Wheat Farmers, Cowboys, Wine, Eclectic Citizens and Colorful History
by Victoria Bond
In early October of 2008, I was flying my Piper Super Cub back from Yakima Washington returning home towards Salt Lake City, Utah. A storm was forecast between Yakima and Salt Lake, so when I left Yakima I knew that I would need to stop for a night or two.Â Â Since I left late in the afternoon, my plan was to stop in La Grande Oregon. I had been there before and knew there was a great FBO with courtesy cars and that La Grande had many dining and lodging options. However an hour into my flight, I approached Pendleton Oregon, a town 30 minutes prior to my La Grande destination. Since winds were gusty, 12 knots gusting to 18, at both Pendleton and La Grande, and if! stopped, I could avoid flying through the turbulence over the Blue Mountains, I decided to land at Pendleton for the night. I assumed there was not much to Pendleton but that it would serve as a good, safe, overnight stop.
The tower controller let me know the choice of runways was mine since the wind was blowing between all 3 of them. My new vortex generators added stability and I was pleased with a non eventful landing in the gusty winds. I taxied to the FBO and Larry helped me fuel the plane and carry my luggage. That was nice! I asked Larry about hotels, good steak restaurants and whether or not I could use the courtesy car overnight (not a common practice). Larry told me the best steak restaurant was Hamley’s but it was on the expensive side and dinner might cost as much as $25. He mentioned there were other steak houses, but that Hamley’s was the premier restaurant in town. I also located a motel 2 blocks from Hamley’s and main street.
So I threw my baggage into the vintage brown station wagon, replete with wood sides, and drove down from the sweeping plateau serving as home to the airport, into a valley carved by the Umatilla river. As I drove from the airport, the scenery was unexpected, a contrast of verdant green trees and the river in the valley relative to the sweeping wheat fields on the plateau. I passed large rodeo grounds and passed older buildings and located my motel which had been recently renovated. I checked in, settled down and then walked to dinner.
Walking to Hamley’s and crossing a beautiful main street, it appeared thatÂ IÂ was revisiting an era of the past. Entering Hamley’s was also quite a surprise. This was not a typical steak restaurant but rather a fabulous renovation of historic buildings turned into a restaurant, wine cellar, bars, and a specialty shopping venue. I walked into a western museum with an historic large wood, mirrored bar, stained glass chandelier, western paintings and a stairway down into a wine cellar.Â Â I sampled their famed drink, a “Sage Brush,” made of course with Pendleton Whiskey and other secret ingredients. I learned that indeed Pendleton Whiskey had been specially blended for the Pendleton Roundup and Rodeo. Pendleton is noted for the oldest and most prestigious roundup and rodeo in the west. This event more than doubles the town’s population for an entire week during the second week of September. To top off the evening, the steak I ordered, the filet mignon, cold smoked over apple wood and grilled with a huckleberry demi-glaze, was the most delicious steak that I have ever enjoyed. This steak dinner was incredible and far exceeded my expectations, especially since I didn’t have any and was just hoping for a good meal and clean room.
Returning to the motel, I stopped in the lobby and grabbed some brochures and the manager told me that ifI stayed another day I could possibly take the famed “Underground” tour. I couldn’t image what that might entail. I could also take a tour of the Pendleton Woolen Mills. Since I had my laptop and internet access card, I was able to check weather and make some “Pilot In Command” decisions. I was obviously thinking that if! couldn’t make it all the way to Salt Lake City, why not stay put in this wonderful town and do some more investigation. This had turned into a truly wonderful adventure.
A line of storms had turned into an unpredicted large winter storm producing up to 2 feet ofÂ snow in Montana. Snow was also falling in Salt Lake in an uninterrupted line of storms from Nevada and Utah into Central Idaho. There would be continued high winds and an icing Airmet in effect between Pendleton and Salt Lake, for at least 24 more hours. Well that made for an easy choice! I’ll tum in and explore Pendleton moreÂ tomorrow.
I woke up to a crisp cold morning, 23 degrees, but it warmed throughout the day. I wandered back to Hamley’s to visit the western store. Again, the store was another first class operation. The lady that welcomed me to the store began sharing the history of the Hamley brothers, two men who followed the cry of, “Go Out West Young Men” and began a custom saddle business in the 1800’s. The store had life-size bronze statures, custom saddles, belts, boots, and clothing. After visiting the store, I stopped at the coffee shop next door. This is a small town, so the barista welcomed the next person ordering a coffee with a “Hello Bruce.” So I turned and said, “Good morning Bruce” as well. I mentioned I was visiting and would be taking some tours, so he suggested that I go to a gathering spot atÂ 4:30Â in the afternoon where locals gather, drink wine and musicians jam. He also introduced me to a lady in the coffee shop named Karen. After he left, Karen asked that if I would be attending the gathering later in the day, could she join me at the gathering. What a pleasant town. Now my day’s calendar was full, a tour of the Pendleton Woolen Mills, a tour of the “Underground”-still had no idea what that would be, and a get together with town locals and musicians atÂ 4:30.
The Pendleton Woolen Mill tour was interesting but the Underground tour was again a big surprise. Apparently when the railroad was being built, there were many Chinese laborers in Pendleton. These laborers were not allowed in town after dark at that time, so they lived underground, under the buildings of the town center. We toured these quarters including sleeping, laundry business, opium dens etc. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s Pendleton had over 18 brothels and over 30 bars. Ranchers and farmers came into town for a good time after they were paid, and patronized the brothel establishments. So our tour switched gears and we were led above ground into a doorway squeezed between two other buildings on main street. We walked up 21 stairs (21 stairs to heaven) and found ourselves in one of the historic brothels. This brothel was everything that one might expect of a brothel. There were parlors with card tables, pianos for entertainment, working rooms and living quarters in the back. There were secret passageways for quick escapes and original photos of the madam. When the brothels were closed in 1953, the owner of this particular building was so embarrassed that he placed cement blocks at the entrance. This building remained sealed for 40 years until 1990 when he died. The building has now been donated to the historical society and is part of the Pendleton “Underground” tour. Amazing and Unexpected!
Now I have just time to freshen up and meet my new friends at the locals gathering spot. Musicians gather everyÂ SaturdayÂ afternoon to jam. As I walked in, a stately gentlemen farmer, named Stan, (as I found out later) said hello and asked if! were writing an article about Pendleton. He had seen me taking pictures earlier at the Hamley steak house and thought that might be the case. I said no and explained that I was on a journey, weathered in and found the town intriguing. But perhaps writing an article might be a good idea. I located Karen and I invited Stan to join us as well. Turns out that he is 79 and is a pilot as well. He also is the past chairman of the US Wheat Association and has traveled throughout the world. What next?
Well of course, Bruce from the coffee shop, also joins us. Bruce and his wife Margaret have their own vintage antique business. He had contributed to renovation of the Hamley restaurant and in fact had built a large custom table for the wine cellar and reconstructed the antique bars. I learned that the main bar was moved to Pendleton from Grangeville Idaho and another bar in an upstairs party room was moved to Pendleton from Butte Montana. There is quite the story behind that move-but you’ll have to travel to Pendleton and meet Bruce for that detail. Bruce is currently constructing two loft apartments in an historic building around the corner and invited us to tour the lofts the next morning. Karen has lived in Pendleton forever and epitomizes the lovely nature of the citizens of the town.
We all met for breakfast the next morning, prior to my departure. Stan helped me PreFlight—he wanted to make sure that I was thorough; he is also a CFI. I didn’t skip one step. When the frost melted I continued my journey home and couldn’t help but think that I must return to Pendleton and check out the famed Roundup and visit with my new friends.