(Pendleton) East Oregonian via Associated Press
PENDLETON, Ore. (AP) -- Welcome to the Pendleton Round-Up, a week of wild and wooly rodeo action that opened on Wednesday. During the week, Pendleton's population will swell by an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 people.
"We're getting people from all over the world," said Leslie Carnes, executive director of Pendleton's Chamber of Commerce.
They are drawn by more than 700 competitors who will rope and ride with the help of about 375 bulls, steers and calves provided by stock contractors for timed and rough stock events.
Since the first rodeo 99 years ago drew 7,000 people, the event has grown and accrued the richest of histories. The rodeo remained a constant through tough times such as the Great Depression and in recent years of economic downturn. In 2001, the Round-Up continued in spite of the tragedy of 9/11 -- albeit with a more subdued crowd.
The town pulled the plug on the Round-Up only once during a two-year period in which World War II raged.
The rodeo, one of the country's oldest, has had its share of heroes and controversy. In 1911, an African-American cowboy named George Fletcher brought the crowd to its feet as his horse bucked and swirled during the saddle bronc competition. When judges awarded the trophy to a white cowboy, John Spain, Sheriff Til Taylor collected funds from the crowd and awarded it to Fletcher as "The People's Champion."
Other colorful and memorable participants include this year's inductees to the Round-Up and Happy Canyon Hall of Fame -- Willie Wocatsie, Deb Copenhaver and Ollie Osborn.
Wocatsie was a member of the Walla Walla tribe known for his Indian regalia and tribal leadership, Copenhaver was a world champion bronc rider and Osborn was the first woman to compete in rodeo full-time.
Each year, the Round-Up transforms the City of Pendleton. When a town doubles in size, it's hard not to notice, and if you work at the Pendleton Chamber of Commerce, it's downright impossible. The office, located at 501 S. Main, is Chaos Central all week long.
Pandemonium begins from the moment the door is unlocked at 8:30 a.m.
"The phone starts ringing off the hook," said Yolanda Lennon, tourism promotion director for Travel Pendleton. "This morning when I walked in, two lines were lit and a third was ringing."
There's the foot traffic, too.
Carnes, the Chamber of Commerce executive director, says she's noticed an increase in visitors who hail from Europe. Many of the foreign guests, she said, are enamored with the cowboy culture, stocking up on hats, boots and western clothing.
Some of the chamber's visitors are desperately looking for lodging. Though the town's 1,000-or-so hotel rooms filled months ago, they often get unexpected openings.
"The hotels call us when they get cancellations," Carnes said. "We fill up every room we possibly can."
The office also serves as matchmaker between visitors who need lodging and Pendleton residents who are offering homes, rooms, tent space, trailers or other private housing.
Five RV sites scattered around town offer 500 spaces for trailers.
Return visitors will notice some work in progress at the rodeo grounds. By next year, the Round-Up's 100th anniversary, the area around the complex will have morphed into an attractive plaza with black wrought-iron fences, tall trees, a 14-foot-wide walkway, underground utilities and two entry plazas at the east and west ends. Near the east gate, visitors will find a bronze of a rodeo horse in mid-buck.
While some Pendleton residents choose Round-Up time to go on vacation, most stick around and enjoy the week. Carnes isn't worried about Pendleton residents giving visitors the cold shoulder.
"There are lots of welcoming people in this town," she said.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.