A new men’s group was organized on April 20, 1936, to help publicize the August 13-16, 1936, Whitman Centennial Celebration. Called the Wagon Wheelers, the group was charged with the responsibility for injection of a little fun and gaiety into preparations for the approaching celebration. The Centennial celebration commemorated the arrival in the Walla Walla Valley 100 years before of Dr. and Mrs. Marcus Whitman, pioneer missionaries who were massacred by the Indians in 1847.
A newspaper article in The Bulletin, announcing the group’s formation stated that there were 44 Charter Members and also warned the reader that “Any male citizen of Walla Walla is eligible for membership, but public or semi-public initiation will be enforced upon all but the charter members. Future members will be initiated, a small group at the time, at various points in the city.” Such were the ground rules laid out for a lot of fun and entertainment in the weeks to come. Another report said they had a wild initiation on the street at the Marcus Whitman for the Charter members, and had a horse trough and threw members in.
A center of operations for Wagon Wheeler antics was needed, so a log cabin was moved to First and Main and outfitted to serve as centennial headquarters. It would provide the backdrop for a lot of Wagon Wheeler hi-jinks. 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.
A Wagon Wheeler “feud” that gained a lot of newspaper publicity was one involving Walla Walla Mayor Dorsey Hill. The mayor was to be initiated into the group on the evening of the dedication of the log cabin, but he failed to put in an appearance. The Wagon Wheelers demanded an explanation for his absence, and Hill promptly replied that he did not think the group was dignified enough to warrant his membership. The ensuing verbal battle created great headlines, a lot of fun and excellent publicity.
Aside from their local antics, the Wagon Wheelers acted as good will ambassadors for the community and the centennial, visiting neighboring towns and cities. A traveling medicine show always accompanied these expeditions. Some of the above was from the “Walla Walla” book, “A Nice Place to Raise A Family” 1920-1949, Copyrighted 1988 by Robert A. Bennett.
When the club was organized the Walla Walla Wagon Wheelers had five different colors of shirts: Yellow for publicity and photographers, purple for businessmen, black for reporters to newspapers, green for horsemen and red for fun and games. Harlan Kelly and the J. C. Penny store manager went to California and bought bolts of fabric for the first checkered shirts.
Bill Martin was the Father and Founder of the Wagon Wheelers, Lou Corbett was the first Wagon Master, Norval Armes was the first secretary, Marie Perry was the behind the scenes secretary and serving Walla Walla was Sheriff Woodward. Joe Mitchell initiated Governor Clarence Martin into the Walla Walla Wagon Wheelers.
Walla Walla Wagon Wheelers have gone through several periods. Its first purpose was to aid with the Whitman Centennial. Some years later and early in its existence the organization became a functioning unit for the exploitation and preservation of Walla Walla history and the development of a greater community consciousness.
In 1940 the association started a “log book” in which signatures of many distinguished visitors to Walla Walla have been recorded. Some of the more notable of these visitors were made honorary members. They included: Associate Justice William O’Douglas of the U.S. Supreme Court; President W.A. Patterson of United Air Lines; the explorer Vilhjalmar Stefannson; orchestra leaders Ross Morgan and Jack Teagarden; Gov. Arthur B. Langlis of Washington State; author Quentin Reynolds; Commodore W. E. Longfellow, No. 1 life saver of the Red Cross; and Eric Johnston, President of the Motion Picture Association of America., Inc. among others.
In 1947 under the leadership of Wagon Master Sheriff Archie Schick the club formed its first drill team that became known throughout the Pacific Northwest. Harlan Kelly was the first Drill Master for the club drill team. That same year the club became incorporated. In the late 40’s the club “went Western” and has achieved well deserved prominence in many respects as a horseman’s organization.
During Wagon Master Schick’s tenure in 1950 a Sheriff’s Posse was completed within the organization. Then in 1953 the Posse members became bonded Deputy Sheriffs of Walla Walla County. When called upon, members helped the county in areas from search and rescue to man hunts for criminals at large. The Wagon Wheelers have done much to publicize their home city through widespread appearances about the Northwest. The club supported Inland Empire community shows through the years and in 1953 participated in the Portland Rose Festival Parade. Its members always have been strong contenders in arena events of the State Sheriffs Posse Association and of the Pendleton Round-Up. When John Haley died, his family gave his horse to the Walla Walla Wagon Wheelers to be raffled off. Virgil Nelson won the raffled horse and let the Wagon Wheelers use him in the races and Dick Buerstatte rode him.
The Exposition building at the Southeastern Washington fairground was a result of Wagon Wheeler study of the need for this facility. The Wagon Wheelers implemented the idea and the need and raised the first $20,000 toward building the Fairgrounds Exposition Building. After the building was completed the club paid for all the green panels used in the arena and then later built the announcers stand. Wagon Wheeler Frank Curcio, a well known farmer and rancher, was one of those who backed and supported getting the Expo built. The club continues to support activities such as 4-H, barrel racing and horse races held at the fair grounds.
In 1971 the club celebrated their 50th year with Louis F. Venneri the club Historian and Claude Gray the Editor created an outstanding brochure highlighting the history of the club. It pictures Bill Martin as the Father and Founder of the Wagon Wheelers, Howard Barnes the Wagon Master and Arthur Klundt the Sheriff. Sheriff Arthur Klundt served as state secretary of the Washington State Sheriff’s Posse Association several terms and was a powerful force in the Wagon Wheeler organization. It also pictured Sheriff Archie Schick whose term as Wagon Master was 1945 to 1951 and he was praised for the great progress that the club made during his tenure.
Of the 43 charter members who attended the organization session April 20, 1936, only 13 were still residing in Walla Walla at that time, most not having maintained continuous membership. The 13 were A. J. Mathison, S. W. Martin, Tom Rice, Leonard DeWitt, Jasper Reynolds, Louis Romine, Dr. Jack Geyer, William B. Harris, M. D. Kight, Frank LeRoux, Henry Gross, Alfred McVay and Claude Gray.
There had been 15 wagon masters (presidents) according to available records. These are: Lewis A. Corbett, W. H. Till, M. F. Jensen, Ewing Stephens, Milton R. Loney, Sheriff Archie Schick, Gene Cherry, J. Francis Munns, Emerald Duncan, Vernon Robinson, W. L. “Bill” Teague, Bill Fouts, Paul Troeh, Ival Sutherlnad and County Commissioner Howard Barnes.
The club participation in the Sheriff’s Posse continued to grow with members planning a year ahead for the next meet. Vacations were planned around the Posse meet date and horses were trained months before the event. The different events were practiced for weeks before including the drill, bareback relay, pony express, 4-man relay, 4-man flying baton, 6-man stake race, team poles and team barrels, individual poles and barrels, 3/8 mile and ½ mile, 440 yards, 220 yards, trailer race and the chariot race. And then there were cattle events…cow cutting, calf roping, and team roping not to mention pistol shoot competition. when their club hosted the meet. It took many people and horses to produce such an event. The women pitched in helping get the men and horses ready for inspections. There was a brunch planned for the women on Saturday morning including entertainment and a banquet on Saturday evening with the trophies and ribbons given out. The evening was followed by dancing and celebration.
The diminishing involvement of counties in the Sheriff Posse Meets began when women were hired as County Deputies and a feud ensued throughout the counties over women being allowed to participate in the Sheriff’s Posse Meet. Some women were anxious to participate as they were good riders in the poles and barrel racing competition and some were also deputies for their counties. Some counties held firm and did not want women in the competition. It was during this time that the Wagon Wheelers offered women an associate membership into the club with the sole intent that they could participate in the posse competition. Walla Walla Wagon Wheelers hosted their last Sheriff’s Posse meet in 1997. Our club had dropped involvement with the Sheriff’s Posse Meets before the state finally allowed women to compete.
The Wagon Wheelers participated in the Pendleton Roundup and Elgin Days for many years racing against other clubs. The chariot races and suicide run in Elgin were fun to watch but dangerous for bot the horses and riders. Eventually the chariot races were illuminated from competition. There are many stories to be told about holding horses for a relay race.
In 2001 Don and Sharon Johnson donated land, a lighted arena, a 6 stall barn and a large metal horse shelter. The horse shelter was converted into a state of the art club house spear headed by Joe Kinzer. Club members Wayne Norton did all the dry walling and Pete O’Laughlin installed the new heating system. With Joe’s leadership and generous local business support of the club member’s labor we now have the finest horse club facility in the area. The club house was named “Kinzer Hall” in Joe’s honor. Joe was an inspiration during this time as he was also battling cancer.
Since then new improvements have been made to enhance the arena enabling many events such as roping, cattle penning, barrel racing, and general riding. Some of the outside improvements are: Big gun for arena watering system; new roping chute, many new Noble panels, new arena lighting, new cattle holding pens, added new sand for warm up area for barrel racers, new 30 foot lighted flag pole, replaced pasture in ground main line for irrigation to accommodate big gun sprinklers, built new announcers booth, installed new sound system with external speakers for barrel races and roping, improved drive way to accommodate large horse trailers and trucks, purchased new laser timer for barrel races and roping, purchased new John Deere tractor and loader, arena groomer and ripper, and inside the club house replaced stoves, refrigerators and freezer in the kitchen.
Club member Don Johnson was a longtime chairman of the Walla Walla Junior Wagon Wheelers until his death January 1, 2010. Don brought a youthful group into real prominence. He devoted many hours and considerable personal finances to the Junior Wagon Wheelers. The Junior Wagon Wheelers promotes healthy growth of our youth into fine young men and women. Many of the Junior members became senior members upon reaching the age of 21.
The drill shirts and chaps have changed over the years. The original silk checkered shirt for the mounted drill team was made from fabric purchased in California as mentioned before that Harlan Kelly bought by the bolts. The official colors of the Wagon Wheelers Sheriffs Posse and drill team are red, black and white. These shirts were worn with silver belly hats, beige jeans and red and white chaps. But as the colorful bright silk shirts wore out and faded the club was not able to obtain more of the same fabric. Around 1987 another shirt was designed from red and white gingham with black and white yokes and worn with black pants and new black chaps. These shirts and chaps were not very showy in the drill or for parades so a few years later Bert Kinman designed a crepe red, black and white fabric shirt that was bright, showy and flowed with the wind as they drilled. They went back to the original red and white chaps and again had a competing outfit for competition in parades and drills.
The Beer Booth also know as the “Frontier Days Saloon” located under the grandstand on the fair grounds, provides the Wagon Wheelers with their main source of income. Member participation in volunteering to help run this business is greatly needed and appreciated. The Frontier Saloon is open during Spring Race Meet and the Balloon Stampede, the June Demolition Derby and five days during the Frontier Days fair. They have an outside beer garden during the Demo Derby in June and during the afternoons of the horse racing during the fair. The profit from the beer booth helps financially to support their arena and club house.
The Wagon Wheelers offers two annual $750 scholastic scholarships to club member’s families and supports our local fair, 4-H and Christian Aid Center through donations.
The club has an annual calendar of events, ranging from family trail rides, barrel races, mounted drill team, Buck Creek ride and dinner, Ladies ride and dinner, a Christmas party for the entire family and a New Year’s Eve dinner/dance.
The club house, “Kinzer Hall” and their arena, “Johnson Memorial Arena” are located on South Hussey. The past wagon master board with club logo and pictured to the left, that has been housed in the beer booth since it was created, was moved in 2011 to their Kinzer Hall for the club members to enjoy at their functions. The many ribbons and trophies won in the posse competition, parades, at Elgin Stampede or Pendleton roundup are displayed in plexi glass cabinets in the beer booth. A history wall has been started in Kinzer Hall with pictures of past wagon masters, drill team and special events.
In 2011 the club celebrated their 75th anniversary. In the past seventy five years, this service organization has come a long way. There are over 200 members today. The club has been served by nineteen additional Wagon Masters. They are: Don Johnson, Ed Stiller, Gail Weatherly, James B. Austin, Carl Owsley, L.A. “Bud” Christensen, Pete O’Laughlin, Robert “Bob” Stevens, Wes Colley, Joe Taruscio, Clark Hansen, Bill Carter, Bert Kinman, Bill Hof, Joe Kinzer, Bob Weeks, Don Bancroft, Sam Waldron, Les Clark and David Mitchell.
The organization has evolved into a family oriented riding club. Family participation is of the utmost importance to the club. The club has one of the most state of the art arenas and club house for their members to enjoy many events through out the year.