"This Little Town is Like Heaven to Us. Don't Drive Like Hell Through It."
- Joseph's Main Street greeting to visitors since 1949
Blessed with a location near the shore of Wallowa Lake, with the highest peaks of the Wallowa Mountains looming close, Joseph is a favorite destination with visitors to Wallowa County.
While the city retains the soul of its Old West heritage, in recent years it has earned a growing reputation as a thriving, vibrant arts community. It is home to the county's first arts foundry, Valley Bronze of Oregon, as well as many galleries and unique gift shops.
An award-winning street improvement project finished in 2000 populated Joseph Main Street with life-size bronze sculptures that annually attract the attention of hundreds of shutterbugs and rubberneckers.
Joseph hosts several of Wallowa County's largest events every year, including the biggest: the Chief Joseph Days rodeo celebration, which will observe its 64th year at the end of July 2009. The Wallowa Valley Arts Festival, Oregon Mountain Cruise car rally and Bronze Bike Motorcycle Rendezvous also fill the town with fun and culture-seekers.
A community with many facets, Joseph is home to the Wallowa County Museum, loaded with photographs and exhibits reflecting decades and centuries past. At the same time, it is the headquarters of Community Bank, founded in 1955 as Bank of Wallowa County, which has become a regional financial center with 16 branches in Northeast Oregon and Southeast Washington.
Joseph was named for the famous Chief Joseph after postal authorities rejected the names Lake City and Silver Lake, which were already in use elsewhere. The post office was established in 1879 with Matt Johnson, proprietor of a small store, as postmaster. He was joined by a couple of blacksmiths and F.D. McCully, who the same year started a general mercantile store and platted out lots to sell.
Joseph became the first incorporated city in Wallowa County in 1887, the same year Wallowa County was divided from Union County, thanks to a bill introduced in the state legislature by none other than Mr. McCully, who by then had become an Oregon state representative.
Though the city lost its bid to become county seat to upstart Enterprise, Joseph developed into a thriving agriculture and lumber town with two sawmills (since closed), as well as a popular destination for visitors who loved hunting, fishing and the outdoors. The opening of Wallowa Lake State Park in 1951 drew even more recreation lovers to the area.
In the 1980s, the beauty of the Wallowa Mountains and Wallowa Lake attracted a growing number of artists, and arts and tourism became an ever more important part of Joseph's economy.
The Joseph business committee formed an economic improvement district at a time when county unemployment was as high as 19 percent, and spearheaded a major street improvement project.
Giant granite boulders from the surrounding glacial landscape and bronze sculptures from the county's foundries complemented flower boxes (adopted by residents with green thumbs), old-style street lights, maple trees and cobblestone-like sidewalks to transform Main Street.
The $3.5 million project, funded largely by grants and made possible by thousands of volunteer hours, earned the city the prestigious Volunteer Tourism Achievement Award for a mammoth accomplishment by a small community.
Old-timers sometimes shake their heads at the changes wrought by the passing years, but most recognize that Joseph's economy and future depends on making the most of all of its assets. More than a few former mill workers found work as artisans in foundries, and some local artists are as at home on the back of a horse as in a studio.
In Joseph and surrounding area there's more than enough to keep everyone busy. Not only nearby Wallowa Lake, trailheads into Eagle Cap Wilderness and the road to Imnaha, but Joseph boasts plenty of restaurants and watering holes that contribute to a lively nightlife, a bowling alley, a gas station, grocery stores, art galleries and numerous unique retail stores, offering shoppers plenty of places to browse.
With a population of just over 1,000, Joseph is indeed heaven to the people who call it home - and a great place to visit.