When the music starts to play at the Pendleton Eagles Lodge during Round-Up week, the dance floor immediately fills with hoots, hollers and happy couples.
Sam Cronenwett and his wife, Rae, were among the first to swing Thursday night, gliding and spinning effortlessly to the classic country styling of local band High Mileage. As a former rodeo contestant himself, Cronenwett, 67, insists cowboys are natural dancers, especially the ones from his generation.
“There wasn’t a lot of money in (dancing) back then,” he said. “We just partied.”
For decades, the Pendleton Eagles Lodge has opened its doors to the public during Round-Up, offering live music on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Visitors are invited to dust off their dancing shoes and saddle up at the front bar to enjoy a whiskey or two. Or three.
While rodeo crowds can certainly get a little rowdy, Cronenwett said he never has to worry at the Eagles.
“You don’t have to worry about getting into a fistfight,” he said. “These are friendly people.”
Cronenwett, who lives and ranches in Kennewick, Washington, has been coming to the Pendleton Round-Up for 40 years. It is a place where he can meet up with friends from his rodeo days when he competed in bareback riding and steer wrestling. His wife, Rae, also used to be one of the best Quarter Horse and thoroughbred jockeys in the country, he said.
The two seemed perfectly at home Thursday in the dim mood lighting, surrounded by fellow cowboys, cowgirls and the twangy sound of steel guitar emanating from the stage.
The Fraternal Order of Eagles is an organization that dates back to 1898. The local lodge, No. 28 in the nation, opened a year later, and board chairman Jerry Dunn said they have been at their current location on South Main Street since the mid-1940s. Even a devastating fire that gutted the building on March 15, 2007, couldn’t close them down.
Like most establishments in Pendleton, Round-Up is a major draw at the lodge, brining a rush of visitors through the door. Music begins after 9 p.m., and the group also hosts a $22 prime rib dinner on Friday and Saturday nights, with all the trimmings.
“Round-Up is definitely one of our staples,” Dunn said. “We tend to get the people who don’t want to drink and fight and raise all sorts of heck, but they just like to have fun.”
Dressed in their finest Western attire, John and Karen Harris made a point of stopping by the Round-Up on their way back home to Sherwood from vacationing in Montana and found themselves in the Eagles Lodge on Thursday night. The couple loves to dance — they actually met during a dance class in Portland — and soon found themselves lured onto the floor.
“We’ve been coming (to Pendleton) for years,” John Harris said. “We just enjoy the camaraderie with friends we’ve met through the years. And the rodeo is always a plus.”
The last several years have been somewhat difficult for fraternal organizations in Umatilla County. The Pendleton Elks Lodge surrendered its charter in March after falling on hard times, and the Eagles Lodge in Hermiston also closed recently.
Larry Dalrymple, trustee with the Pendleton Eagles, said they aren’t going anywhere, despite whatever rumors may be circulating.
“When you have a brother fraternal organization that closes down, the questions always jump to the next one,” Dalrymple said. “We’re going on. The locals have never given up.”
The Pendleton Eagles Lodge currently has 220 aerie members and 196 auxiliary members. Recruiting more members is the group’s number one goal, Dalrymple said, especially younger members willing to roll up their sleeves.
“The membership is getting older,” he said. “The younger generations are not joiners like us old dogs.”
The lodge has also received a helping hand from the national FOE to stabilize operations and pay the bills moving forward. Dalrymple said the work is going well, but they still make sure to have fun at the same time.
Mel Lappen, fellow trustee and secretary for the lodge, said Round-Up is a big part of that fun.
“Everybody who comes in here, they’re in a joyful, playful mood,” Lappen said.
All money raised by the Eagles goes to charity and community groups, Dunn said, and Round-Up is a major bread winner on the annual calendar.
“It’d be a little rough to get through the whole year without Round-Up, to tell you the truth,” Dunn said. “We’re just people helping people. That’s what we’re all about.”
As couples dance the night away Friday and Saturday, Dunn said they are looking forward to many more Round-Ups to come.
“We’re not going anywhere,” he said. “The Eagles is here to stay.”
Contact George Plaven at email@example.com or 541-966-0825.