Monday, September 8, 2014

Before it was a pageant, Happy Canyon was a place

The Happy Canyon Indian Pageant and Wild West Show is an integral part of the Pendleton Round-Up. Thousands attend the nightly shows during Round-Up week at the Happy Canyon Arena, tucked behind the Pendleton Convention Center and the Round-Up Grounds. Hundreds of volunteers make it happen, and the roles are frequently handed down through generations of families.

The first iteration of the pageant was written and directed in 1913 by Roy Raley, a local lawyer and cattleman who thought rodeo fans might want something fun to do after the day’s rodeo was done. It was originally a vaudeville-type show, and was held in a temporary pavilion made to look like a frontier town near Main Street; it featured what is now the second act of the famous pageant. The show moved to its first permanent building in 1916, the year Raley and Anna Minthorn Wannassay wrote the pageant as it is now known. It has remained generally the same for the last 98 years.

But before Happy Canyon was a pageant, or even a vaudeville production, it was a well-loved place on the Umatilla River between Echo and Pendleton. According to an article in the Sept. 14, 1914 East Oregonian: “The real ‘Happy Canyon’ is that part of the Umatilla river lying between Barnhart and the old Jack Morton place a mile below Nolin. For a matter of 44 years it has borne that name, which is a monument to the happy times which a settler of that community had in the days when civilization was young here. A. W. Nye, one of the oldest pioneers of this city, is one of the two or three living persons who can tell the story of those happy times and of the christening of the community. The name was attached to the valley in the winter of 1868, according to his story. The settlers up and down the river between the points before mentioned had a dancing club which met each week at one of the houses. One evening at the conclusion of a dance which had been particularly enjoyed, Mr. Nye’s brother-in-law, Mr. Angel, moved that the valley be christened Happy Canyon and the motion carried with a whoop. Ever since then it has borne the name.”

Another article, in the Sept. 24, 1914 edition, has a slightly different story. Nolin was a social center as well as halfway point for freighters traveling from Umatilla Landing and either Pendleton or Pilot Rock. A race track several hundred yards long paralleled the road, separated by a rail fence that terminated near the base of the cliff that faces the river near Nolin. Settlers and freighters alike vied for cash and bragging rights. One particular day the stakes between two prominent stock raisers were quite high (between $40 and $60) and the excitement had been heightened by the addition of a keg of free liquor near the track. Two men began to argue, and the disagreement was punctuated with gunfire. Quite a crowd had gathered when the argument began, but scattered when the guns were displayed. Some people took cover behind the rail fence but a larger group made “an undignified effort to circle the fence in order to get to the bluff.” According to the article, “When pandemonium reigned supreme some individual who had been enjoying the day from the secure cliff top yelled, ‘Hurrah for Happy Canyon!’ From that time on Happy Canyon was the name it was known by.”

Whichever story holds the true origin of the name, Happy Canyon was indeed a memorable place for early settlers. Raley banked on the good memories to support the early show, and Happy Canyon has been as much a part of Round-Up as the famous rodeo ever since.

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