The man behind many of the wagons featured in the Westward Ho! Parade will be front and center this year.
Bill Dawson, the wagon master for the Pendleton Round-Up, was announced Saturday as the grand marshal for the 2018 parade.
Considering it an honor to be named grand marshal, Dawson said he was continuing a tradition that was carried on by his three predecessors, whose experience spans the past 70 or 80 years.
As wagon master Dawson has maintained the historic wagons, stage coaches and other non-motorized transports, according to a press release from the Round-Up, and has restored wagons with historic parts to add to the inventory. His team of volunteers prepare the vehicles for the parade with wheel replacements and safety checks. He has done similar work for Happy Canyon’s wagons.
Dawson first volunteered for the Round-Up in 1965, starting as a member of the hay crew as a student at Pendleton High School. After returning from service in the Navy during the Vietnam War and his graduation from Oregon State University, he provided telecommunications support for the Round-Up from 1977-2014.
Dawson grew up working with wood and metal, and he was already an established volunteer when former wagon master Pat Dugan asked him to help him out with working on one of the Round-Up’s horse-drawn vehicles.
“I said, ‘Sure,’ and that was the end of that. ... It was way too much fun,” Dawson said.
Dugan died in 2003, and Dawson has used his time as wagon master to further hone his craft, obtaining welding certification from Blue Mountain Community College and learning some of the basics of blacksmithing.
Since he retired as a regional manager from U.S. West Communications in 1999 he has become nearly a full-time volunteer for the rodeo. He won the Round-Up Outstanding Volunteer award in 1997 and the Orville Gerberding Memorial Award in 2001 for his work with the Round-Up.
By choice, Dawson said he goes into the wagon shop five days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. to work on the Round-Up’s stable of wagons.
Dawson said two to three volunteers come in to the shop to help him build wagons, and during the Westward Ho! Parade, his team expands to 12-15.
As he fulfills his duties as grand marshal, Dawson said he won’t be able to help manage the “controlled chaos” of the parade in its entirety, leaving it up to the other volunteers to keep the 80-90 parade teams running smoothly.
He also has a long resume of volunteer work aside from the rodeo, including the Pendleton Chamber of Commerce, Umatilla County Heritage Station and the Red Cross.
Amongst all of his volunteer work, Dawson said he’s looking for a longterm successor to become the next wagon master. Young people are interested in wagon work, he said, but they have jobs and other commitments that make it difficult to take on all the responsibilities of the position.
“There’s only one way out of this job,” he said. “Everybody goes out feet first.”
The Westward Ho! Parade, the largest completely non-motorized parade in the country, is Friday, Sept. 14 at 10 a.m.