Now in its 73rd year the Chief Joseph Days Rodeo is an indelible northeast Oregon tradition. For most of those years a red 19th century stagecoach with bright, yellow wheels has been a big part of that tradition.
This year the horse team of Sadie and Skeeter and their handlers will appear at eleven parades throughout the Northwest promoting Wallowa County’s biggest summertime event.
Built in Concord, New Hampshire Wallowa County founding father Frank McCully bought the stagecoach in1886 and ran a stage line from Elgin to Joseph until 1908 when the Joseph Branch Railroad was completed between the two towns. McCully likely kept the coach in use on a stage line from Joseph to Imnaha for several years after the railroad was built.
In 1966, the year Karen Prout, a member of the stagecoach team, was crowned Chief Joseph Days Rodeo queen the coach was restored and became a permanent fixture at rodeo events and parades.
Gary Prout started helping handle the team and stagecoach with Dave Turner in the early 2000’s. Several years ago Turner handed the reins over to Prout.
“Dave and Darlene Turner owned the trailer, horses and stagecoach and Chief Joseph Days bought it from them,” Prout said.
Six years ago Chief Joseph Days bought a new team of horses that live on a farm with stagecoach team members Lynnea and Stan. Gary Prout said Lynea is the horse expert and cares for their nutrition and medical needs.
Sadie and Skeeter are draft horses and their jobs are to gently pull a stagecoach and to look pretty. Their coats and long tails were well brushed before the CJD program photo shoot on Stan and Lynea’s farm, but as Sadie especially likes to roll in the dirt, Gary Prout carefully washed the white star on her face with a large sponge to get her photo ready.
As the stagecoach rolled out of its custom trailer Max Prout explained each member of the team had specific duties preparing the horses and coach for a ride.
“I don’t know all the names of the parts of the harnesses and bridles, so I numbered each step – that way when I go through my checklist I can remember what do,” Max Prout said.
Even putting on the harnesses requires team work as Max and Gary together lift them onto the backs of the horses.
After each buckle is checked and rechecked Max and Gary lead the horses to the coach to be attached to the tongue. When all of the steps have been completed on the checklist and the stagecoach is ready to roll, Max said Karen does a final look over the gear to make sure nothing was missed.
“You can get a much better look at everything from up there,” Max Prout said.
Karen Prout said each year the stagecoach is lovingly maintained from the wheels and tires to the tongue that attaches the coach to the horse team. This painstaking attention to detail has the 132-year old vehicle running smoothly and in mint condition.
What delight it brings when the stagecoach rolls into Wallowa Lake State Park during the week of the rodeo.
Gary Prout said, “How can someone come all the way to the south end of the lake and not know a rodeo is going on? So we take the stagecoach to the park and draw quite a crowd!”
Look for the Chief Joseph Days stagecoach at the Bucking Horse Stampede on Tuesday afternoon in downtown Joseph, the grand parade on Saturday and at the rodeo Friday and Saturday nights.