on the West side and A.R. Chase on the East side of the lake have houses and other improvements,” wrote deputy surveyor John Meldrum. The map shows the locations of the ranches, the west ranch being on the lake shore, and the east ranch being set back in the vicinity of Langdon Springs, about three miles away. Alexander Chase is shown as having a permanent residence in Silver Lake in the census of 1880, as is Charles P. Marshall, Chase’s business partner. John Jackson shows up in the tax rolls of 1875 as a resident of Silver Lake. Meldrum’s map of 1882 may be the first printed map to show Christmas Lake in it’s present location in Christmas Valley.

  Most of the people who settled in Silver Lake, Paisley, and Summer Lake in the 1870’s were stockmen originally from the Eugene area of Lane County. A man by the name of Stephen Rigdon kept a fairly complete record of those who passed through his “Pine Openings” toll station, located on the Oregon Central Military Road, from 1873 to 1896, and a Cottage Grove cattleman, who liked to introduce himself as “Major,” is shown coming and going from the Silver Lake area seven times before the survey of 1882. The Major is shown bringing his wife and three children over the pass heading east in September of 1874, and he and his brother Gabriel are shown to be associates of other cattle-raising families like the Martins and the Smalls.

  To this day the Major’s family is recognized as being the owners of the building where one of the most appalling tragedies in Lake County’s history occurred, the horrible Christmas Eve fire of 1894 in Silver Lake in which 43 people perished. Aside from this one catastrophic and unfortunate event that was the result of an accident, the Major’s family was quite successful and well-connected. The Major’s family was one of the first to settle in Silver Lake, and the Major was thought of as the founder of the town and so was referred to as “Mr. Silver Lake.” The original town site was located on the west side of Silver Lake, and that is where the Major built a log cabin school house and hired a teacher so that his children could begin their education in 1880. The Major had begun his own education in a log cabin school house that was erected in Cottage Grove in 1853, and he enlisted in the Union Army in 1865. “He was very liberal in his dealings,” reported the Illustrated History of Central Oregon, “was highly thought of by his neighbors, who had the utmost confidence both in his integrity and his ability to handle finances.” The Major sells all his interested in the cattle business in 1882, and his Silver Lake ranching headquarters to John Jackson, the same man whose name appears on the west side of Christmas Lake on the surveyor№s map of that year. Many ranchers suffered major losses of stock during the previous winter, which had been unusually harsh.

  The Major probably rounded up what was left of his herd that year and drove them down to water at Peter’s Creek, a seasonal stream that he had given his first name to and a place where cattlemen would originate their cattle drives for decades to come. “The Sinks of Peter’s Creek,” or “the Sinks,” as the area would come to be known, were a place where water from the creek, when it came in contact with the sandy soil, would “sink,” being absorbed at once at its outlet. Peter’s Creek was probably named for the Major, whose first name was Peter, because the tax rolls of 1875, the census of 1880, and the deed and title records up to 1900 show no families in north Lake County with the name of “Peters.”

  The small log cabin on the west side of Christmas Lake that was taken over by John Jackson was later owned by a rancher named Farrell, and then by the father of Rueb Long, who filed the first homestead claim on the land in 1912 and became its first legal owner. In The Oregon Desert, Rueb Long reports that the cabin was already on the property when his family moved to Christmas Lake in 1900. Long believed the cabin to have been built around 1880, and it remained standing until 1981. It is not known who built the cabin, but it certainly could have been built by the Major or some other early ranchers. The Long№s cabin differentiated itself by being constructed of hewn logs rather than the broad planks most typical of the later homestead period. The Major’s family name, Chrisman, was often spelled with a “t,” making it “Christman.” It appears this way in the tax rolls of 1875, in two articles in the Lane County Historian, and in another Eugene City Guard editorial, published September 29, 1877 and written by former Oregon Governor and president of the state senate, John Whiteaker. When Whiteaker gave his editorial description of his Fossil Lake expedition to the Guard in 1877, he was kind enough to include detailed directions to the fossil beds. “Near the center of this basin, and about 18 miles from Silver Lake, in a northeast direction, is “Christman Lake;” eight miles from Christmas Lake, in the same direction, and apparently on the same level, are the Fossil Lakes,” wrote Whiteaker.

  Whiteaker’s use of quotation marks around “Christman Lake,” is an example of how one punctuates a phrase with an esoteric meaning, an indication that the name had only been known to a small group of people. It is quite likely that Whiteaker knew Peter Chrisman, as they both were from Lane County and Chrisman№s father and Whiteaker were both active in the government there. Whiteaker№s sentence is a compound, divided by a semicolon, indicating that the two names, “Christman” and “Christmas” are closely related in meaning.

  So it would seem that Peter’s Creek, and nearby Christman Lake were named, respectively, after Major Peter Christman. Sometime between 1873 and 1877, people started calling Christman lake “Christmas.” It is yet to be discovered exactly how the “s” came to replace the “n”, but maps with the name of Christmas Lake would go into the hands of every homesteader that would come to the valley in the early 1900’s. The Post Office Department established a post office in the community of Christmas Lake in 1906, but would force the name of the office to be shortened to “Lake” during a name standardization phase. By 1920 most of the homesteaders had moved on and the Lake post office was closed. In 1961 the M. Penn Phillips Development Company bought up, subdivided, and sold most of the Christmas Lake Valley and shortened its name to “Christmas Valley.”

The Town That Had to be Built; One Man’s Dream for Christmas Valley
by Melany Tupper

  In many ways, M. Penn Phillips was the archetype of what it means to be an American. Some would say he was progress without a conscience, paving everything in its path. Others admire his pioneer spirit, his ability to think big, his improvements to previously barren land, and his facility for making things happen.

  In July of 1961 the M. Penn Phillips development company hit town, before Christmas Valley really was a town, riding high on a wave of newspaper, television and radio advertisements, then quickly snatched up over 72,000 acres from the ZX and Century ranches at ten dollars per acre. One year and a million dollars later, the company had bought even more land, for a grand total of 90,000 acres, an area roughly twice the size of the District of Columbia.

  In that first year they built 30 miles of roads, 15 homes, the Christmas Valley Lodge, a motel, a 5,000 foot airstrip, a 40 acre experimental farm, and a 3,000 foot long lake. They renamed our valley, shortening the name from “Christmas Lake Valley.” Phillips started the first newspaper here, called the Christmas Valley Gazette, that featured a column by Phillips revealing many insights into his character and the challenges he faced. Each month the face of M. Penn Phillips would grin from his front page column, called “Penn Points,” with a kind of cigar-flicking arrogance regarding the future; tempting readers to join him in his Daddy Warbucks paradigm. “I believe that more than forty years’ experience in helping to build the west qualifies me to write with some degree of authority,” Phillips wrote. His columns were characteristically choked with economic predictions for our valley and the country.

  These were idealistic times for M. (for Marion) Penn Phillips and the world. He was a visionary living in an idealistic post-industrial age when people believed that anything was possible. Look on the flip side of one of Phillips’ newspaper ads for lots in Christmas Valley and you’ll find an article telling about how a man by the name of John Glenn is about to be flung into orbit. Phillips already had a score of successful developments under his belt, including Hesperia, Salton City, Palmdale, Azusa, Compton, Ensenada, and Coos Bay, Oregon. He had even bought and sold property on what is the present day site of “The Strip” in Las Vegas, Nevada. “Man can do anything he dreams,” Phillips was inclined to say. His columns make it clear that in his mind, it was just a hop, skip and a jump from draftsman and engineers’ drawings to the realization of his dreams. “Now it’s real, not a dream,” Phillips wrote. At the age of 72 in a 1959 article that appeared in Time magazine, Phillips claimed to have sold more parcels of land (around 100,000) than any man alive.

  Almost before valley residents knew it, and shortly after the airstrip was complete, the Phillips company had set up shop in three trailers and started flying in land buyers from California on a DC-3. The humongous plane would land at our airport every weekend, dwarfing the Trailways bus that came to take land buyers on tours of the valley. “When the wheel hit the bank they swung around so far sideways that I thought they were a sunk duck.” -Witness to landing of DC-3 “I sure had a good look at the landing though and it was a mess,” wrote one witness to the spectacle that took place on our runway each weekend. “There was about eight inches of snow and they plowed out only a sketchy track in the center of the runway. Way too narrow for a large plane. When the wheel hit the bank they swung around so far sideways that I thought they were a sunk duck. The tail got clear out in the sage brush and it poked a hole through the elevator or whatever they call the horizontal fin.”

  Although these sometimes terror stricken visitors were promised their money back if they didn№t like what they saw here, a down payment on land in Christmas Valley automatically got them a plane ride from California. Approximately 1,400 people took the ride, and the plane landed here 67 times over a ten month period. Approximately sixty-five percent of these folks were younger people from central California who were interested in farming. The other 35 percent were people nearing retirement, mostly from the Los Angeles area. Long time residents of the valley were not always thrilled with the changes taking place here. Some called the town site “Sand City,” and the new arrivals “Asphalt Farmers.” A story appearing in 1962 states that some Christmas Valley natives were concerned that they would have to begin locking their doors, and that school and tax problems would outweigh any other gains made by the Phillips development.

  Phillips had a magnetic effect on the Californians. His dream was so engaging, the picture he painted so inviting, that many came to believe in and focus on what “could be” in Christmas Valley. Phillips had a reputation as a fast talker, and enticing slogans abound from his days here. “Buy land and keep it. Some day it will keep you.” And, “Will you be ready for the boom years ahead?” Phillips proclaimed as he sold real estate as a hedge against inflation. In mid-September of 1961 a full page ad appeared in three Los Angeles area daily papers announcing the “Christmas Valley Rural Retirement Project.” According to Phillips’ records, these early ads resulted in 1,600 mail inquiries and a deluge of phone calls to his Azusa, California base office.

“Then comes the earth moving equipment…particularly the bulldozers. That’s the part I like…pushing the first brush and dirt. When I step on that accelerator I get the same feeling that I think a racing driver does when he starts a race.”

-M. Penn Phillips

  As early as 1959, Phillips had told associates that retirement cities would prove extremely popular with older citizens. In a full page ad selling Christmas Valley lots that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on January 2, 1962, Phillips’ artists depict what he called “The great American Main Street.” At the top is a large painting of a well developed and landscaped main street with thriving businesses and locust trees in bloom. The ad features verbiage by none other than Mark Twain describing the fragrance in the air and the cheer in every face. “The small town–cradle of our traditions and the birthplace of thirty-four of our presidents–is assuming new importance today as our generation rediscovers the heritage of Hometown USA,” the ad pitch reads. People bought the message, hook, line and sinker. Ninety percent of the land in Christmas Valley was sold within three months of Phillips’ arrival here. In an October 1961 article that appeared in Ruralite, Phil Washington, Phillips’ General Project Manager, stated that “H-bomb jitters and the war scare” were partly responsible for prompting people to move from Los Angeles to a remote place like Christmas Valley. “Our idea is to fulfill a need that is rapidly developing in Southern California. There’s too much congestion. People want to get away. They want to get back to the farm, to the ranch,” Washington said.

  The rich and rapacious M. Penn Phillips was the embodiment of the American spirit in his day, though his heart did often seem to be in the right place. During World War II Phillips was enormously successful as vice-chairman of the southern California war bond drives, although he was paid only one dollar per year for the four years he did the job. In 1963 Phillips paid $55,000 for materials to build the road that now links Christmas Valley to highway 31 near Silver Lake. Lake County personnel completed the work in this unusual cooperative venture in which Phillips supplied 681 tons of asphalt. In 1962 Phillips donated ten acres for the future site of an elementary school, and in 1964 an article describes how he paid for five children to attend a 4-H education program at Oregon State University. A 20 acre site in Christmas Valley was donated for Oschools and churches, and in 1963 Phillips donated some of the materials for the building of the church.

“The nastiest thing my mother ever said about anybody was, ‘They’re just renters.”

-M. Penn Phillips

Carlo Giuntini, President of the M. Penn Phillips Company and son-in-law of the man behind the dream started calling Christmas Valley “the town that had to be built.” It was true that by 1963 all of the developers’ goals had been met, perhaps save one. The construction projects were complete and most of the land had been sold, but where were all the people? Where was the bustling main street? The census of 1963 reports 57 families and 203 people living in Christmas Valley. Most were employed as surveyors, road builders, or in service jobs for the Phillips company. “Our company enjoys the enviable reputation of completing any community it undertakes to develop,” Phillips said from a 1963 column that carries a reassuring undertone. “Have you ever thought why a town grows in a certain spot? Someone builds it,” he wrote. Perhaps Phillips was trying to reassure himself? Yet, by the end of 1964 there were only 34 telephone customers in Christmas Valley. An ad in the Oregonian in 1964 proclaimed, “For almost 50 years, M. Penn Phillips has accurately forecast when and where land values would increase most rapidly. Now this pioneer developer pinpoints Christmas Valley, Oregon as the best land investment opportunity in the United States today.”

  On May 31, 1962, Phillips’ sales manager in Bend told the Oregonian that the company was now stressing the area as suitable for retirement and that it would take too much of an investment (an estimated $25,000) to make an ordinary-size ranch profitable. What he neglected to say to prospective retirees was that, in the 1960s, it might cost over $10,000 to install electricity if land was three miles from the nearest power pole. In these days the company was still claiming to expect completion of the development and the arrival of 5,000 people by 1965, and almost got its wish with the dawning of that year and the proposal of the Ontario to the Ocean highway.

  “O.T.T.O.,” as it was called, would have connected Ontario, Burns, Wagontire, Christmas Valley, Silver Lake, Roseburg, and Coos Bay with one continuous stretch of interstate. Hopes ran high that the creation of this new super highway would allow farmers in Christmas Valley to truck their crops to the Coos Bay harbor and sell them to overseas buyers at a premium. The highway, proposed in 1965, was never completed. Over 56 miles of the proposed route consisted of Lake County roads that needed considerable upgrading.

  Prior to the arrival of the M. Penn Phillips Development Company, the only land grab to strike our valley within written record occurred in the early 1800s when promoters blatantly misrepresented the land to lure settlers. One railroad company published a prospectus that claimed, “The soil consists of a rich black loam and grows wheat, which will average 60 bushels to the acre. All varieties of fruit …and berries grow in abundance.” The Pacific Land Company of Lakeview claimed the area contained “Thousands of acres of the finest grain and fruit lands on earth.” From 1908-1916 the population of our valley went from 25 to over 1,000 persons, but lack of rain, the harsh climate and the short growing season made farming nearly impossible. Hundreds left, and the area went into a steady decline after World War I ended in 1918.

  Some farmers tried to make a go of it from 1900 to 1930 when large areas were cleared and planted in dry land crops, but these too were later abandoned when farmers discovered that rainfall was inadequate and the aquifer was inaccessible. In 1955 the arrival of electricity to Christmas Lake Valley prompted some growth and the start of alfalfa irrigation. According to an article in the Oregon Journal in April of 1963, Phillips had arrived in Christmas Valley in 1961 on the heels of a 160 day license suspension by the state of California against his development company and eight of its members; a period of time that he later euphemistically referred to as his retirement. “Sold out completely and retired…for three months. That is, sold Hesperia and Salton…” Phillips wrote in the March 1962 first edition of the Christmas Valley Gazette and his first installment of Penn Points. According to the Oregon Journal, the suspension stemmed from “substantial misrepresentation in land sales and failure to exercise reasonable control over sales personnel.” “Now I’m off…on what I consider the most intriguing development of my long career in real estate…one that I believe will give the most profit and satisfaction to my clients,” Phillips wrote of his new venture in Christmas Valley.

  In September of 1961 Phillips prints copies of a document called the “Christmas Valley Information Report” and requires that all prospective land buyers read, sign and date it before putting money down on land. “The lands being offered are undeveloped acreage. Any representations other than those contained in this report are not authorized by the M. Penn Phillips Company,” a disclaimer on the report reads. The report goes on to outline things such as the presence of utilities, future development, climate, availability of ground water, and suitable crops. Signed affidavits from long time valley residents such as well drillers and ranchers in August of 1961 testify to the availability of water and suitable agricultural pursuits like alfalfa, grain, cattle, sheep and horses.

  By March of 1962 the Statesman newspaper from Salem reports that some of Phillips’ visions of what “could be” in Christmas Valley, like artists’ depictions of small farms with deep grass and large trees, are in question; his methods are under fire. “Already the Real Estate Commission is planning recommendations for new laws to give the state more control over subdivisions and their advertising. The Christmas Valley development has been the chief incentive,” the article states.

  The Bend Bulletin took the nearly identical course and wrote, “This newspaper objected loudly to the original promotion of the area, which we felt was misleading. As a result of our protests, which were joined by others around the state, action is being taken which could cure some of the evils in the original promotion. The M. Penn Phillips Company, promoters of the project, has voluntarily removed much that we found objectionable in its promotional material. Our objection to the original Christmas Valley advertising and publicity was that it painted the Christmas Lake area as a veritable Garden of Eden, located in a banana belt, with low priced land which would provide sufficient side income to augment retirement resources. And this is a far fetched picture, as anyone familiar with the country is aware.”

  “…A man has to take a chance. Buy something that looks good at the moment and hold onto it. These were things I guess I was doing right; plunging headlong into something I believed in, even if others didn’t,” Phillips wrote in March of 1968. According to a Willamette Week article of September, 1979, Phillips at the age of 86 “abandoned” the venture in 1973. Only a few dozen people had moved here, and most of the land had changed hands and was being bought by Willamette Valley residents.

  The decade that followed saw marked growth in Christmas Valley, leaving some to wonder if Penn Phillips’ dream was more mistimed than it was misbegotten. During the three year period from 1979 to 1981, prices on alfalfa doubled, spawned by a shortage of hay. The high protein content of Christmas Valley alfalfa was in demand. The State Water Resources Department issued 13 loans for irrigation projects during this time, and the state land board changed their management policy away from grazing only and began allowing development of land for crops and leasing it for agriculture. In 1980 more than 8,000 acres were reportedly transformed to alfalfa fields, hearkening back to Phillips’ depictions of small farms with deep grass. A Chamber of Commerce Publication in 1982 proclaims that barley, potatoes, mint and sunflowers were also being planted.

“Oddly enough, by looking back you can see the road ahead.”

-M. Penn Phillips

  By 1995 land sales in Christmas Valley still consisted mainly of smaller improved parcels being sold to people from the Willamette Valley and Washington. An Oregonian article of that year reports that realtors here who had been waiting twenty years to see the valley grow were seeing properties selling before they could make it into their listing books.

“This raw land, starting from scratch, is going to be turned into a marvelous, integrated community. It№s ideal for rural retirement,” Phillips said of Christmas Valley in 1961. The senior population of this country is predicted to rise to 97 million by 2010 and 115 million by 2015. By 2030, those 65 or older will make up 20% of the American population.

According to a new report by Lend Lease Real Estate Investments of New York, the aging of America is likely to be the most important demographic trend in the next 50 years, which will have a significant impact on the real estate industry. The report predicts that “today’s affluent baby boomers are likely to live longer than their parents, travel more and move to senior-friendly locations.” Many developers are predicting explosive growth for the construction and real estate industries in the years to come. One Florida developer interviewed last month stated, “By 2002, they’ll drive this market to unprecedented highs – all the way to 2015. Twice as many babies were born in 1946 as in 1934. Lately, I’ve been selling houses mostly to people born from 1934 to 1938.”

“This raw land, starting from scratch, is going to be turned into a marvelous, integrated community. It’s ideal for rural retirement.”

-M. Penn Phillips

Getting a toe hold in Christmas Valley is not quite the challenge that it once was for people looking for a place to retire. With the advent of fuel-efficient cars, cellular phones, mini dishes and electronic mail, no-one has to feel isolated anymore. Even electricity itself has become more attainable, and great advances have been made toward making solar and wind power more practical.

Was M. Penn Phillips mistaken in his dream for Christmas Valley? Were his predictions completely wrong? Maybe all he needed was a little more time and a little more technology.