Locals often see Mike and Jill Thorne on the two-lane highway between their ranch outside Pendleton and the Oregon city’s rodeo grounds. As the 100th anniversary of the Pendleton Round-Up comes in September, the couple is busy preparing both the rodeo site and their community for the big party.

Since the first bronco bucked, the event has been drawing participants and spectators from across the Pacific Northwest. Today, it’s one of the 10 biggest rodeos in the country. It may be rooted in Oregon, but the event has many ties to Washington, including two of its key volunteers, Mike and Jill Thorne.

Mike and Jill Thorne
Mike and Jill Thorne (Photo Chris Anderson)

For them it started at Washington State University, where Mike ’62, a farm kid from Pendleton and member of AGR Fraternity, met Jill, a Pi Beta Phi from Olympia, on a blind date. They married in 1963.

“Certainly Jill brought a level of excitement and spark of life to our family,” says Mike. If it wasn’t for her, he may never have decided to run for public office. His first effort, in 1973, put him in the Oregon State Legislature as a senator representing District 29 while he was in his early 30s. “We weren’t supposed to win,” he says. But his constituents liked him and reelected him to continue serving for another 18 years. Then he headed the Port of Portland and later moved to Washington to be CEO of the state’s ferry system.

Meanwhile Jill, who had an interest in public affairs since her days at WSU, had her own career path. She worked as an aide to Governor Neil Goldschmidt and chaired the Oregon Trail Sesquicentennial, for which she raised about $5 million. All the while, the couple raised two children.

After the Thornes “retired” (their quote marks) in 2004, they moved back to the family wheat farm and to a community they both loved and fretted over. They found a dying Main Street and a Round-Up that really hadn’t changed much in the past few decades. “You can never go back home,” says Mike. “We found a different set of circumstances and different people. You come back at a completely different level.”

They talk about this as we walk into Room 17 at the back of the grandstands. It’s a space reserved exclusively for the 17 Round-Up board members, like Mike, and their guests. On the walls hang pictures of the past Round-Up presidents including Mike’s father. On another wall, among the pictures of the past rodeo queens, is their daughter Katy (Thorne) Coba, who today is director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

Taking up much of the room’s long wall is a giant colorized photograph of the Round-Up grounds in the 1960s. I ask Mike if he might be in the picture. “Naw,” he says. “If I am, it’s because I was competing and I’m down there somewhere being drug around.” Mike grows serious and starts considering the landscape. He points to the saw mill on the upper right and says, “That’s the Walmart now.” Then he points to the food processing plant. “That’s a shopping center.

“Pendleton used to be the business center for northeast Oregon,” he says. “But the agricultural, resource-based economy has gone away.”

So what’s left? A historic downtown, the woolen mills, a strong connection to the Umatilla Tribe, and the Round-Up. “To a great extent,” says Mike. “Our past is the key to our future.”

There is one other asset, says Jill. The volunteers. So many members of the community give their time and energies to the Round-Up each year. “The town works well together,” she says. “All spectrums, all ages, all demographics. We bond over the Round-Up.” And she’s hoping that connection will serve the city beyond the weeks surrounding its hallmark event.

One of the Thornes’ first efforts to protect the past was to help secure funding to restore the 25-some buildings of downtown Pendleton. Jill Thorne co-chaired a city resource advisory committee, and the pair put their own money into restoring two of the derelict buildings. One now houses a popular pub, and the other holds a shop run by local artisans. They hope that tourists visiting Walla Walla for its wine will enjoy a day trip 40 minutes south to get a taste of cowboy history.

The Thornes and some of their fellow volunteers saw the 100th anniversary of the Round-Up as a chance to push the town forward. They’re in the thick of renovating the stadium, leading fundraising efforts, and bringing in outside grants for revitalizing the grounds.

There have been hurdles, including convincing the long-time Round-Up leaders to donate $5,000 per family to buy a brick pillar on the grounds and further fund the rehabilitation of the entry plaza. “They were more used to giving $500, not $5,000,” says Jill Thorne. “But once they got over the initial shock, they stepped up.”

The Thornes’ fundraising savvy has paid off with grants from state entities, too. “Between the two of us, we bring experiences, the contacts, and the skills that can really help,” says Mike. Jill jumps in: “And we don’t take no for an answer.”

Gone are the chain link fences and dinky stands. Instead the visitors will be treated to new sidewalks and trees, a beautiful iron gate with horse-shoe detailing, and seating for nearly 18,000, including 90 wheelchair-accessible spots.

With all the changes, many components have remained—there’s no advertising to clog up the view of the arena, it’s still a rich four-day event complete with cowboys and Indians, and it’s still put together with the volunteer efforts of local families like the Thornes.

The Round-Up this year is September 11 through September 18.

On the web

Pendleton Round-Up