Written by Lori O’ Harver
PENDLETON, Oregon – There’s magic sleeping in the small Oregon Trail town that glitters between the banks of the Umatilla River at the foot of Deadman Pass. On the second full week in September, that magic comes vividly alive when the Western loving world converges there for the world- renowned Pendleton Round-Up.
Originating in 1910, when the Wild West of legend was starting to find itself becoming tamed, the first performance was billed as ‘a frontier exhibition of picturesque pastimes, Indian and military spectacles, cowboy racing and bronco busting for the championship of the Northwest.’ After 108 years, the town event still holds spectacularly true to its original vision. Local businesses close so proprietors can volunteer their time, enjoy the fruits of their year-long labors of love and greet incoming guests and old friends.
The Cavalry comes to town. Tipi Village is raised in the traditional way and inhabited by Native families from several different tribes. Tours of the subterranean world of the turn of the century Pendleton Underground give visitors a taste of the lives led by industrious Chinese railroad workers who, once connected East to West, found themselves unwanted in the land of milk and honey and needed a way to live unthreatened.
The cowboy culture is celebrated everywhere from the world’s largest horse drawn parade, the Westward Ho, led by the Pendleton Round-Up mounted marching band to the always colorful re-enactment of Western and local history that emerges nightly amid the painted backdrops and steepish grandstands of Happy Canyon, the arena-adjacent outdoor venue with the retro Wild West Show feel.
Tradition is king. Every champion bronc rider of the century has grabbed a bunk, shower and the sweet hospitality of Severe Saddlery, housed in the old military barracks that overlooks the world-famous Pendleton Woolen Mills and historic town from high on top of airport hill. Randy Severe handcrafts all the trophy saddles awarded annually to winners, the placeis always lled with great cowboys of the past and present, the rich smell of leather, tales tall and small, hot coffee, the signature Pendleton Whisky first created to honor committee members and now grown to an international brand. Guitar and fiddle music is always a probability when traveling contestants and the Severe family get together. Severe’s are all as talented with a pick, bow or piano as they are in coaxing masterpieces of leatherwork from humble cowhides.
Then there’s the rodeo itself, where only the addition of a modern sound system and electronic leader board have changed since the original production. No sponsor signage,no music during the grand entry, still on the original football field sized grass known as the Green Mile and a place where even the opening pageantry is death defying. Queens with fresh flowers woven along their hatbands and dignitaries jump the racetrack rail and take hot laps on the track. Timed events are tests of courage and stamina for both horses and riders and the horses? By September, they’ve been on the road for almost a year and are as fast as horses get. Even they leave the arena winded with expressions of wide-eyed wonder.
In an arena that huge, bucking horses sometimes ‘get long’, tempted by the wide-open spaces to go on tour instead oftending to business. At Pendleton, their first jumps are on the manicured dirt of the track but after that they hit the grass and all thoughts of leaving vanish as they break in two bucking on the natural surface. Landings are hard, pick up horses need to be fast and fit and the watching of every event is magnificent.
Pendleton Round-Up has earned the PRCA Large Outdoor Rodeo of the Year on many occasions, all well deserved. If it’s the first rodeo you’re planning to visit or you’re a veteran fan or competitor, Pendleton is an exciting experience you’ll relive with fondness for years to come.
At Pendleton Round-Up, it’s always time to just Let Er’ Buck.