Each year, the late summer wind seems to blow thousands of visitors into Ellensburg for the Labor Day weekend Ellensburg Rodeo. More than just an annual event, the rodeo is a significant part of the local experience, as is the town’s 100-plus years of history. Around every corner, Ellensburg shows its rich Western heritage is rooted to something deeper than the topsoil at the bottom of travelers’ cowboy boots. Between the rolling hills of the Manastash Ridge that drops into the valley and the Cascade Range that provides a picturesque backdrop, you’ll find acres of farmland, fields of grazing Angus cattle, and a storied downtown with architecture that predates even the 94-year-old rodeo.
Walking down Main Street and through downtown, I am charmed by Ellensburg’s Old West appeal. From the three-cent milk advertisement murals painted on the brick walls to the Mom-and-Pop-size bookstores and the century-old buildings they are housed in, experiencing Ellensburg is like listening to a well-loved Western fable.
Along the streets, the eclectic shops, restaurants, saloons, museums, and studio apartments are nestled into buildings visibly dated to the early 1900s. During a visit at the Kittitas County Museum, I am told that much of the architecture in town is original. A fire in July of 1889 reduced the town’s initial infrastructure to little more than ash in hours. Motivated by the prospect of earning the title of Washington’s capital city in a bidding war, the community rallied to rebuild downtown. Ellensburg made a strong case for itself, and even built a castle, which was to serve as the governor’s mansion. Ultimately, the valley was deemed “too inaccessible,” (and one could jokingly argue, “too windy”) and Olympia won the capital-city bid. But visitors can still drive by the original Ellensburg Castle. It sits intact at the base of Craig’s Hill on the corner of Chestnut Street and Third, though it has since been remodeled to accommodate residential housing.
As a consolation prize, the town became the location for the state’s first Normal School. The all-women’s school attracted aspiring teachers from around the northwest. In its time, it was one of the most well-recognized teaching schools in the country. “The campus is beautiful,” says Kittitas County Museum Assistant Todd Goings. The original building is now the shop front for Central Washington University. “As you walk on to campus, the first building you see is the original Normal School that started in 1891,” Goings shares. “At first, students stayed with family or were hosted by members of the community. Eventually, a dormitory was built, and you can see how campus grew from there.” Goings shares that CWU is still recognized for its education department, and claims most teachers in the northwest as members of its alumni. It has also earned acclaim for its arts programs, which play a natural role in the greater Ellensburg art culture.
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The John Clymer Museum and Gallery is a tangible link to Ellensburg’s rich heritage in Western tradition. “It’s fitting that the museum is here,” says Jami-Lynn Tate, Clymer Museum and Gallery Executive Director. “He was born and raised here as well as his wife Doris Schnebly.”
Art found Clymer early in life, and his parents recognized his natural inclination. After two of his pen-and-ink drawings were purchased by Colt Firearms his junior year of High School, so began his professional career that would span the course of six impressive decades. Well known for his contributions to advertising, marketing, and his depictions of nature and the frontier in paintings, the museum seeks to recognize Clymer’s accomplishments and display his work.
I am struck by the immenseness of Clymer’s portfolio as I walk around the museum. Between 1940 and into 1960, Clymer was a household name. His work was often published on the covers of the Saturday Evening Post and included on the pages of additional titles,such as Field and Stream, Good Housekeeping, and True and Sports Afield. Two entire walls of the museum’s gallery are dedicated to his original ad pieces. Companies such as Chrysler Automotive, Stetson Hats, Goodyear Tires, Coca Cola, and Acme Boots are just a small selection of his clientele. Probably because of my own love of good boots, I am particularly drawn to a piece from an Acme campaign that depicts a steer wrestler competing at a local rodeo. Or perhaps, I am attracted to the pleasing Western lifestyle the ad endorses—a certain breed of satisfaction that comes only from such activities as casually jumping a steer while friends watch in amusement.
At the end of the tour, near the display of Clymer’s late-career pieces, a bison is mounted and serves as the head on a wall mural. The physical obstruction is a perfect metaphor for the shift in Clymer’s work after he left the world of commercial art. With his high-school sweetheart Doris, Clymer retired to Jackson Hole, Wyo., to pursue nature and scenery painting. The post-retirement section of his portfolio seems to contain the body of work most relevant to today’s Western art and receives much acclaim from historians.
“I like to do, and always did, what you call story-telling pictures,” Clymer was once quoted saying. Many of his paintings portray a time of homesteaders, frontiersman, and good-ol’ cowboy types that are likely reminiscent of Ellensburg’s early residents and echo the nostalgic downtown of my experience.
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The fabric of Ellensburg’s early populations was also made up by miners, and the ridge today’s travelers drop over when arriving from Yakima was once a boomtown location. Then, productive farmlands spread across the valley’s low, lush acreage, putting Ellensburg on the global market’s map by exporting fruit and wine, and especially hay and beef.
In addition to the valley’s well-known exports, there are a few names that garner equal recognition. Anderson is one of them. A large-scale hay production plant is located right outside of the main stretch of town. The 50-year-old Anderson Hay Corporation ships Timothy grass hay from Kittitas County to the Pacific Rim. The primary buyers are racehorse owners in Japan. Stateside, Angus cattle are bred and raised to serve thousands. Black Angus Steakhouse restaurants from New Mexico to Alaska and Hawaii serve patrons a healthy serving of surf-n-turf from this same valley. I’m told that the chain’s founder, Stuart Anderson, of Seattle, Wash., is a relation of Ellensburg’s original Anderson family. He ensures that diners enjoy Western-themed décor at his restaurants, and uses tradition and the image of the iconic cowboy to promote his brand. For diners at these restaurants, the cowboy is just a romantic symbol. But for folks in Ellensburg, ranching is their history and the cowboy way is still a viable lifestyle. Valley cattlemen and farmers still tend to herds, plant and water, and are at the mercy of the elements. Fortunately though, unlike early settlers, current residents have managed to make use of one of Ellensburg’s most constant natural elements, the wind.
The Wild Horse Wind and Solar Facility, just 16 miles east of downtown, is arguably one of the town’s most lucrative claims to fame. The solar-power installation is one of the largest in the country, and has a vantage point that offers a 360-degree view of three of the Northwest’s mountain ranges and the Columbia River Basin. The gusts are an expected, though sometimes irksome, necessity that most residents shrug off with a smile and explain, “that’s just Ellensburg. You get used to it.”
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Down in the valley, fans from the area and across the country appear in droves for the annual Labor Day Ellensburg Rodeo. The event holds a noteworthy position as one of professional rodeo’s top-10 events. It is also respected for its long-standing traditions, which the Ellensburg committee and members of the community take pride in adhering to.
“Every year, the rodeo kicks off with Yakama natives coming down the hill to the rodeo grounds. It’s not show time until this happens, and it happens every year,” says historian, rodeo director, and Ellensburg Rodeo Hall of Fame (ERHOF) founding member Mike Allen. I join Allen and other key members of the rodeo, including the 2016 Rodeo President Jeff Faltus and ERHOF board member, former PRCA roper, and local horse shoer Jack Wallace, for dinner at Rodeo City Bar-B-Q.
Walking into the room to join these men, it becomes clear just how immersed the town’s culture is in Western lifestyle. Despite the modernity introduced to the community through the college, various music festivals, and “fast food alley” (as locals refer to the traveler’s haven that stretches along the highway), cowboy culture lives on. As we exchange stories over tri-tip and ribs, I cannot help noticing the photos on all four walls of the room. A decade’s worth of framed headshots of past and present Ellensburg rodeo royalty cover every inch, with hardly any space between.
“There are royalty family legacies here,” Faltus shares as he sees me survey the photos. “Over time, you hear the same names in the arena. Some families have multiple girls win royalty titles and represent the rodeo.” And the same is true of the cowboys and cowgirls who compete in it.
Among the local families that, generation after generation, produce competitors that then go out and make names for themselves in professional rodeo are the Minors. It is not often that one of the Minor boys are not at the top of the PRCA roping standings. Brothers Brady and Riley Minor are the fourth generation of Minors to compete professionally. The pair have qualified together for six trips to the Wrangler NFR in team roping. In 2007, the Minor family was inducted into the Ellensburg Rodeo Hall of Fame. At the table, Wallace also enjoyed success as a professional tie-down roper and now competes in local team roping events.
“In rodeo, we all speak the same language and love the same tradition,” he says. “Here, we just happen to love [the Ellensburg] rodeo. We’re no different than other people in this community. Some folks have been coming to this show since it first started.” And that was in 1923.
Along with three performances, followed by the rodeo’s finals on Labor Day, the lineup of events includes a local-talent section, the Xtreme Bulls Tour finale, and the Ellensburg Cinch shoot-out. In the past, the rodeo has hosted musicians. “Over the years, we’ve had artists like Chris LeDoux and Johnny Cash,” Allen explains. “But there are always two traditions that stay the same. A great rodeo and the Kittitas [County] Fair.” At a rodeo like Ellensburg, much of the appeal is in a show with tradition.
“We’ve talked about moving the event to somewhere else in town to try to accommodate more people,” Allen says. “But, the arena just has so much history.” When the rodeo first moved to its current spot at the base of the hill. Allen shares that it was a work project. “The entire community showed up to build it,” Faltus confides with a chuckle. All heads at the table nod in agreement. Entire families reported to the grounds to set poles, string up fence, and cook for those doing the heavy lifiting. Even after decades have gone by, and the arena and stands have undergone facility improvements, there are still reminders of the initial community construction in the stockyards north of the rodeo stadium.
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On the breezy morning of my departure, I make a final trip to the top of Craig’s Hill, which looks down over the rodeo arena. As the sun rises behind my head, the entire town of Ellensburg is also visible below. I see the century-old buildings of downtown, acres of farm and ranchland that each year produce for millions, the celebrated rodeo grounds that attract thousands each summer, and the wind turbines revolving slowly in the distance.
The scenery is reminiscent of an image from another era, as if the winds of change may have actually blown right by this once inaccessible northwest town. Of course, despite the view, I know the winds have delivered many changes to Ellensburg. And yet, even with its inevitable gusts, today’s visitors will find one aspect of this cowboy community unmovable. In Ellensburg, the West remains. Forever.
The Ellensburg Rodeo & Kittitas County Fair: Sept. 1–5, 2016
Each September, the fair offers five days of family fun. Over the Labor Day weekend, the rodeo sponsors three nights of professional rodeo and finals Labor Day afternoon. Check out the Cinch shootout event, the Xtreme Bull Riding finale, and other happenings throughout the week. kittitascountyfair.com; ellensburgrodeo.com
Jazz in the Valley: July 29–31, 2016
The three-day summer music festival is a family affair. Stroll the streets of historic downtown; enjoy live performances by a lineup of two dozen Jazz artists while sipping local micro brews and wines. jazzinthevalley.com
Spirit of the West Cowboy Gathering: Feb. 17–20, 2017
Held President’s Day every February. The annual three-day gathering brings together and celebrates the best in Western poetry, art, and music. Enjoy entertainment, hone your own craft by attending workshops, and peruse the Gear & Art Show. EllensburgCowboyGathering.com
Wild Horse Wind and Solar Facility
Visit one of the Northwest’s largest renewable energy centers for a guided tour. If the technology does not impress, the 360-degree city view will. See scenic Mount Rainier, Adams, and Hood, and the Columbia River Basin in the distance. 25901 Vantage Highway; (509) 964-7815
BBQ AND BREWS
Rodeo City Bar-B-Q
A Western-themed restaurant with local rodeo photos and memorabilia adorning the walls. Bring a hearty appetite and enjoy the barbecued ribs and corn bread. 204 N. Main Street; (509) 962-2727
Iron Horse Brewery
Stop at the local microbrewery. Order a pint of Quilter’s Irish Death, the dark ale crafted by the brewery’s founder. Find it on tap at local hangouts and at the nearby grocery store. 412 N. Main Street; (509) 933-3134