Epic Pendleton

History and heritage characterize this iconic cowboy town in northeast Oregon.
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Credit: Raina Stinson

Credit: Raina Stinson

Pendleton, Ore., maintained a rowdy reputation throughout much of its history. That is, until 1953, when the Rev. Cochran from the Presbyterian Church decreed he would publish the names of the men employing the services of Pendleton’s long-present bordellos in the local paper. The threat was effective, sending the clientele home and leaving the bordellos with no other option than to close their doors. In their wake, cornerstone businesses remained, such as the iconic Pendleton Woolen Mills, Hamley & Co., and of course, the annual Pendleton Round-Up, where cowboys and cowgirls have been tearing up the grass since 1910. These enterprises have flourished in the cultural context of Pendleton’s agricultural industries, where cattle, sheep, and wheat fields define the city’s limits.

In more recent years, Pendleton has seen the addition of historical attractions like the underground tunnels running beneath the city and Tamastslikt Cultural Institute on the Oregon Trail, which chronicles the experiences of the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla peoples along the trail. New and old, these pieces of Pendleton create a complete Western experience for those who venture to this northwest cowboy town, where history is present and heritage prospers. 


Riding a Hamley

Credit: Hamley's

Credit: Hamley's

In 1883, first-generation brothers, John James (J.J.) and Henry Hamley, established Hamley & Co. in Ashton, S.D., after setting out from the Minnesota leather and saddle shop owned by their father, who emigrated from England as a skilled craftsman. After moving continuously West and the death of Henry, J.J. finally arrived in Pendleton in 1905, where he and his son, Lester, established the newest Hamley & Co. It wasn’t long before the Hamley brand was also established, and “riding a Hamley,” meant riding the best.

Hamley & Co. remained in the family for more than 75 years before being sold. Over the last decade, it has come to thrive, once again, in the care of Parley Pearce and Blair Woodfield, who have made the shop one of Pendleton’s premier downtown destinations. Original showcases and mirrors, chandeliers, and bronze statues, with the saddle shop in back, all harken to the shop’s prosperous beginnings. In addition to the store, Pearce and Woodfield also opened Hamley Steakhouse, which features a beautifully appointed Western motif with real tin ceilings, rich oak furnishings, and the fittings of an old bank outlining the bar. It is truly the perfect setting for enjoying the great steaks served here. Pearce points out 2015 is the 175th year since William Hamley, father of J.J. and Henry, came from England in 1840 to start his business in the States, and Hamley & Co. is celebrating that anniversary this year.

Pearce has a passion for antique firearms and many are on display and for sale in the retail shop. His current collection includes a Civil War period Derringer with an engraved holster—popular with gamblers and prostitutes, an 1850s 5-shot Remington, an 1880s Damascus double barrel shotgun issued to the guards at the Nevada State prison, and a Colt from 1894 with a steer carved in the pearl handle of the gun. This gun has five notches carved on it, the meaning of which is uncertain, but it may have been a real killer. Also in Pearce’s collection is an 1895 Colt used in the TV series, Gunsmoke.

Pearce’s wife, Vicky, owns the upscale Antiques and Art on Main, directly across the street. Her finds are often museum-quality and include regional and cultural one-of-a-kinds, like an 1878 pew from a local church, apparel adorned in Indian beadwork, and historical treasures from the Pendleton Round-Up. Two of Vicky’s more unique finds include hand-carved wooden statues of Doc Holliday and Big Nose Kate by a Denver, Colo., artist in the 1980s. Together, the Pearces keep their fingers on the pulse of the American West’s treasures as they travel the country, looking for that rare firearm, or that stunning piece of Western art.

Let ’er Buck

Credit: W. Manceda / Pendleton

Credit: W. Manceda / Pendleton

In the summer of 1910, in a July 29 statement in the East Oregonian, local Pendleton attorney, Roy Raley, shared his vision of an exhibition that would “do more to keep Pendleton on the map, to bring people here and to send them away satisfied …”.

A few weeks later, the cry “Let ’er Buck” was ringing out from the crowds at the inaugural Pendleton Round-Up—a call that will ring out again across the grass fields of Pendleton this September, for the 105th year. Beginning with that very first year, people came from miles around to attend the show. 

The Round-Up is a festive time for the community and many citizens of Pendleton rally around the event, volunteering for the duties involved in its production. In celebration of the Centennial Round-Up in 2010, several old-time events, such as Northwest Bucking (where horses are saddled and mounted in the arena) were brought back to the grass. This year’s exhibition features Bobby Kerr’s Mustang Act, demonstrating the astonishing success Kerr has had with his mustangs—rescued participants of the Mustang Makeover.

Tim Hawkins, chairman of the Centennial and past president of the rodeo, is quick to remark, “You can’t see that anyplace else. If the Pendleton Round-Up is not on your bucket list, your bucket list isn’t complete!”

For the Centennial, Hawkins organized the annual Westward Ho! kick-off parade to be led by 100 horses and riders carrying American flags to represent each year of the Round-Up. Since then, another horse, rider, and flag are added to the parade each year, meaning 105 will lead the charge toward this year’s events. The spectacle is nothing short of inspiring.

In the evenings, rodeo-goers can enjoy the Happy Canyon Indian Pageant and Wild West Show, which provides a living, historical account of Westward expansion, from the time before the white man, to the explorations of Lewis and Clark, to the arrival of the wagon trains, and the ensuing conflicts throughout the development of the frontier’s rough and rowdy cowboy towns. The show is an annual work of live art, featuring prominent members of both tribe and town, as well as live horses.

Bishop Brother Blankets

Credit: Travel Pendleton

Credit: Travel Pendleton

Exactly one year before the inaugural Round-Up, the three Bishop brothers opened the Pendleton Woolen Mills for business, tapping into the thriving local sheep ranching industry to create woolen products with designs inspired by Native American patterns and art. In fact, it was Roy Bishop who promised the Cayuse, Walla Walla, and Umatillas places for their tipis and food for their horses, if they would join the premier Round-Up. No one knew until they saw the dust rising from the reservation that they were actually coming, but they did, thus becoming integral to the fabric of the event.

Pendleton Woolen Mills also owes much of its success to these neighboring tribes, as they traded their Pendleton blankets throughout the Nez Perce nation and well into the Zuni, Hopi, and Navajo nations in the Southwest. As beautiful as they are, the blankets have been used for ceremonial purposes throughout the years. In return, the Bishop brothers were often gifted priceless Native American artifacts, some of which are now on display in the Heritage Gallery in the back of the mill.

Today, the mill still produces its jacquard blankets on-site, but the draw is in shopping its beautiful men’s and women’s apparel items, as well as their home décor. Few come to Pendleton without a trip to the mill. Once you’re there, heed this insider’s tip: keep heading back and keep an eye out for “seconds.” 

A Saddle maker at the Smithsonian

Credit: Hamley's

Credit: Hamley's

In 1955, former Hamley & Co. apprentices, brothers Bill and Duff Severe, opened Severe Brothers Saddlery in the old World War II army barracks at the Pendleton airbase. Duff, a master rawhide braider and saddle maker, and Bill, who apprenticed as a treemaker, had intended to open their business in Washington, perhaps to avoid competition with Hamley & Co., but local ranchers wouldn’t allow it, and placed so many orders with the brothers that staying in Pendleton was the only option. 

Severe has been a household name in the Western industry since then, and when the Smithsonian Institution—the world’s largest museum and research complex, located in Washington, D.C.— began researching world-renowned saddle makers for its 1982 Festival of American Folklife, the search consistently produced the name Severe. As such, Duff became the first saddle maker in history whose work has been recognized by the Smithsonian. Not only that, but he is among a rare breed of master craftsmen who have been invited to the festival on numerous occasions, with his nephew, Randy, accompanying him in 1994.

Now, the brothers have both passed and Randy, along with his brother, Robin, maintains the integrity of their name and brand.

“Severe Saddles are for those who take pride in their horses and their horsemanship,” Randy states. The sentiment is a continuation of the pride Duff took in his own work, guided by his father’s advice to “do the job better than it has ever been done before.”

As a longtime fixture in the Pendleton and cowboy communities, the saddlery operates as more than just a gear shop when the rodeo’s in town, keeping the coffee on for competing cowboys and offering a place for them to lay their bed rolls above the shop. Often, Randy will pick up his guitar and sing a cowboy tune between his saddle making duties.

Pendleton’s Underbelly

Credit: Lora Thorson

Credit: Lora Thorson

The men of the Severe family are not the sole contributors to Pendleton’s rich offerings. In 1989, Pam Severe—Bill and Duff’s niece—opened the Underground Tours, revealing to the public a real-life, city-beneath-the-city where people once lived and operated their businesses—legal and not. 

The creation of the tunnels was largely a result of a nation-wide animosity toward Chinese communities at the turn of the 20th century. With the completion of the Northern Pacific’s transcontinental railroad in 1883, tracklayers found themselves looking for employment. The sudden competition for work increased hostilities from the locals and the Chinese went underground. In many towns, this meant confining themselves to their own neighborhoods, resulting in the still-present Chinatowns in many American cities. In Pendleton, however, the underground was literal, and tunnels were dug and businesses like Hop Sing’s Laundry, a Chinese jail, and a butcher shop, were put in place. Eventually the underground also served Pendleton’s rowdy side, especially during Prohibition times, and offered secret entrances and exits to the many speakeasies, opium rooms, and bordellos. 

Now, the Underground Tours are operated by Pam’s daughter, Brooke McKay. Her tours take guests into the tunnels, where rooms have been refurbished to accurately portray the activities and characters of the past, and culminates with a climb up the “32 steps to heaven,” which led clients from the dingy underground tunnels to the soft beds of the Cozy Rooms bordello, to be attended by Madame Stella Darby’s working girls. To really step back in time, plan to be in town in May, for the Pendleton Underground Comes Alive event, when for one day, live actors play out Pendleton’s seedy history.

Understanding the Umatilla

Credit: Randall Collis

Credit: Randall Collis

The Umatilla Reservation is just east of downtown, and within it, the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute. Built on the Oregon Trail in 1998, it is another part of Pendleton’s living history and the only Indian-owned museum on the national trail. Through permanent exhibits, special events, and the Living Culture Village, Tamastslikt invites visitors to witness the stories of the Umatilla tribes—past, present, and future.

 “Hospitality is one of the hallmarks of the Umatilla people,” Bobbie Conner, director of the museum, said. “As we prepared to describe the consequences of Western expansion for the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla people, the elders guiding our story said that there is always good with the bad. Visitors can hear, see, and feel that in our words, songs, stories, images, and objects. People who come begin to understand that we are celebrating our survival against the odds and that one unintended consequence of the reservation is that it’s become a stronghold to perpetuate our culture and knowledge.”

Even the Museum Store is a cultural treasure trove that, with the exception of a few local products from the Woolen Mills, carries solely Native American merchandise, such as items featuring exquisitely intricate beadwork, books written by and about the Plateau Indians and stocked exclusively at the museum, and the unique Cayuse saddle blanket made by Pendleton. Also available is the Umatilla Dictionary. Published in 2014, the dictionary is a linguistic feat, commissioned almost 20 years ago by the Confederate Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation to save their nearly extinct native language. With such a strong history in oral traditions, this publication is one more survival tool available to the tribes as they navigate change in the future.

From the cultural center to the saddle shop and the rodeo, this frontier town has deep roots—some dark and gnarly, others thick and healthy—that make Pendleton ripe with Western opportunities and experiences. Its story isn’t a fairy tale; it’s a Western epic. And it’s still told today in the waving of 105 American flags and the flickering of a red light in a dark tunnel. It’s a story that’s seen in the artful tooling on a world-class saddle and read in a 640-page dictionary of the native language. Finally, it’s a rallying cry—a call to past, present, and future participants of this epic, fed by the desire to know the real Pendleton. It’s been a wild ride, but still we holler���“Let ’er Buck!”

* The original version of this publication read, "History and heritage characterize this iconic cowboy town in northwest Oregon." It has been corrected to read, "... in northeast Oregon." We apologize for this oversight. 

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