PENDLETON — The to-do list was enormous.
More than 400 people swarmed the Pendleton Round-Up Grounds on Saturday, cleaning, repairing, painting, putting up signage and removing things from storage. The giant annual workday signals that the renowned rodeo is only a couple of weeks hence.
“This day gets volunteers in the Round-Up mood,” said Pendleton Round-Up Association President Dave O’Neill. “Round-Up fever gets going. It starts to come to life.”
One to-do list item involved setting up 600 horse stalls constructed of 10- and 12-foot panels to create enclosures for horses belonging to rodeo contestants, Indian relay teams, judges and others.
Below the North Grandstands, longtime volunteer Bill Etter replaced a broken board in a chute and repaired rollers on some of the rolling gates. The Pilot Rock man started volunteering more than 50 years ago at age 18.
“It just gets in your blood,” he said. “My granddad did it and now I’m doing it.”
The volunteers are largely unsung and many of the tasks are mundane and monotonous. Volunteers, for instance, ventured into “the dungeon,” where programs and day sheets are stored, clearing out old programs to make room for new ones being printed this week.
Other workers hosed down the grandstands and placed more than 1,000 folding chairs in the box seat areas. On their knees by the box seats, Brooke Harley and Carissa Schuening painstakingly painted seat numbers on the cement with bright yellow paint.
On the dirt track by the North Grandstand, two men dug a hole, alternating between shovel and digging bar. When it got deep enough, one of them, Round-Up Director Nick Sirovatka, got on his belly and replaced cables that mark the location of the barrel racing barrels and electronic eyes.
On the edge of the grass, Tel Thacker whitewashed the PVC pipe that rims the track, using a fluffy glove that Daylen Ellis periodically replenished with paint. Elsewhere on the grounds, volunteers readied the Roy Raley Room for sponsors, spiffed the Let ’er Buck Room and cleaned out flowerbeds.
The to-do list is comprehensive and diverse with something for everyone.
“You see 50-year volunteers paired with brand new volunteers getting it done,” O’Neill said. “The thing I find the most remarkable is that because this event occurs, it’s an opportunity to bring our community together. Without it, it seems like there would be a void.”
O’Neill may be the head guy at the moment, but he has 26 years of volunteering under his belt too. He assisted the parade director during the Westward Ho! Parade and helped pennant bearers get their horses ready. He worked with livestock, sorting, feeding and tagging cattle. He used his professional expertise as a power company employee to make sure the lights work.
“One of my favorite jobs was helping saddle trophy horses on championship Saturday,” he said.
In recent years, the Round-Up spreads prep work such as turf replacement over a longer period of time to accommodate events, such as the Whisky Fest and the Green Mile Barrel Race.
“By virtue of having these different events, we start earlier,” O’Neill said.
He credits volunteers for helping boost the rodeo’s reputation into the stratosphere. Last year, the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association named the Round-Up the Large Rodeo of the Year for the fourth year in a row. The event also snagged USA Today’s 2019 Reader’s Choice Award.
The rodeo’s fan base keeps increasing. Last year, ticket sales exceeded $1,300,914 compared with $1,164,136 in 2017.
O’Neill said the estimated 1,000 volunteers and their tens of thousands of hours of work is one of the drivers.
“I can’t stress enough how much they mean to us,” he said. “When the volunteers get their hands on this place, it comes to life.”
[EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been changed to reflect a correction. The story previously misstated Dave O'Neill's volunteer experience.]