Have you ever wanted to sell everything you own and just "take off?" Travel the country's back roads, paddle down a meandering stream, experience breath-taking mountain views, walk among 100-year old trees, and just marvel at America's beauty? That is the dream that my partner, Betsy, and I decided to make a reality. This blog describes our adventure. The food we eat, people we meet, sights we see, and the enjoyment we find in traveling.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Pendleton, Oregon

Don’t make the mistake that I did and assume the little eastern Oregon town of Pendleton is known for just one thing…the famous woolen mill that bears the name.  After three days in the town, we learned there is much more that defines Pendleton than cozy blankets and attractive plaid shirts.

The town also has the Pendleton Round-Up which is the largest four-day rodeo in the U.S. and dates back to 1910.  And there is the seedy underworld of downtown known as the Pendleton Underground which literally was a subterranean culture of Chinese laundry shops, whiskey bars, meat markets, and brothels.  Pendleton is rich in Native American Indian culture and history that is celebrated at the Tam├ístslikt Cultural Institute.  So before you come to this town thinking you are going for a quick shopping trip at the Pendleton Woolen Mill, you better think twice. 

We set up “camp” at the RV park at the Wildhorse Casino.  (For all you non-RV’ers - you might be surprised that a number of casinos allow us wandering vagabonds to spend the night on their grounds.  Some casinos have full-blown RV parks and others just let you stay overnight in their parking lot.  Either way, it’s like parking at Wal-mart, they know we will come in and spend money.)  The next morning we were up early and en route to the Pendleton Woolen Mill to peruse their famous blankets and tour the factory.  Our eyes widened when we walked into the retail store and saw just how many colors, styles, sizes, and patterns there were.  The family-owned business started in 1909 and their blankets have grown to symbolize the rustic American west that kept early explorers and cowboys warm under the star-lit skies for over a 100 years. 

Pendleton has two mill locations - the one in Pendleton, Oregon and a larger one in Washougal, Washington that dies the fleece and weaves fabrics for clothing and other items.  The free Pendleton factory tour is fascinating as you walk amongst the punching looms, spinning fibers and spools of yarn, you are immersed in the blankets making progress from start to finish.

Raw, dyed fleece goes through several cleaning processes. 
The cleaned fleece is laid into sheets.
The sheets of fleece are spun and distributed to spools.   The thread then gets twisted for strength and steamed so that it does not kink.
Yarn is moved to the computerized loom where it will be woven into a blanket in approximately 20 minutes.
This picture shows the computers for the looms which are housed on a floor above the weaving part of the looms.  
Completed blankets are rolled onto sheets so they can be inspected before being cut and finished.  These looms are jacquard looms that interlace several hundred threads to create an intricate double sided pattern which you can see on the top and bottom rolls in this picture.
Finished blankets are hand inspected before being cut and finished.  
Buying a Pendleton blanket from the Pendleton Woolen Mill in Pendleton was on Betsy’s “must do” list.  It’s like eating Peking duck in Peking…or Hershey’s chocolate in Hershey…or fried artichokes in the artichoke capitol.  So buy we did!  Adjacent to the retail store is their outlet where you can find great deals on slightly defected items and where we found two blankets that are sure to give the motorhome a bit of flair and lasting culture of the American west. 
Our jacquard Indian blanket
After our factory tour and blanket shopping we were ready for lunch at the Prodigal Son Brewery and some more shopping downtown.  When visiting downtown Pendleton, I sensed a warm vibe from this wholesome western American town that idolizes the cowboy and appreciates the hard-working farmer.  Buildings are well kept, the streets are clean, and people are friendly.  The many saddleries, custom hat shops, and western apparel made my inner cowgirl want to come out.  

Hamley and Co. is a 100-year tradition in
Pendleton and houses 10,000 square feet of
western apparel, horse tack, saddles, and other
custom items.

What you don’t see on the downtown streets of Pendleton is the “city beneath a city” that lurks in the bowels of Pendleton.  In the late 1800’s, Pendleton was reported to have 18 brothels and 32 saloons that entertained the many wandering cowboys and travelers of the Oregon Trail.  Since the city was only so big, many of these “less desirable” businesses moved underground and what was happening on the surface streets of Pendleton was not exactly what was happening in the underground world.   

Many Chinese lived and worked underground to escape prejudice.   
Fascinated by the idea that people lived and worked underneath the city streets in dark and damp basements and tunnels, we decided to plop down the $15 for the 90-minute Pendleton Underground Tour.  The tour guides you through a remarkable network of tunnels, passageways, and basements that stretched for many city blocks and was used for nearly 70 years.  It all started back in the 1870’s when Chinese laborers began constructing tunnels to conduct business and take refuge from discrimination.   This underworld soon grew into a playground for the seedy who were looking for a drink during prohibition, a place to gamble, female companionship, and other questionable behavior.  But there were also pool halls, a bowling alley, an ice cream parlor, Chinese laundry shop, boarding rooms, and just about anything else you can imagine. 

Props (like this fine lady and the whiskey bottles) give visitors a sense of what must have been happening in the underground.
Booze and gambling frequently led to fist fights and shoot-outs.  When we visited, everyone seemed very civil and calm!
Hop Sing's laundry shop was one of the most popular businesses in the underground.
The Empire Meat Company had a retail shop on street level but the constant 42 degree basement was ideal for storing and processing the meat.
Next, our tour led us to Pendleton’s most famous brothel - the Cozy Rooms operated by the town’s famous, Miss Stella.   The first room you enter after walking up the stairs is a chapel, which seems a bit out of place in this establishment, but reportedly some girls wanted to practice their faith and were not accepted in the community.

Ms. Stella
a "working room"

When there were no  church services, the chapel was a waiting room for the visiting gentlemen.  Our tour continued through the living and working quarters of the brothel.  Surprisingly, Miss Stella's Cozy Rooms were in business until the early 1960’s.

The "Cozy Rooms" were one of the most popular places in town.  You could either come in the front door and up the steps or through a back room from the roof (for those wishing to be discrete).
While the "working rooms" were small and all about business, their living quarters were much more spacious and nice in those days.
Before leaving Pendleton, we visited the Tam├ístslikt Cultural Institute which houses the tribal museum of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (made up of the Cayuse, Walla Walla, and Umatilla tribes).  The museum is a historical-cultural timeline that covers 10,000 years of people that shared this land with nature and eventually the white man.  Through interactive exhibits, artwork, and dramatic video one learns how these tribes have been changed throughout history.

The museum exhibits are modern and full of great artifacts.
The tribes have embraced change throughout history but still hold tight to their traditions.
Pendleton was just supposed to be a quick shopping trip but we loved that we found so much more to do.  Too bad we will not be there in September for the famous Pendleton Round Up – this town seems to know how to have a good time.

A beautiful rainbow across the Oregon prairie as seen from our campsite.
Double rainbow-always makes us think of our dog Otter who waits on the Rainbow Bridge.

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