Cowboy’s Overdue Honor

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May 15, 2011

A long-dead Oregon cowboy and rodeo star, whose life I’ve written about and continue to research, is finally receiving the recognition he deserves. John Spain (right), winner of the bucking contest at the Pendleton Round-Up a century ago — an outcome still hotly debated, has been chosen for the Round-Up and Happy Canyon Hall of Fame. The honor comes decades after the two men he beat, George Fletcher (left) and Jackson Sundown (middle), were inducted into the Hall of Fame.

On Thursday I attended the Hall of Fame’s annual meeting in Pendleton, where Spain’s selection was announced. That night I had dinner with several of Spain’s relatives. They are as friendly, open, and genuine as any people I’ve met. The lively conversation made it clear that their lives are richer for having a relative whose noteworthy past brings them together and inspires sharing of stories, stories that illuminate the family’s intriguing background. And the talk wasn’t just of John Spain but his older brother Fred as well, a rodeo star in his own right and three times named “most typical cowboy” in the Round-Up’s early years. Fred also deserves entry into the Hall of Fame.

On Friday I joined three of the relatives at the Union County Museum in Union, Oregon, where the inseparable Spain brothers spent most of their lives as ranchers. Lorna Spain, whose late husband King was Fred’s son, and I delivered to the museum the life-size cutout photograph of John, pictured above. The cutout was part of the Pendleton Round-Up exhibit that I curated for the Oregon Historical Society last year, and OHS deserves thanks for giving it to the museum. (If there’s a better small-town, rural museum in America, I’ve not found it.)

As I carried “John” from my car, I couldn’t help but think he’s come home.