By MIKE JOHNSTON
Associate Editor, Daily Record
Chamber Cowboys continue a 25-year tradition, but are looking for new recruits.
ELLENSBURG – As Bob Barret remembers it, the local Jaycees group back in 1975 was having trouble maintaining the tradition of organizing the annual Ellensburg Rodeo/Kittitas County Fair kickoff breakfast and help came riding in to the rescue from the Ellensburg Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber Cowboys group was then born to bolster the kickoff event. The group of somewhat rowdy, but community-minded volunteers is this year observing its 25th year. Barret acknowledges his memory might be a bit rusty and it could also be the group’s 26th year. No matter – the group has been around long enough to become a very visible part of the community’s rodeo and fair heritage.
The Chamber has had a hand in supporting the annual public breakfast – conducted two-weeks before the Labor Day fair/rodeo weekend – ever since 1952 when a Chamber Rodeo Committee started it with the help of longtime auctioneer Bill Heaverlo. A few years prior to 1975 the local Junior Chamber of Commerce had taken the breakfast over.
The Jaycees had an old car pulling a wooden jail cell and continued the tradition of having a fair/rodeo button, picking it up from a button effort made way back by the rodeo board. Barret, the former Kittitas County sheriff, said he was a Jaycee back then and shifted over to the Chamber-sponsored Cowboys group to keep the breakfast tradition alive, along with several other citizens – some still around and some who have passed on.
“You didn’t have to be a Chamber member to participate and you still don’t”Barret said. “It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s fun. You have to want to help get the community spirited up for the rodeo and fair. It’s kind of a different way to do that, but it’s some thing many people locally look forward to every year. We’ve become part of the rodeo and fair tradition.” Barret said the group is looking for new members to bolster the current membership and carry it on into the new millennium. Those interested should call the Chamber office at 925-2002. The Chamber Cowboys organize the distribution and sale of the annual rodeo/fair button – “still only a dollar after all these years,” Barret says – and orchestrate the all-you-can-eat pancake and sausage breakfast. This year the event is set for 7 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 19, at the Rotary Pavilion and adjacent parking lot in downtown on North Pearl Street. Funds from the button sales are donated during the year by the Chamber Cowboys to a variety of nonprofit programs, organizations, and causes that aid young people, the elderly, and the disabled, to name only a few. Some of the organizations helped with button donations include: the Northwest Burn Center, the Central Washington University Rodeo Club, 4-H horse clubs, the Kittitas County search and rescue group, the Unicycle Club, the Children’s Activity Museum, the Community Christmas Basket, and Ellensburg’s Youth Unlimited program. Barret roughly estimates that the Chamber Cowboys have raised and donated more than $50,000 since 1975.
This year’s special “millennium button” is now on sale at a variety of locations in Ellensburg and Kittitas. Barret said it cost a bit more to make since it has special gold inlay lettering and a deep, regal blue color. A tongue-in-cheek ordinance, duly passed annually by the Ellensburg City Council, requires citizens to wear the button or wear three pieces of western wear in public from now until after the rodeo. If they refuse, the ordinance allows the Cowboys to put them in the “jail” they haul on a trailer behind their trademark two-headed car. But what about that two-headed car used by the Cowboys when they ride around town selling buttons, run the siren and, sometimes, shoot off their guns?
Barret said the vehicle is made from two 1960 Dodge station wagons, one that had been owned by the Tharp family. One of the vehicles had its top chopped off earlier and was used by the The Tav in its river races. The two-headed car was built by Marshall “Slim” Martin, according to Barret. Martin later had it in the Rodeo Parade, but it was later acquired by the Jaycees for activities in the early 1970s. In the winter of 1974-75, when the Chamber Cowboys was forming, the vehicle was obtained by Cowboy members and refurbished. Barret remembers getting help to repaint and decorate the weird vehicle from a then young high school student – Mike Dillon, son of Wally and Clo Dillon. Dillon now is well-known in the Seattle area as the president of the cutting-edge and highly successful Dillon Works! Inc., a custom design and fabrication company. Some remember young Dillon getting his start when former Daily Record publisher/editor John Ludtka hired him to paint rodeo/fair scenes on business windows around town for many years, starting when Dillon was only 10 years old. Several businesses and volunteers have helped keep the two-headed car going through the years by donations and plain hard work. The siren came from an ancient, surplus sheriff’s vehicle and, a few years ago, a separate fund-raising effort was undertaken to make major repairs to keep it safely running. Barret remembers that the vehicle’s current color scheme and graphics were done by the former graphics staff of the Flakey Jake’s and Sea Galley restaurant chain, roughly following Dillon’s design. The staff used to have an office in the rural Kittitas area. It was they who added the cattle horns on both ends of the car. The work has been revitalized over the years by Cowboy volunteers and the local Mainly Signs firm. After all these years the two-headed car still runs and is the signature vehicle for the Chamber Cowboys as they roam the community to sell buttons. During other times of the year the vehicle is used at other community events, some involving programs aimed at helping children. “That car is a rolling piece of history,” Barret said.
Kay Hageman, the Ellensburg Chamber of Commerce manager from 1957 to 1988, said the Chamber Cowboy effort has been an important one, but an obviously fun one for the Cowboy volunteers.
“It’s a great community activity in support of the rodeo and fair and the most fun part of the Chamber’s support of those events.”