Top 10 True Western Towns of 2011 Our sixth annual award for Western towns that are the benchmark for preserving history.

TOP TRUE WESTERN TOWN OF THE YEAR: PENDLETON, OR

William McKay was a towering figure in the Pacific Northwest. The Oregon native, born in 1824, serviced his state as an explorer, Indian fighter, miner, shop clerk, farmer and a physician.

One of his greatest achievements: establishing a trading post on a creek along the Oregon Trail in what is now the northeast section of the state. The place came to be called Pendleton. Over the years, it has become a place of such varied accomplishments that the town reflects the life and character of McKay himself.

At the mention of “Pendleton,” most folks think of the 1909 woolen mill that makes Indian-inspired blankets. It certainly deserves a visit when you hit town.

Yet this town of 17,500 pulled out all the stops in showcasing its heritage when Pendleton celebrated its 100th annual Round-Up in 2010. The community rallied together for this historic event, as it has been doing so on behalf of its historic sites and gatherings for the past few years. This town with true grit has earned its place as our #1 True Western Town of 2011.

Much of downtown is included in the South Main Street Commercial Historic District, where many original buildings remain (and they’re all listed in local teacher Keith May’s book The Pendleton Style Inventory). Visitors can choose between walking and driving tours that showcase the history of the area.

When folks set up shop in Pendleton, they’re not likely to leave. Just check out some of the historic businesses. The Rainbow Café (1893) is a former saloon. Hamley & Co. (1883), the legendary saddlemaker, recently spent millions on a renovation of its saddle shop, steakhouse, Western art gallery and saloon. Frazier Office Supply has been a Main Street fixture for more than 100 years. And the 1905 J.C. Penney store is in its original location. The same goes for the Bowman Hotel, which opened for business in 1906.

Many historic buildings have been repurposed. The 1916 Carnegie Library Building is now home to the Pendleton Center for the Arts. The 1909 depot now houses the exhibit galleries of the Heritage Station Museum (which also features a one-room schoolhouse and a homestead, both built in 1879).

A fair amount of Pendleton’s underground economy was just that—underground. Between the 1870s and 1930s, Chinese laborers built more than 70 miles of tunnels that connected street level structures. This underground sin city offered gambling houses, saloons and brothels (at its height, Pendleton boasted 18 whorehouses and 32 saloons for a population of 3,000). In 1989, many of those shops were re-created; today, the tour of Underground Pendleton is one of the city’s more popular activities.

In recognition that preserving and presenting history is an ongoing process in Pendleton, the city’s Development Commission, created in 2003, has awarded $1.5 million for facade restorations and other renovations to downtown buildings. Building owners have added their own resources to complete the projects, bringing the total to $3.9 million.

The legendary Round-Up (held each September) requires ongoing renovations of the arena and the facade along Court Avenue, the original Oregon Trail route. As even more of a testament that Pendleton’s citizens take control of the town’s history, this rodeo is operated entirely by volunteers.

Building and maintaining multicultural relationships are also the norm in Pendleton. The Umatilla, Cayuse and Walla Walla tribes have been part of the rodeo gathering for 99 years, with tribal members showcasing their traditional dances, drumming and teepee village.

Pendleton is also serious about saving the tribal heritage, as well as the cowboy heritage. The Tamastslikt Cultural Institute Museum offers a language program to save the Indian tongues and works with the local reservation charter school to teach them to students. The museum also features a Living Culture Village where visitors can talk to tribal members and watch them perform traditional jobs.

Dr. William McKay liked Pendleton so much that after all his travels, he kept coming back. When he died in 1893, he was buried in the local Olney Cemetery. The modest stone states nothing about his accomplishments. But when you visit this Top True Western Town, you can see not only his accomplishments, but also those of the locals who walk alongside you down the streets of Pendleton.

What do you think?