Chief Joseph Days has been celebrated on the last full weekend of July for the past 74 years. If the CJD board of directors has their way, the 75th annual rodeo will go on as planned this year. Or as close to what’s been planned as possible. If possible.
“The community and our sponsors have supported us generously through all the years,” said director Terry Jones. “They count on Chief Joseph Days economically. It’s a mutual relationship. Especially this year, we want to support our sponsors and the community.”
Jones said that in late June the CJD board will make a final decision on whether to hold the 75th rodeo this year, or postpone it until 2021. That will depend on whether the state is opening, and what the governor’s phased guidelines specify. They are cautiously optimistic that the show can go on as it has for 74 years.
“We’re not trying to endanger the community. We’re not trying to bring in the virus. We’re just trying to ride this out in the hope that we can have a rodeo and support the community,” Jones said.
The CJD board has wrestled with the decision to cancel or to hold the rodeo since early March when it became apparent that lots of public events were likely to be scratched due to state-mandated COVID-19 social distancing requirements and stay at home orders. “The first thing we thought of was that we would have to cancel this year. That would have been the easy thing to do,” Jones said.
But as they considered the economic and social repercussions of cancelation, it became evident that the “easy” solution was rife with complications. For one, Jones said, 18-25 percent of the total tourism revenue for businesses in Wallowa County, especially restaurants, bars, and lodging, is generated during Chief Joseph Days. That’s a lot of financial support for local businesses and sponsors that are already struggling mightily. It’s pretty big,” Jones said. So if Chief Joseph Days was canceled, especially this year, Jones thought the economic consequences could be a potential disaster for business. “You might just as well hit ‘em over the head,” he said. “I think this year a lot of people are looking at the revenue from Chief Joseph Days visitors as their profit for the year, like my family did when they ran Russell’s at the Lake long ago.”
For another, CJD is more than a rodeo. For many, it’s a time when far-flung family and friends visit. It’s time when Wallowa County expats—those who were born here, but now live in distant place--return home for a week.
“For the economic impact alone, we just couldn’t cancel,” Jones said. “Then we began thinking of all those other things, and we just had to hang on and hope.”
The fates of the three young women on the CJD rodeo court proved another consideration. Casidee Harrod, Brianna Micka and Destiny Wecks have invested a tremendous amount of time, energy, and thought into preparing for court activities, including preparing talks, training their horses, and of course selling tickets. “For each of them, it’s been a life-long dream,” Jones said. “We just couldn’t take that away from them.” This particular court, he said, was composed of three very talented, very well-qualified young women who would do a superb job of representing CJD at all the events they normally would attend, from the St. Paul rodeo to the Spokane lilac festival. “It’s not fair to deny them the chance to represent CJD elsewhere, or, especially, here at home,” he said.
Could the CJD board just postpone the rodeo for a few weeks? Or more?
That’s not likely. Everything—livestock, announcer, filming crews, entertainers, and everything else — has been contacted for that specific, last weekend in July, Jones said. “We have top national performers who are in demand across the country,” Jones said. “They’re already contracted through the summer, so once rodeos can start up again here and across the country, we wouldn’t be able to get them signed for a later date.” The same would be true of the cowboys and barrel-racers.
Could they reschedule and just go with any available talent or stock? Jones is concerned that the quality of the rodeo and its entertainment would be much lower, and it just wouldn’t be the same. “People wouldn’t be very happy with it,” he said. And a later date would conflict with other Wallowa County summer events already planned.
So the CJD board is sticking with their traditional, last weekend of July dates. And keeping their fingers crossed that by then, the state will be more open, allowing generous crowds to fill the grandstands, the riders, ropers, and performers to assemble, along with the broncs, bulls, and steers. “We owe it to our sponsors, the community, the businesses and all the wonderful people who have put this rodeo on now and for all the years it’s been going,” Jones said. “It’s not just a rodeo. It’s about people and this community. We owe it to them to make this the best rodeo and gathering we can — especially this year.”