In 1941, Winthrop, Washington was a very small logging town, homesteaded from the local mining quarries back in the 1850’s, with several ranches around. When the spring thaw brought the dirt roads back to view after months of being hidden under a blanket of snow, the loggers, and ranchers would gather for a spring celebration.
Back in the early days, these were unofficial gatherings of some rough riders who (usually) knew how to hold their whiskey. By 1945, there began an annual parade and the heritage event – 49er Days was born, 76 nostalgic years ago.
Back then, this valley was the very end of the road, before highway 20 connected the valley to the Northwest corner of Washington state (during the months when the highway is passable). These celebrations revitalized this little valley with a liveliness that only the Wild West can provide, replete with barn dances and hoedowns.
The book The Virginian (1909,by Owen Wister) was based on Winthrop and had circulated around enough to draw some attention to the valley as well. At least one story from the book really happened in Winthrop.
If you can believe it, families came in their wagons from several miles around to join in the barn dance. The original town dance hall was a Quonset hut that caved in from heavy snowfall in the 1970’s when a group of volunteers worked to together to raise the current Winthrop Barn Auditorium from the ground for future coronations and dances. When the residents were having their hoedown in the barn, the babies were usually left in a room designated for them to sleep in. Some tricky fellow went in and switched the babies in their baskets while the dancing got ruckus and no one noticed until the wagon was a ways down the road. Tough to imagine in these days, right?
Ray Campbell, a true cowboy, and a current board member of the 49ers heritage event recalls growing up going to these barn dances. “The parking lot would be jammed full of cars and back in the day there would have been horses too.” He remembers these barn dances even more than the parades.
Two major changes brought major revitalization to the authentic “49ers Days” event.
The first event was in 1970 when the town knew the North Cascade Highway would be opening, and Winthrop would no longer be the end of the road. Cars would be driving through by the hundreds to see one the most beautiful scenic byways in the nation, and have unprecedented access to pristine outdoor recreation. The residents of the town got ahead of the change and renovated the storefronts back to their 1850’s look complete with wooden boardwalks and places to tie up horses. The Western look of the town was preserved and 49er Days was the town’s crown jewel event to show off its western roots!
WOGA Joins the Festivities
Now in the 1980’s the Washington Outfitters and Guides Association (WOGA) were in the prime of their day. These sportsmen, lead groups of packers through the federal and state land on horseback to experience the natural resources this state is proud to preserve. The sportsmen from across the state would rendezvous in various locations for an annual celebration – Puyallup, Ellensburg, and then someone asked about Leavenworth. When some red tape made things look too tricky for a Leavenworth rendezvous, the name of the town of Winthrop came up and it seems like a perfect fit.
Tom Graves who remains a key member of the 49er Days planning committee (pictured below) and a character named Claude set to work planning out a route for the 3-4 day horseback camping trek starting in Pateros, winding through Finley Canyon and ending up in Winthrop.
They researched the landowners and made decisions over whiskey at Sam’s place until a plan was hatched. Some of the land owners were sketchy individuals who had no connection to Tom or Claude but every single one of them agreed to allow the packers to cross or even camp on their land. Some of people who seemed the most likely to say no were just elated to participate and went out of their way to make the packers comfortable.
That first year the outfitters camped on the baseball diamond across from the Barn. This was in the early 1990’s. There were camp fires, storytelling, whiskey, and some of the best cowboy poets in the nation.
The event has been held in Winthrop every year on Mother’s Day weekend. Even this year in 2021 you can see the horsemen ride into town around noon on Friday all dusty and parched. Many years they even bring along at least one authentic covered wagon!
The encampment has moved locations, though, across the street in Mack Lloyd Park next to the Winthrop Barn Auditorium where the barn dances continue to be held (aside from when there’s a global pandemic). The sportsmen set up nostalgic canvas tents and sell goods straight out of them during the day. Each year on Mother’s Day weekend, you can experience this heritage event at the Cowboy Breakfast, along with a dinner they also host.
This is the main fund raiser for WOGA in their work with legislation to continue to allow horses on public lands. The back country horsemen care deeply about preserving these natural resources and have volunteered hundreds of hours in maintaining the trails to be used for years to come.
This year marks the 76th annual event. It was a major disappointment when the diamond year of 49er Days couldn’t take place. We felt especially sad for the senior class royalty who had waited their whole lives to be in the parade and wouldn’t get another chance.
The parade isn’t the only tragedy of COVID-19. In the fall of 2020 the Washington Outfitters and Guides Association lost a member from the Leavenworth Chapter. This year’s 49er Days will be dedicated to Sandy Wick and Shirley Haase who passed in 2020. One was due to COVID-19 and the other was not. Then again in March of 2021 even closer to home, another life was lost to COVID-19 from our own community, and one of the few female members of the heritage event planning committee. We are so saddened by the losses of these precious lives and all of the lives taken by the global pandemic.
Below you can take a walk through the newspaper archives of 49er Days events in the past. Special thanks to the Methow Valley News for preserving these archives and making them available to the public.
Upon entering the newspaper archives, the first page I laid my eyes was our most honored member of the 49ers planning committee, Tom Graves. This photo was posted in the newspaper around the time of the third annual heritage event. Tom continues to be an important part of the planning committee every year.
Some of these photos are cut off due to their margins being covered by the way the newspapers are bound together, but I did my best to show as much of the pages as possible without damaging them.
If you’d like to see the photos better, click on each one to see a high-resolution version.
Click here for more details on the history of Winthrop WA prior to State Highway 20 crossing over the North Cascade Mountain range.