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Re-inventing the Feel: Sustainable Shawnee Captures Flavor of Region

When Pete Kirkwood talks about the renaissance at the nearly century-old Shawnee Inn and Golf Resort, which his family has owned since 1977, he chooses a French term--typically used to describe wine--to explain its updated essence.

"'Terroir'," says Kirkwood, "it means the flavor of a place. When the French talk about their wine, they talk about the terroir, not just the flavor of the grape. We don't think about that concept in America much anymore, but I don' t know why we can't."

Situated along the Delaware River in Monroe County on the New Jersey border on land where Native Americans and later white settlers thrived, Shawnee's terroir will now be readily apparent to its guests. Kirkwood is out in front of a growing trend in the tourism industry to become more sustainable (and profitable) by putting a given area's best feet forward.  At Shawnee, the terroir can best be experienced through the restaurant located next to the Inn, which recently converted from a golf-themed tavern to a brew pub called the Gem and Keystone that offers "Beer From Here, Food From Near (TM)." The new eatery features seasonal dishes made with produce grown on the golf course and paired with hand-crafted beer made across the property at Kirkwood's ShawneeCraft Brewery, which pumps out artisanal beers made with local and organic ingredients.  Hand-crafted furniture is part of ongoing upgrades to the Inn, and updated recycling and waste-reduction programs and the housekeepers' use of chemical-free cleaning products are part of the resort's Green Team initiative.

"We resolved about four or five years ago that the destiny of Shawnee is to look upward, to be a more high-end destination and the reason is we weren't doing justice to the beauty of this place if we're not maximizing visitors' appreciation of it," says Kirkwood, who has only been back in the U.S. for five years, having returned from a stretch doing tsunami relief work in Thailand. He recently spent four days in Haiti performing earthquake relief work with the volunteer-based non-profit he co-founded, Hands On Disaster Response.

"We've had to reinvent ourselves as circumstances change,"

Since its inception nearly a century ago along the Delaware River, Shawnee has been many things to many people. It began as an exclusive resort when successful New York inventor and engineer C.C. Worthington built it as Buckwood Inn, which immediately became known for its world-class golf course. The 18-hole layout (nine more holes were added decades later) hosted major tournaments like the PGA Championship in 1938 and is credited with helping spawn the PGA as an organization with a meeting of golf pros called by Worthington at Buckwood in 1912. A year before his death at age 91, Worthington's family sold the resort to famed bandleader Fred Waring, who renamed it Shawnee in 1943 and broadcast performances from there with his band The Pennsylvanians nationwide. The resort became a hotbed for celebrities like Bob Hope, Jackie Gleason, Lucille Ball and President Eisenhower. Golf legend Arnold Palmer met his wife here.   

Under its current ownership, the resort became an affordable vacation option for families throughout the region and expanded through timeshare holdings throughout surrounding Shawnee Village. The Kirkwoods, whose family business interests stretch across the globe but whose hearts rest in Shawnee, have been forced to rebound from no fewer than a half-dozen significant floods, including major damage in 2006 from the third-worst flood in 100 years. The first floor of the inn has been completely submerged. So has much of the golf course. Looking at them today, you'd never know.

"We want to embrace nature, not be swimming in it," says Kirkwood. "We're here to stay and not leaving for the occasional flood. We're getting pretty good at coming back from them.

"If the place had gone under, and it almost did when my parents bought it, you might be looking at a massive residential subdivision. No one wants to see that. We had an opportunity and responsibility to let this place be as amazing as it can be."

That notion was captured about six months after Kirkwood returned from Thailand.  Like his siblings, Kirkwood attended the same boarding school--Marlborough College in England--as William Morris, widely considered the father of the early 20th century arts and crafts movement.  Kirkwood realized that arts and crafts aesthetic, which already existed in spots under the decades of updates at the Inn, was exactly what the resort needed.

"It's a philosophy that embraces living close to nature, embraces healthy, outdoor activity, and embraces craftsmanship from the interior design to architecture to food to the kind of uniforms the staff wears," says Kirkwood. "It was a breakthrough for us. We all knew we needed a renaissance."

The Gem and Keystone gave it a place to come to life. Named for the golf course's moniker of "Gem of the East" and the spot on an oak beer barrel in which you hammer the tap (not a PA reference, but a fortunate coincidence), the restaurant replaced Sam Snead's Tavern, a franchise named for the late PGA legend and former Shawnee touring pro.  While there's more of a brew pub than 19th-hole feel, the vegetarian-friendly menu is wound tightly with the brewery, including ShawneeCraft Lager-Poached Shrimp, Cheddar Ale Dip and ShawneeCraft Porter demi-glace for your steak.

Most of the dishes are seasonal and made with produce from the organic vegetable farm that Kirkwood had Shawnee's groundskeepers create about 100 feet off the golf course last year. It has expanded to two-thirds of an acre and yields everything from leeks to tomatoes to pumpkins for the Gem and Keystone as well as the Inn's restaurant and banquet needs.  

"We asked our chefs 'What do you want to cook with?'" recalls Kirkwood.

There are also six beehives, tended by a local veteran beekeeper, near the garden that produces honey Kirkwood hopes will be plentiful enough to give to resort guests as gifts. That certainly beats putting a mint under the pillow.

ShawneeCraft, a 10-barrel brewery, has been in production for 14 months, and its output consists of barrel-aged beers that are manufactured locally and organically as possible.  They include a porter aged in a bourbon barrel or a Belgian farmhouse beer aged in apple-brandy barrels since the fall that should be ready in a few months. While the Gem and Keystone is the first glimpse visitors get of Shawnee when they turn off River Road toward the Delaware, it wouldn't exist without the beer.

"As we were finishing the brewery, we started building a tasting room," says Kirkwood, who has been homebrewing since college and works with Leo Bongiorno, a 15-year veteran brewmaster at several breweries. "At the same time my dad and I were doing an analysis of Sam Sneads and noted we were paying a portion of revenues to the franchise company for the use of décor and the name. We thought 'Is this worth it?'

"So we made the tavern the storefront of the brewery and made it about the beer. The tavern still has a little golf-y feel to it, but now there's some art noveau themes, stained-glass light fixtures, dark wood, and a new leather couch downstairs."

Seasonal festivals have moved up the road to Shawnee Mountain Ski Area, in which the Kirkwoods maintain a financial interest. There are now world-class jazz musicians from nearby Delaware Water Gap stopping in the Gem and Keystone for weekly jam nights. There's a spa and beauty salon that uses organic products. A whole new suite level of accommodations grace the Inn with furniture made by Amish craftsmen.  Old-fashioned cocktails are served at the Inn's bar and panninis are enjoyed at the Inn's outdoor bistro in its courtyard with a view of what started it all, the golf course.

In some ways, things are now not much different here than during the C.C. Worthington era, when William Morris was launching a movement.  It was Worthington who made sure the old Buckwood's dining room used vegetables grown on the grounds and nearby farms, and included a small petting zoo and creamery on-site. And of course, there was the Gem of the East, improbably and meticulously built on an island.

"We're embracing our true identity and it's natural, authentic and efficient," says Kirkwood. "I want people who come here to know where they are, to feel like they couldn't be anywhere else."

Joe Petrucci is managing editor of Keystone Edge. Send feedback here.

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Pete Kirkwood's family has owned Shawnee Inn and Golf Resort since 1977.

Kirkwood checks the potatoes growing in the garden, which was first planted last year about 100 yards from the golf course.

ShawneeCraft Brewing Co. brewmaster Leo Bongiorno checks in on his equipment.

Dan Rothman, general manager of The Gem and Keystone, talks with Kirkwood

Kirkwood sips the beer that is made at the resort.

All photographs by Jason Farmer

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