Pendleton, OR (July 11, 2022)

Today was a little different. Not only were we headed for a 98 degree day, we chose to leave the boat when it stopped briefly in Umatilla and board a bus headed to Pendleton, home to woolen mills still making their famous blankets and the Pendleton Round-Up. We drove past water intensive crops like potatoes, alfalfa, hay, and corn while near the water. As we drove further inland we noticed feed lots, World War II bunkers, wind farms, winter wheat, and corn fermenting in long white plastic tubes sealed until it was ready to be used as food for the cows.

Our first stop was at the pristine Pendleton Round-Up Stadium with the only grass field left in rodeo. To this day no advertisements are allowed in the arena that hosts 11 events in which cowboys and cowgirls from all over the United States and Canada compete once a year. The rodeo was the brainchild of local ranchers in 1910 and less cancellations in 1943, 1944, and 2020 it has been held every year since. Today it brings roughly 50,000 people to the city.

We learned of the sad but predictable outcome of the 1911 world championship bronc riding event where three men competed for the top spot. George Fletcher, deputy sheriff, horse breeder, and an adoptee into the local Indian tribe, was the first Black to compete in a championship rodeo. He went up against a white competitor whose name was not mentioned and Jackson Sundown, an Indian horseman from a Montana reservation and a ferocious competitor. The color barrier, being as prevalent in sports as elsewhere at the time, dictated that the white rider be declared the winner of the big money and silver saddle in spite of a massive uproar from the spectators. Thankfully there are two uplifting sidebars to the story. Number one: George’s hat was cut into pieces and sold to the enthusiast and supportive crowd, the proceeds from which got him more money than he would have gotten had he won. In 1969 he became one of ten people inducted into the first class of the Pendleton Round-Up Hall of Fame and in 2001 he was inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. Number two: In 1916 Jackson Sundown, 53 (!!!) years old at the time, became the first and only full-blood American Indian to win a professional rodeo world championship. He got the prize money and the coveted silver saddle.

With Let ‘Er Buck, short for bring on the bronco and let her buck, on our lips we changed it up completely and went from rodeo to Indian customs and culture at the very impressive Tamastslikt Cultural Institute. Westward expansion from the perspective of indigenous people is explored in the only tribally-owned interpretive center on both the Lewis & Clark and Oregon National Historic Trails. Lengthy introductory remarks were made by a local elder who dressed the part and captivated us with his attitude about the past, hope for the future, and explanations of traditional ways and beliefs. We learned about the ‘seasonal round’ which is a guide to what Mother Nature brings forth by month and season and Indians’ reverence for the natural world, ceremony, and kinship. The museum had beautiful exhibits highlighting everything from beadwork to basketmaking to furs and skins.

We were ready for lunch when the time came and Hamley Steakhouse did not disappoint. It is currently owned by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. The food was good but what really captured our imaginations were the huge tiffany ceiling lamp, long horned steer trophy, 18th century mahogany bar taken from a building in Atlanta, and the teller windows from a First National Bank that was robbed back in the day by Butch Cassidy! Or was it Billy the Kid?

Like other boomtowns off the beaten path, Pendleton was one wild and crazy place back in the day with opium dens, 32 bars, and 18 bordellos…all in a four block radius! By 1953 all but one of the madams and their ladies were relocated. Stella Darby, however, was allowed to manage the Cozy Rooms until 1967! We saw her statue in the middle of town. Her popularity was due in part to her belief in educating her girls and encouraging them to aspire to a better life once they could afford it and had the skills.

Like elsewhere Chinese immigrants, many recruited to built the transcontinental railroad, were forced into Chinatowns. Pendleton’s flourished in spite of harsh treatment, racial prejudice, lack of advancement opportunity, and absolutely no chance of participating in mainstream society. Our last stop before heading to the boat was to visit what are referred to as the tunnels. They are actually a series of center city basements that are connected by doors, some secret and others obvious, to create a little underground world. Because Sun Downer Laws forbade Chinese from being on the streets after a certain hour, it is believed that they gathered there in the evenings. Some lived there. Others, like Hop Sing, operated businesses. In his case, a successful laundry for 30 years. Our tour took us through a labyrinth with each room decorated to show how the rooms were used over time. We saw Hop Sing’s laundry, a card room, ice cream parlor, saloon, meat market, duck pin bowling alley, and Chinese living quarters. We were surprised to hear that moth balls in small cotton pouches were tied to the heating pipes to disguise the smell of illegal liquor during prohibition. We also learned about the alert system when law enforcement was in the vicinity and the secret passage that got the drinkers out of sight before the law arrived.

Sheep were plentiful here in the 1800s, so the raw material for a mill was at hand. Pendleton Woolen Mills made blankets for Indians forced onto reservations. We saw one that had four black slashes woven into it. Slashes indicated trade value. One pelt for one black slash. We had a quick stop at the mill on our way out of town for anyone wanting to purchase a blanket. Seconds and flawed items are available for those folks shopping for people they don’t really like.

Most folks dozed on the way to meet the boat, but I watched a short interview with former Marine, saddle maker, and leather braider Duff Severe. He has been recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Smithsonian, and National Geographic Magazine. It was fun to picture this cute little man, who lived in a log house he built himself, posing for Wrangler Jeans, making a special rawhide cane for President Reagan, and attending President Clinton’s inauguration. To boot he was inducted into the Pendleton Round-Up Hall of Fame in 1992. When we were waiting for our tour of the basements to begin I enjoyed seeing a few of his miniature saddles that were on display.

Quite a day we’ve had! Long, full, but very interesting. We caught up to the boat, which had sailed on without us, right at dinner time. We went from the bus to the dining room without missing a beat.

… Oh Really … 

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was filmed here.

I just happen to be reading The Last Cowboy: A Pioneer Family in the New West
which is about a contemporary rodeo family in Utah.
Low and behold one (of seven) of the sons in the book is listed on the side of the arena
as the big winner at the Round-Up a few time in the last few years.

The Triple Nickles, the first all Black parachute infantry battalion, arrived in Pendleton in May 1945.
After training with the U.S. Forest Service they became the military’s first smokejumpers.
They deactivated balloon bombs, and put out wildfires.

A group of soldiers stationed in Pendleton comprised the 80-member Doolittle Raiders who bravely flew a one-way bombing mission to Tokyo in response to the Pearl Harbor attacks. 


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