‘A step back in time’: Washington’s oldest rodeo is June 7-9

For the Basin Business Journal | May 29, 2024 1:00 AM

BICKLETON — Out in the wheat country of eastern Klickitat County, time sort of stands still. The little town of Bickleton, population 92 at the last census, is home to a couple of Washington’s most time-honored institutions. The Bluebird Inn, established in 1887, has a good claim to be Washington’s oldest tavern. The Herschel-Spillman carousel at the Bickleton Carousel Museum is one of fewer than 10 still operating. And the Alder Creek Pioneer Association is host every June to the state’s oldest rodeo.

“We started in 1911,” said Sandra Powers, who’s a member of the museum board and has lived her whole life in the area. “It started just as a barbecue picnic … and then in just a few years, it was ‘My horse can outrun your horse.’ And then they had football, foot races, a baseball game. And then it went into the livestock.”

The event was an informal one for a long time; Sandra wasn’t entirely sure when it became officially called a rodeo. But 113 years later, it’s sanctioned by the Northwest Professional Rodeo Association and draws crowds of thousands.

“We get a lot of people from the (Yakima) Valley and the Tri-Cities area,” said Sandra’s daughter-in-law Susan Powers. “We have a lot of people throughout Klickitat County, like ropers, that will actually put themselves in the rodeo for this one.”

The picnic and rodeo are held at what was once the even smaller hamlet of Cleveland, a few miles down the road from Bickleton, and is now Cleveland Park. There’s RV camping space, food vendors set up their booths and the famous carousel is brought out and fired up for the occasion.

“I call it a step back in time,” Sandra said. “It’s about 60-some acres and the carousel is there, they have an open-air dance pavilion, the rodeo grounds are there, the camping is there, everything is there. And you don’t have to leave those grounds that whole weekend.”

The fun starts Friday evening, with a community potluck. The carousel is opened and rides are free for the whole weekend. Saturday begins with the morning program, with some words to honor the current president of the association and a memorial for eastern Klickitat County people who have passed on.

The rodeo itself starts at 1 p.m., and the beer garden opens at the same time. At 8 p.m. there’s a dance with live music, this year provided by the Ponyboys Band.

Sunday there’s an open-air church service followed by more rodeo action. 

Most of the usual events are there: bareback, saddle bronc, team roping. But there’s one event that’s unique to the Alder Creek Pioneer Rodeo: merchant cow milking.

“It’s similar to wild cow milking – that’s an NPRA event,” Susan said. “Except for this one, you don’t rope the cow and have the one person that’s a mugger milking the cow. You have three people to bring the cow out and you have to somehow get milk out of her. It’s quite entertaining.”

“They just open all six chutes at the same time,” Sandra said. “It’s chaos.”

The rodeo may be the most visible part of the weekend, but for locals, it goes deeper than that.

“A lot of times a rodeo is the main event and other people come for that,” Susan said. “For this one, it’s more of a homecoming with a rodeo … when people will come back and visit for the weekend. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be a rodeo. It’s just that that’s what we have morphed into is now a rodeo.”

Joel Martin can be reached via email at jmartin@basinbusinessjournal.com.