Walla Walla Wagon Wheelers roll on to 75th year

Its original mission was to preserve history and commemorate the Whitman Centennial.

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Wayne Norton (center), 79, leads the charge as a team penner during competition Saturday afternoon at the Walla Walla Fairgrounds Indoor Arena.

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At the youthful age of 79, Wayne Norton rides and competes in team penning Saturday afternoon at the Walla Walla Fairgrounds Indoor Arena as a member of the Walla Walla Wagon Wheelers.

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Walla Walla Wagon Wheelers participated in the Whitman Centennial parade in August 1936.

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Black and blue cowboy Wayne Norton.

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Mount-up time for seventy-nine year old Wayne Norton as he prepares team penning competition Saturday at the Fairground's Indoor Arena.

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WALLA WALLA - In 1936 an all-men's club was formed called the Walla Walla Wagon Wheelers.

Now celebrating its 75th anniverary, the club's original mission was to preserve history and commemorate the Whitman Centennial celebration.

In addition to these very serious objectives, a lighter purpose was also taken on by the founding Wagon Wheelers.

"The group was charged with the responsibility for injecting a little fun and gaiety into preparations for the approaching celebration," according to club history documents.

Keeping with the lighter purpose, for a number of years new members were subjected to some light hazing, such as being thrown in a horse trough that was kept in front of the Marcus Whitman Hotel.

Eventually a log cabin was set up at First Avenue and Main Street as an initiation center, where "a kangaroo court was frequently convened atop the cabin's porch roof, and those who attempted to avoid ‘prosecution' often found themselves swimming in the nearby horse trough."

It wasn't until 1947 that Wagon Wheelers would embarked upon a new mission that would take the club beyond the realm of historians and mirth makers and thrust it into the ring of horsemanship.

That was when Wagon Master Archie Schick - who was also the county sheriff at that time - formed an all-men horse drill team.

Today that team is led by Joe Taruscio, 54, who has been affiliated with the Wagon Wheelers since his youth. About the only thing that has changed for almost three decades of drill are the shirts and women.

"When we do drill at the fair, I probably have two-thirds women riding in the drill," Taruscio said, noting sometime in the 1990s women were allowed to join the drill team and now make up the majority of riders.

As for the shirts, club secretary and Wagonette member Carolyn Hansen explained they can't get the original red, black, white and grey checkered pattern that served as a loud beacon to the community that they were in the presence of a Wagon Wheeler.

It turns out the bolts of fabric, which were bought in and shipped from San Francisco, are no longer made in that pattern, Hansen said.

So today, the shirts are a little more subdue, as is the club's notoriety.

"We don't have as many people as we used to have," Hansen said.

Other notable community events associated with the Wagon Wheelers over the years included the yearly state posse competition that was held at the fairgrounds. That event ended in the late 1990s due to a lack of interest at the regional level, said board member Clark Hansen.

But there are numerous other legacies that live on, such as the large expo riding arena at the Walla Walla Fairgrounds, which was first proposed by the Wagon Wheelers. The club kicked in the first $20,000 to help build what is now known as a haven for riding in the cold of winter and heat of summer.

The organization is also still involved in supporting FFA, 4-H and other youth fair actives, as well as holding yearly trail rides, barrel racing, team penning and numerous other events that mostly center on horses.

The club owns and maintains an outdoor arena on Hussey Road, where members practice riding, roping, penning and other horse skills. The arena was donated by past member and Wagon Master Don Johnson, who also included a barn that was converted into a clubhouse. But what Johnson is mostly remembered for by members was his extensive work to help promote youth membership into the Junior Wagon Wheelers.

"You have to have something to attract them, so that is something we have to concentrate on," Clark Hansen said, noting that the club is now having trouble finding someone to fill Johnson's boots.

It turns out youths are a challenge to the club's future, board members said.

Over the years horses have fallen behind in the race for capturing the hearts of the young, ever since Honda and other motocross makers started mass producing their products in the 1970s. And with the advent of electronics and numerous other youths sports and actives, Wagon Wheelers find themselves struggling to compete for new youth members.

But motorcycles couldn't dismount a true horseman like Wayne Norton, who at 79 still rides regularly.

And on Saturday, the Wagon Wheeler board member climbed up on his 20-year-old buckskin - both sporting plenty of grey in their manes - and rode team penning practice in the covered shelter of the fairgrounds expo riding arena.

"I got four boys and they are still riding a motorcycle every chance they get, and then four wheeling," Norton said.

Many of the board members agreed that youths have too many options these days, and horses require a lot of dedication. But the good news is club membership is up, with member estimates well over 200.

"I think it is coming back a little bit. We got quite a few members. We lost a few and we gained a few," Norton said.

Though the numbers may vary, the achievements have been steady over the years.

In 1953 the Wagon Wheelers participated in the Portland Rose Festival Parade, which was also the same year an official posse group of bonded deputies was started.

Creating a posse of "bonded" sheriff's deputies is no longer allowed, said recently retired Sheriff Mike Humphreys, who is also a board member.

"They have to be certified through search and rescue ... but it's still a horse group, and there are a lot of other activities," Humphreys said.

Other activities include poker rides, family night rides, barrel races and numerous other horse-related events.

And there are a number of not so horsey activities, like operating the beer garden at the south end of the fairgrounds grandstand, holding a karaoke night, drawings, awards and other activities.

The antics are also still a big part, which Humphreys can attest to. He recalled how one year he was helping with the drill team, so it provided him a horse.

"They put me on this horse to help qualify. And we did the drill. And we were riding on the back of the fairgrounds. And this horse was going faster than I wanted to. And I kind of pulled at reins and said ‘whoa.' And this horse stopped on a dime."

But Humphreys kept going straight over the top and onto the ground.

It turned out the horse was trained for team roping, and that meant when it heard whoa, it stopped.

To learn more about the Walla Walla Wagon Wheelers, go online to www.wallawallawagonwheelers.org or call 525-9360.

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