Pendleton: No Oregon town has more Western cachet
Between the Pendleton Woolen Mills and the Pendleton Round-Up, the last century has ensured Pendleton's place on the list of the most iconic Western towns.
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Established as a trading post on the Oregon Trail back in 1851, the town of Pendleton grew up around its main employer, the Pendleton Woolen Mills.
Pendleton blankets undergo a final inspection, circa 1929.
The mills, which were originally built in 1893 to scour wool and later manufactured Indian blankets for the local Umatilla, Cayuse, and Walla Walla tribes, had fallen idle by the end of the century. But in 1909 three grandsons of an English weaver bought the defunct mills and built a new, more efficient plant, which quickly became known for its high-quality striped, plaid, and geometrically patterned Indian trade blankets.
"When the European settlers first met the Indians, there were three things the settlers had that were superior to what the Native Americans had: the iron cooking pot, the metal knife, and the wool trade blanket," says Bob Christnacht, home division manager of Pendleton Woolen Mills.
It wasn't just quality that set the Pendleton blanket apart. Observes Bobbie Conner, director of the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute just east of Pendleton and herself of Cayuse, Umatilla, and Nez Perce heritage: "In the early days, Pendleton did something very smart that all good businesspeople do: They went to their customers to find out what their preferences were. So they found out the preferences of the Columbia River Plateau tribes, other Western tribes, and Plains tribes. Pendletons became a prized gift of honor. Indians are famous for gifting or honoring through gifting."
The company also borrowed color schemes from the Indians.
Pendleton Round-Up founder Roy Bishop (left) and Jackson Sundown (Nez Perce)
"They used the monochromatic color scales as well as the fire colors frequently seen in Indian beadwork, basketry, paintings, and sand paintings," Conner says. "And you can see that some blanket designs are inspired by Southwest colors."
Pendleton designer Joe Rawnsley even went to live with his customers — the Indian tribes — for months at a time, absorbing their design preferences. And, as Christnacht points out, the company had a secret weapon: "We had a killer salesman, Major Davidson. He spoke 27 different Indian languages, so the guy knew the core customers."
By 1930, Pendleton had taken over the trade blanket business. Pendleton blankets had become prized possessions on Indian reservations, and that hasn't changed over the years.
When an Indian baby is born, he's often wrapped in a Pendleton blanket. When he graduates from high school, he might be given a Pendleton. At weddings, the bride and groom often give Pendletons to their honored guests. And when someone dies in the Indian community, he may be wrapped in a Pendleton and the coffin lined with the blankets.
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Wallace J. Smith's iconic "Let 'er Buck" poster from 1925
"We still sell over half of our jacquard blankets to Native Americans," Christnacht says. "Our relationship with the Native Americans is deeply entwined in the brand soul of who we are. It authenticates us."
As Pendleton Woolen Mills grew, so did the Pendleton Round-Up. First launched in 1910, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association-sanctioned event has evolved into one of world's top rodeos with attendance typically reaching 50,000 — nearly triple the population of Pendleton itself — as more than 750 contestants compete for nearly $400,000 in prize money.
According to Randy Severe, the Pendleton Round-Up president, "It's one of the 10 largest rodeos in the world." Which makes for a passionate crowd, assesses National Finals Rodeo All-Around Champion Trevor Brazile, 32, who regularly competes here.
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The Pendleton Round-Up
"What I remember is the victory lap the year I won the Calf Roping and the All-Around there," Brazile recounts of 1999. "I don't think I'd ever heard that many people screaming. I remember they put me on a horse that you couldn't hardly pull up, and it seemed like the louder the crowd cheered the faster he went. So I went ahead and made two laps. I think I might've blamed it on the horse, but who wouldn't want to make another lap with fans like that!"
A rodeo star like Brazile can compete anywhere, but he comes to Pendleton for a reason.
"Number one," he says, "the purse is always good at Pendleton. And we're up in the Northwest anyway then. That's our last rodeo of the Northwest run, then we head back to Texas. So the timing of it is good because for a lot of people trying to make the National Finals, it's do or die for the season."
Presentation of Pendleton blanket to Indian princess at Round-Up, date unknown
That's the business of it. Then there's the uniqueness. The Pendleton Round-Up is still held on a grass field, the bucking chutes are still wood, and the field is bigger than most, measuring about 330 by 630 feet, with a half-mile track around it — all of which ups the danger quotient.
"There are a lot more elements that are out of your control there than at a rodeo like the NFR," says Bobby Mote, a two-time PRCA World Champion in bareback riding. "The size of the arena has a lot to do with it, and the grass. The horses won't have their typical bucking trip that they would in a typical-size arena with dirt."
Grass is harder than fluffy dirt, so it's more jarring — which partially accounts for the fatal fall that cowgirl bronc rider Bonnie McCarroll had here in 1929. Cash Myers of Athens, Texas, won the All-Around at Pendleton three times and retired that trophy.
The historic Pendleton Woolen Mills, owned by the Bishop family, has produced blankets since 1909.
"It's a special rodeo," says Myers, "not only because the prize money is substantial and the crowds are huge and exciting, but also because it's on grass and kind of goes back to the heritage of how rodeos were a long time ago, when the West was really wild."
Morgan Forbes, who won the saddle bronc competition at Pendleton in 2008, says, "For me, it meant just as much to win Pendleton as it did winning the 2002 Saddle Bronc Rookie of the Year from Resistol or making my first NFR."
Forbes says that when he thinks of Pendleton, "I think of John Wayne in The Man from Utah. There's footage of Pendleton in that movie. They've got bucking horses and they're bulldogging and all that stuff out on the grass. And it hasn't changed since then. You still do it on the grass. It's the same place." And it all starts with the same cry: "Let 'er buck!"
Traditions here also include significant Native participation in the Round-Up. Every year 300 tepees go up in the adjacent Indian Village, which has its own vending area. There are Indian relay races, nightly pageants featuring historical reenactments, and dancing — emceed in part by Jesse Jones Jr., 68, co-chief of the Cayuse.
A cowboy rides out to the national anthem during opening ceremonies at the Pendleton Round-Up.
From Canada to Oregon to Washington, "There's Indians from all over the Northwest there," Jones says. Jones participates in order to share cultural traditions and make friends — and boy, has he. "Ben Johnson and Monty Montana used to come to our tent. All those big-name cowboys used to eat fry bread and chile beans with my mother and share a cup of coffee or a meal."
This year marks the Pendleton Woolen Mills' 100th anniversary, while 2010 will be the Round-Up's centennial. At this year's Round-Up, held September 16-19, besides the saddle bronc competition, Indian relay races, barrel racing, and other competitive events, there will literally be dancing in the streets.
And if years past are any indication, the NFR-bound champions will be showered with such a bounty of prize money, hand-tooled saddles, exotic-skin boots, trophy buckles, and Pendleton jackets and blankets that they will have to lead a pack horse into the arena to haul off all the high-end swag.
National Finals Rodeo All-Around Champion Trevor Brazile can attest: "It's the only one of its kind — there's a lot of tradition there."
Pendleton Woolen Mills today
After a century in business, Pendleton Woolen Mills now has weaving mills and offices in Pendleton and Washougal, Washington, with its headquarters in Portland, Oregon.
The company manufactures not only trade blankets but also menswear, like its famed plaid shirts; women's apparel, including suits and the iconic 49er jacket (a plaid jacket first released in 1949); bedding; and woolen fabrics.
Privately held, Pendleton has about 1,000 employees and 70 retail stores, as well as corporate customers such as Lands' End, Pottery Barn, Eddie Bauer, and Macy's.
The Beach Boys, formerly the Pendletones
Pendleton's lasting popularity is an aspect of Americana embraced by pop culture. Legendary '60s surfer band The Beach Boys originally called themselves The PendleTones, so enraptured were they with Pendleton's plaid shirts, which they wore as shirt jackets over T-shirts on their early albums.
Pendleton 49er jackets were worn at the girls' school featured in the film Mona Lisa Smile, and Pendleton bedding was seen alongside Tim McGraw in the 2006 movie Flicka.
The red-and-black Pendleton Commemorative Round-Up Blanket showcases the iconic Round-Up logo — the bucking bronco from the famous 1925 painting by Wallace Smith — and Indian tepees along a banner at each end.
It's not all wool and blankets in Pendleton. Hamley & Co., established in 1905 in the same building it is housed in today, offers high-end saddles and Western wear.
Owner J.J. Hamley helped organize the first Pendleton Round-Up and served as its director for many years. In 2004, Parley Pearce and Blair Woodfield bought the business. Hamley & Co. now offers 25 different Western saddles, as well as custom saddles that start at $3,350 and take five to 10 months to build.
"We're the highest-end Western store in the Northwest," Pearce says. "The store is in its 105th year and it's kind of epic."
They stock cowboy shirts, jackets, Double D, Patricia Wolf, Ryan Michael, Alan Michael jackets, Cinch, Wrangler, Schaefer, Lucchese boots, and Hamley hats and saddles.
In early 2009, Pearce presented legendary Canadian country singer/songwriter Ian Tyson ("Someday Soon," "Four Strong Winds") with a custom-made Hamley saddle at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Nevada, where Tyson, 75, won a lifetime achievement award from his fans.
"It's an extremely well-built trophy saddle that would be functional, but it will probably end up in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame," Pearce says.
The saddle's carved leather inlay work required more than 300 hours to create and includes a guitar and Canadian maple leaf. The saddle, which reportedly cost about $20,000, was paid for by fans who donated $100 apiece online.
"This saddle's so expensive that I don't know how Ian's going to get it across the border," Pearce quipped.
• 30 S.E. Court, 541.278.1100, www.hamleyco.com
Chef's Delight at Hamley Steakhouse
Pendleton travel guide
If you're going to the Pendleton Round-Up this year — September 16–19 — here's what the rodeo champs and VIPs recommend.
Hamley Steakhouse is renowned for its in-house dry-aged Prime rib-eye, porterhouse, and T-bone steaks, as well as its artichoke dip. 8 S.E. Court, 541-278-1100, www.thehamleysteakhouse.com.
The more intimate Raphael's, in a Victorian house, specializes in fish and wild game, including a Native American-style salmon topped with huckleberry purée. 233 S.E. Fourth St., 888-944-CHEF, www.raphaelsrestaurant.com.
You'll run into Morgan Forbes at Mazatlan Mexican Restaurant, a little eatery just off the Round-Up grounds. 1408 S.W. Court Ave., 541-276-2646.
Marcus Whitman Hotel
The Marcus Whitman Hotel This luxury hotel in the heart of Oregon's wine country was named for an ill-fated missionary who served with the Cayuse Indians. Restored in 1999, the hotel is a 45-minute drive from Pendleton through scenic wheat fields. 6 W. Rose, Walla Walla, Washington, 866-826-9422, www.marcuswhitmanhotel.com.
Oxford Suites Near the Round-Up arena, the Oxford Suites offers a hot breakfast, rooms with separate living areas, an indoor pool and hot tub, and you can even bring your pet. 2400 S.W. Court Place, 541-276-6000, www.oxfordsuitespendleton.com.
The Pendleton House Bed & Breakfast Built in 1917, the Pendleton House has been fully restored to its former elegance. Enjoy eggs Benedict with prosciutto and walnut coffeecake for breakfast, then finish your coffee on the front porch with views of the historic downtown. 311 N. Main St., 541.276.8581, www.pendletonhousebnb.com.
Red Lion Hotel Just one mile from the city center, the Red Lion Hotel has 170 guest rooms, wireless access, a seasonal outdoor pool, and mountain views. 304 S.E. Nye Ave., 541-276-6111, www.redlion.rdln.com.
Rugged Country Lodge This motel that "thinks like a bed and breakfast" offers homegrown lavender on your pillow and freshly baked cinnamon rolls for breakfast. 1807 S.E. Court Ave., 541-966-6800, www.ruggedcountrylodge.com.
Wildhorse Resort & Casino Operated by the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla, the resort is 4 miles east of Pendleton and features a golf course designed by John Steidel, as well as the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, a 45,000-square-foot museum documenting the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla tribes. 72777 Highway 331, 800-654-9453, www.wildhorseresort.com.
Working Girls Hotel A former bordello built in the 1890s, the hotel is now owned and operated by Pendleton Underground Tours. With one suite and four sleeping rooms (private bathrooms are across the hall), you can experience the Old West — minus the female companionship. 17 S.W. Emigrant Ave., 800-226-6398, www.pendletonundergroundtours.org.
Tamástslikt Cultural Institute
Take an Underground Tour of Pendleton's historic district, where gambling and brothels once flourished in tunnels. 800-226-6398, www.pendletonundergroundtours.org.
Plan on attending the Professional Bull Riders event and all four days of the Round-Up rodeo, finishing up with the Tribal Ceremonial Dancing contest finals on Saturday morning and the closing performance of the Happy Canyon Indian Pageant on Saturday night. And be sure to stop by the Rainbow Cafe bar, Pendleton's oldest continuously operated bar and restaurant, for a drink after the show. Or for breakfast — their "Chuckwagon Benedict" will fuel your day with eggs, sausage, and white gravy piled high on a biscuit. 209 S. Main St., 541-276-4120, www.mcgeerainbow.com.
Wear high heels, order your steak well-done at Hamley's, or get reckless at the Let 'Er Buck Room on the rodeo grounds. Says Forbes of the latter, "It's a bar under the bleachers where they serve nothing but whiskey. It can get a little out of hand."
The Wildhorse Resort & Casino
DON'T-MISS RODEO EVENTS
The saddle bronc competition and Indian relay races.
Hamley & Co. and Severe Brothers Saddlery for saddles, belts, and handbags (541-276-2961, www.severesaddles.com).
Pendleton Woolen Mills Factory Store for woolen blankets (1307 S.E. Court Place, 541-276-6911, www.pendleton-usa.com).
Working Girls for vintage (29 S.W. Emigrant Ave., 541-379-0197).
Your cowboy hat and boots.