DESTINATIONS: Joseph

DESTINATIONS: Joseph

Thas been Joseph's greeting to visitors on a Main Street sign for over half of a century.

hile many things has changed in Joseph in those decades, including its emergence as one of Oregon's hottest arts destinations, the sign continues to reflect Joseph residents' pride in their community and hospitality to those who are willing to slow down.

Despite its new identity as an arts town, it retains its Old West heart. An old-time hardware store where you can still find nails in barrels sits compatibly amidst a downtown full of world class galleries and gift shops. Its eateries range from authentic western cafes -- where ranchers and cowboys mingle with artists over that morning cup of coffee and all-American breakfast fare - to more contemporary restaurants that serve espresso and imaginative menu items.

A new attraction this year is just-opened distillery, which has a tasting room for samples of the premium rye vodka and vodka cordials, made from locally grain and berries. A micro-brewery - the second in the county - is also one of Joseph's newest eateries.

With its hard-to-beat setting at the foot of Wallowa Lake at the very foot of the Wallowa Mountains, Joseph is one of Wallowa County's prime destinations. With several wilderness trail heads within a few miles, the city is home to Wallowa County's first arts foundry and a Main Street populated with larger-than-life bronzes of Nez Perce, cowboys and wildlife, as well as a graceful lady in blue, keeping visiting shutterbugs busy.

A don't miss summer stop in Joseph is the Wallowa County Museum, housed in the town's first bank that was the scene of a famous bank robbery in 1896. It is the repository of county's history, a place to browse through the past. It includes a room focused on the Nez Perce, who are also represented by a Homeland Project historic photo exhibit and a tribal fisheries field office, both on Main Street.

Joseph annually hosts many of Wallowa County's largest events, including the granddaddy of them all, the Chief Joseph Days rodeo celebration which started way back in 1946. Other big draws are the Wallowa Valley Arts Festival, Oregon Mountain Cruise car rally, Bronze Blues and Brews music festival and the Bronze Bike Motorcycle rally.

In the winter things slow down enough for residents to take a breathe, and go skiing at nearby Ferguson Ridge ski area. City merchants also host the after-dark Jingle thru Joseph parade (the Saturday after Thanksgiving every year) to kickoff a holiday shopping promotion and the Eagle Cap Xtreme dog sled race and Winterfest activities in January.

The only motel in the Joseph city limits was built by famous actor Walter Brennan, a ranch-owner and frequent visitor in the Joseph area; his descendants still live in the county. There are several top-notch bed and breakfasts in town, as well as many lodging choices nearby.

Joseph was named after the famous Chief Joseph at the time its post office was established in 1879 when it consisted of little more than a small store operated by first postmaster Matt Johnson. He was joined by F.D. McCully who started a general mercantile business and platted lots to sell. Joseph was incorporated in 1887, the same year Wallowa County was separated from Union County, thanks to the efforts of McCully, who had become a state legislator.

Joseph became a thriving agriculture and logging town with two sawmills (now closed), as well as a popular destination for visitors who loved hunting, fishing and the outdoors.

Its spectacular setting inevitably attracted artistic types, and a new era started in the early 1980s when the first of Wallowa County's four art foundries opened. In 1999 Joseph's Main Street was transformed by an award-winning improvement project that turned downtown into a garden-like setting for monumental bronzes by local artists. The numerous flower boxes are adopted each year by volunteers.

While there is sometimes a nostalgic look back to the Joseph of an earlier era, most residents recognize that Joseph future depends on making the most of all its assets. Present-day Joseph residents continue to take pride in its Old West roots as well as its beautiful downtown.

Visitors are urged to slow down and enjoy this little bit of heaven in the Wallowas.

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