Cruising east on I-84 through eastern Oregon is basically traveling the Oregon Trail backward—the freeway traces the old wagon route past grain elevators and brown grassland, then the highway dips down to a valley carved by the Umatilla River. Welcome to Old West Oregon.
Pendleton’s fame comes from its namesake woolen mills, which created, then cornered the market on Native American blankets. The free weekday tour of the humming factory floor feels like a living version of an Industrial Revolution textbook—in a good way. In the attached outlet, tour goers dig through discounted factory seconds, the cheapest route to Pendleton style.
The town itself is a few sleepy blocks of brick storefronts and dusty neon signs, anchored by historic saddlery Hamley and Co. It may be hard to justify a $5,000 handmade saddle, but the rich aroma of leather inspires splurges on more practical souvenirs like western jewelry and cowboy hats.
The Hamley owner helped found the Pendleton Round-Up in 1910, a spectacle that nearly triples the town population every fall. Behind the usual bull riding and barrel racing is a long history of Native American participation; the local tribes have had equal billing in the event since its inception, erecting a teepee village and putting on powwow dances.
This is not Old Hollywood’s version of cowboys and Indians. Four miles from downtown at Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, a museum traces 10,000 years of tribal history, including an Oregon Trail exhibit from an indigenous point of view.
For all the happy history on display, there’s a darker side to town, literally and figuratively. Pendleton Underground Tour guides wander through a network of sturdy basalt tunnels and basements, explaining how, in its boom years, gold was delivered safely below the town’s unruly streets.
“This was the entertainment capital of the region,” says tour director Brooke McKay, “and there were 32 bars and 18 brothels within a few blocks.” The Chinese residents—gold miners, railroad workers, merchants—were subject to sundown laws. “They had to be inside at sundown or they could be shot,” says McKay. Not every story on the underground tour is a downer; one basement stored ice cream during the unrelenting heat of the eastern Oregon summer.
The town’s prostitutes had no such curfew, and downtown’s Working Girls Hotel recreates their brass bed–and–brick wall aesthetic. With shared baths and a cowboy mural in the parlor, it’s got more character than amenities, but the dearth of hotel options makes it the town’s best nonchain lodging.
The past is woven tight into Pendleton, where even the craft brewery serves throwback fare like Scotch eggs and homemade whoopie pie. If it wasn’t for Prodigal Son’s hoppy IPA—perfectly on brand for Oregon circa 2015—it could easily be 1955 inside the airy brewpub.
The sleepy streets of Pendleton have none of the theme park mania of some Old West towns (we’re looking at you, Winthrop). They don’t make burgs like this anymore, but Pendleton is in good shape to carry the flag for small-town authenticity another century or two.
Hold a Pendleton blanket. It’s scratchy, a little fuzzy, as thick as a winter coat. Is it 100 years old, or did it come off a Jacquard loom last week? You can’t tell, and experts can’t either—they’re that well made.
Pendleton Woolen Mills has been selling its blankets for 106 years, now in 60 stores and outlets, and woven into Levi products and throw pillows and dog beds. But they were originally developed for a specific market: Native Americans.
“It’s a cradle-to-grave fabric for us,” says Roberta Conner, director of Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, whose community considers a tiny Muchacho blanket a treasured baby gift. “People are historically wrapped in a Pendleton woolen blanket when they’re buried.”
And that’s not just among the local Umatilla, who repurposed blankets into coats, bags, and accessories long before the company itself began a fashion line. In the Southwest, they’re a commodity: Blanket expert and appraiser Barry Friedman sees Pendletons pile up in pawnshops during winter then retrieved when the temperature drops.
Is this Native American culture being appropriated by white men, then sold back to them as $250 blankets? The Pendleton patterns, with their chevrons and stars, points and stripes, are all original. The company claims its English designer Joseph Rawnsley visited Native American tribes so he could understand their symbolism—though Friedman notes, “All the Indian designs are total rip-offs of European designs…what kind of inspiration he might have drawn from the tribes was done in an alcoholic haze.” Whiskey soaked or not, Rawnsley’s Chief Joseph and Harding patterns remain the company’s most popular, largely because the aesthetic was so widely embraced by Pendleton’s Native American customers.
Like the blankets themselves, the Pendleton legacy is hardy. A 1916 stripe pattern created for Glacier National Park, a riff on an older Hudson Bay style, has become ubiquitous on Instagram. Seattle artist Dale Chihuly displays some of his 800-blanket collection in his glass museum. In 2009, fashion house Opening Ceremony turned the blanket patterns into haute couture. Pendleton has been historic, cultural, and respected—and now, finally, it’s hip.
Pendleton Round-Up pendletonroundup.com
Pendleton Underground Tours and Working Girls Hotel pendletonundergroundtours.org
Pendleton Woolen Mills pendleton-usa.com
Tamástslikt Cultural Institute tamastslikt.org