Great golf options and the unique hoofed loopers have drawn visitors to the remote Eastern Oregon resort; once there, they discover much more to the property’s operation, and its purpose.
DINNER IS SERVED at a long communal table in The Lodge at Silvies Valley Ranch, and the conversation among those who have come to eat there on this evening quickly reveals that everyone who’s found their way to this remote part of eastern Oregon has something else in common, too. The family with five young children, the retired couple, and the man who says he was basically told by his wife to go away for a few days all report that they decided to punch Seneca, Ore. into their Google Maps app and then follow its directions for a drive of several hours largely because they’d heard about the goat caddies.
Silvies Valley is one of the latest high-end golf and resort properties to come on stream as an investment by new entrants to the market who enjoyed financial success in other fields. In this case, it’s the Campbell family, headed by Dr. Scott Campbell and his wife Sandy, who made their fortune primarily by starting and then selling the Banfield Pet Hospital chain that experienced tremendous growth through an alliance with PetSmart stores.
And like the owners of several other new resort properties, the Campbells have reinvested in an largely unknown and economically challenged area of the country where they have deep roots, and the overriding goal is to attract an infusion of destination-tourism dollars while also creating new local jobs and nourishing a cherished environment.
“The big picture is creating new economic opportunity,” says Colby Marshall, Silvies Valley’s General Manager. “But we had to create something to draw attention to what’s still very much a frontier, and golf has shown that it can be a magnet that gets people to go just about anywhere in the world.”
And the developers of Silvies Valley spared no expense or imagination in setting out to make their golf offer an especially powerful magnet. Four distinct courses were built, all designed by Dan Hixson. The Haddock and Craddock courses combine to form 18-hole reversible layouts that offer a new course direction each day. Chief Egan is a 9-hole, par-3 mountain meadow course that sits on the banks of the Paiute Creek and has water on every hole. Finally, there’s McVeigh’s Gauntlet, a 7-hole ridge course with par 3s and 4s that’s carved into a razorback mountain and designed for players to have fun while settling bets and testing their accuracy. (The “fun” is accentuated by a strategically placed “beer tree” with a well-stocked cooler that can be happened upon after a particularly steep climb).
McVeigh’s Gauntlet is also where the goat caddies first debuted as a by-request amenity (this year, they were also added as an option for players on the Chief Egan course). They are equipped to carry up to six clubs along with balls, tees and more “fun” refreshments if desired. A ranger goes along to help escort the caddies through the round.
While the Silvies Valley ownership assembled its own team and opted not to use a management company as it got the resort operation off the ground, it did contract early on with KemperLesnik, the marketing company affiliated with KemperSports, to help launch active promotion of the property and in particular help to raise its golf profile. That’s led to a host of favorable course ratings and reviews about the golf experience—and rampant exposure for the goat caddies that’s spread well beyond golf circles. The few goats on the property that have been deemed caddie-worthy have a special pen and are featured as stuffed keepsakes and in a variety of other ways in the resort’s elaborate gift shop.
The Full Experience
While the goat caddies are getting the glory and doing more than their part to prompt golfers and non-golfers alike to set out for Seneca, there are equally memorable experiences that many others within the breed can offer to those who come to the property. Taking a group tour around the 40,000-acre property on an all-terrain vehicle will eventually lead to the breathtaking, hard-to-believe-it’s-real-and-not-CGI sight of the remainder of Silvies Valley’s more than 1,500 goats scrambling over hills as they’re moved along by actual Peruvian shepherds who have been brought to Oregon to tend to the herds.And you can also encounter goats who have been engaged to “work in the restaurant,” as those on the staff like to joke, as part of Executive Chef Damon Jones’ menus that prominently feature dishes such as fried chevon shoulder, seared loin of chevon, pulled BBQ chevon, chevon “ham” and cheese on sourdough bread, and many other uses of the adult goat meat. There’s also chevre (goat cheese) ravioli and many other delicacies made with just about anything the herd can produce (or sacrifice).
Jones, whose experience includes executive chef positions at Hershey (Pa.) Country Club and Oregon’s Crosswater at Sunriver Resort, also takes full advantage of what the cattle side of Silvies Valley’s livestock enterprises can provide, with a complete charcuterie operation in process in his kitchen. His ranch-to-table practices and recipes that use what’s sourced directly from the property earned him recognition from the Oregon Beef Council earlier this year as Chef of the Year.
As further evidence that Silvies Valley is the real deal and not a gimmicky dude ranch, Jones reveals that his contract includes a provision for him to receive a quarter of a cow each year. While that may not sound to the uninitiated like a good alternative to a couple more vacation days, Jones notes that this particular benefit translates to getting 45 lbs. of incredibly fresh and top-quality, organic grass-finished ground beef, and another 50 to 60 lbs. of steaks.
The fact that Colby Marshall was originally hired at Silvies Valley with the title of Vice President of Livestock & Guest Services is another tipoff that there are many more experiences to be found at the property than at your typical golf or outdoorsman’s resort. Even the shooting ranges forego trap or skeet to offer classic lever-action, cowboy-style rifleman and Colt pistol options, complete with metal targets that produce the proper Western “ping.” There’s also long-distance sharpshooting at mounted silhouettes with scoped rifles, and the opportunity to sling knives, hatchets and ninja stars at tree stumps.
But there are plenty of available comforts, too, including the services that are available at the 17,000-sq. ft. Rocking Heart Spa that opened a year ago. And as visits and golf rounds to Silvies Valley continue to trend upward, and the property continues to gain recognition in a variety of rankings for both golf and family resorts, plans will continue to formulate to expand its lodging and vacation-housing capacity. Eventually, Marshall sees the possibility of introducing a membership component as well, especially as more year-round activities are introduced.
Also a native of eastern Oregon, Marshall actually spent 11 years working for an Oregon congressman, including time in Washington, D.C., before taking his “VP of Livestock” position (he became General Manager in August 2018). But now he’s very much immersed again in a world that represents a 180-degree turn on the realism scale from what he experienced in politics, and he is eager to have himself and his staff do all they can to help entice others to come and get the full experience that Silvies Valley offers, too.
“The Campbells have created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for all of us who are involved [with the resort’s development and growth], and we don’t want to overlook anything that can help us share it with as many people as possible,” Marshall says. “This is a truly unique and remarkable place, and it’s much different than a lot of travel destinations in how it can offer a way to fully embrace a different lifestyle.”
Preserving the land that goes with that lifestyle has also been a primary objective from the start of the Silvies Valley project, and will contine to remain so as it grows and expands. For Superintendent Sean Hoolehan, who came to the resort at the start of 2018, this has resulted in a refreshing directive for how the four golf courses should be maintained.
“We worry about playability over presentation,” Hoolehan says. “And like the great old courses of Scotland, we use the natural resources of the seasons to dictate the playability of our courses.”
For example, Hoolehan explains, as summer progresses, “we allow the turf to acclimate to the heat and drought—and in some cases, we allow the fairways, roughs, and greens approaches to go completely dormant.
“This is a very healthy way to maintain a golf course,” he adds. “We continue to water our greens and tees, which make up less than 5 percent of our total golf course area, and then as summer transitions into fall and rain returns, before long the courses are again a natural green color, and the soils have benefited from the capillary action of drying and saturating.
“This helps us maintain a healthy root system without requiring the turfgrass to depend on unnecessary inputs,” Hoolehan says. “Our owner understands and expects us to take this approach, and to make sustainable practices and conserving water and other precious resources a priority as we maintain the courses. There’s never been any industry out here, and we want to continue to operate in a way that helps to keep the environment as unspoiled as it’s been.”
And maybe that will even lead to another possible job for the goats.
At a Glance: Silvies Valley Ranch
Location: Seneca, Ore.
No. of Golf Holes: 34
Golf Course Design: Dan Hixson
General Manager: Colby Marshall
Assistant General Manager/Director, Rocking Heart Spa: Courtney Paddock
Director of Golf: Randall Fritz
Golf Course Superintendent: Sean Hoolehan, CGCS
Executive Chef: Damon Jones