The Pendleton Round-Up in Wartime
When Mary Esther Brock (or Mea, as she’s been called most of her life) was appointed to the Court, there hadn’t been a Pendleton Round-Up for two years. World War II was still going on, but the community missed their annual tradition so much that they decided to hold it anyway. And an important part of the Round-Up is the Round-Up Court.
Round-Up royalty was chosen based on family history, age and ability to ride a horse. Mea, reminiscing, stressed that a family’s pioneer background was one of the most important criteria. Her father’s grandparents had come from Missouri on the Oregon Trail in 1848 or 1849, settling first in Heppner, where her father, Wilson E. Brock, was born. Her grandfather was treasurer of the first Pendleton Round-Up. So her pioneer pedigree was impeccable on her father’s side.
Mea’s mother came from New England. She’d graduated from Colby with a degree in library science, and gone west to open a library in North Bend. From there, she went to work at the University of Washington. She loved working in Seattle, but answered the call when the founding fathers of the town of Pendleton wanted to open a public library. She came to Pendleton and organized the town’s first library. She also met Wilson Brock, owner of Pendleton’s Taylor Hardware. They married, and Mea was born after a long wait for children.
“My father had to put up with an only girl child who wasn’t particularly athletic,” Mea remembered. She was active in drama and choir in high school, but she was the only child of a man who loved riding, hunting, skiing and boating. “I learned how to do all those things, but I was bad at all of them,” said Mea. She was much more interested in school than sports. “I loved my childhood—school was a wonderful and exciting place.”
The 1945 Court
Mea remembers a much smaller Round-Up than we see today, but it was an event. Her father, who owned the local hardware store, would close his business. Her parents had a box—she and her dad would go sit in the bleachers to be closer to the action–and her parents would host friends from all over the country. Said Mea, “The Round-Up was much loved by all.”
She was chosen as a Princess in April or May. Mea wasn’t exactly thrilled—she didn’t love horses—but the announcement of the court was a lengthy process full of suspense and fanfare. Princesses were announced one-by-one in the East Oregonian, with a photo and a big write-up. Two of the princesses were just out of the local high school—Mea and her friend Gloria, whose life dream was to be a princess. Another was from Helix, OR, and another was from a ranch in the foothills of the Wallowas. The Queen was part of a prominent local ranching family.
Said Mea, “Some of these girls had basically trained their entire lives to be on the Round Up Court. Not me, though. My dream was to be a Rose Festival Princess!” Mea might have felt underwhelmed, but her father was delighted. He had Hamley’s make a saddle for Mea with a silver horn, and had a leather fringe jacket like those worn for trick riding made for her as well. “My mother hated that jacket!”
Mea had ridden since she was young alongside her father. They had matching grey Arabian horses—Tony was her father’s, and Smoky was Mea’s. She liked her dad’s horse better, as he was more active and less likely to pull back to the barn, so they traded. But she knew she wasn’t prepared for the level of horsemanship required. So she graduated from high school in late May and spent the first weeks of the summer of ’45 practicing her riding skills.
She was terrified.
Round-up Princesses had to jump two fences. Smoky was not a jumper, so a dear family friend loaned her a jumper—he was hard to control—much more difficult. Each day after she practiced the jumps, her father met her with a glass of ice water because her mouth was so dry from fear that she couldn’t even open her mouth. Said Mea, “This was the first experience in my life where I’d felt insecure and afraid. Thinking about it now still makes me shake.”
Over the summer, the Queen and her Court rode in very few parades. When they went to Portland for the big Rose Festival parade, they left the horses in Pendleton. Tires were extremely hard to get, and gas was impossible, so they went by train. She wore her special Round-Up attire, which included “Justin boots and a Stetson hat, which I didn’t like because it had a flat brim.”
Over the course of that summer, there were four Court events requiring escorts, and men were off in service. Said Mea, “If you didn’t have a beau, the committee would find you one.” Mea did have a beau, in fact she’d had the same beau since first grade, but Bob Alford was in the service. Her dates for the four events were four strangers, all from different branches of the military. Mea said, “A mystery date for each date. They were all very nice. One of them showed up in my husband’s class in dental school. He came out one evening and told me, ‘I was your date during the Round-Up.’ He was the Navy date.”
The Main Event
September came, and with it, the main event. This would be a subdued and somber affair, not the usual swirl of socializing that Mea associated with the Round-Ups of her childhood. Soldiers on leave were there, reminding everyone of the sacrifices going on overseas. Since the war had drained off the men, women had taken over the ranches.
Said Mea, “Even producing the out-of-town horses was very difficult, because of the expense of getting them there. So there were a lot of local people raising calves and bulls and horses for the shows.” The result was much smaller, but people were so glad to have it back. Her mother didn’t mind the scaled-back nature of the Round-Up that year, as she could be overwhelmed by all the out-of-town hosting and general socializing.
On Opening Day, both horse and rider were nervous for the ride out. Pendleton firemen had hosed off the track on opening morning, and someone had left the firehose in front of the fence. Mea’s horse shied at the hose. Her mother says that she went so far over one side that the seat of her skirt brushed the ground, but she pulled herself up and back into the saddle. Mea was so terrified that she doesn’t remember, but her mother insisted that this was exactly how it happened.
Mea carried out all aspects of her courtly duties for the length of the Round-Up. On the last day, said Mea, “I got off my horse, got into my mother’s car and she drove me to California, where I was starting college.”
She has never been on a horse since.
Life after Round-Up
Mea arrived to Pomona wearing a fashionable shirtdress, a Hamley belt with silver buckle, her leather fringe jacket, white anklets and wooden sole Oscars (clogs). She got there late, due to her Round-Up duties. Her roommates were told to expect a rodeo princess. Mea thinks her roommates expected her to arrive on a horse.
Her mother sent her to school with 27 pleated skirts sewn with fabric from the Pendleton Woolen Mill. Said Mea, “I had absolutely NO ROOM FOR THEM. I finally mailed them home. This is how spoiled I was.”
Mea eventually transferred to the University of Oregon, where she was a standout in the school’s Theater department. She went to the Round-Up every year until she graduated, married, and moved to Hawaii with her husband, Bob Alford, “the same little boy who kissed me by the pencil sharpener in first grade.”
On a newlywed’s budget, they didn’t travel back to Pendleton very often. Once Mea had children of her own, they heard the story of Mea jumping the fence and brushing the ground many times. Later, when she finally took her children back to see it, she was surprised to see that somehow, the fence had shrunk!
The Princess Today
Mea and her husband raised their family in Portland, where she lives today. No one has taken up riding, although her daughter wanted (but never received) a horse. Mea’s custom saddle with the silver horn sits on a saddle block in her eldest granddaughter’s room.
During the Centennial of the Pendleton Round-Up, the directors asked the past royalty to return, to ride in the parade. Mea was one of six princesses who rode in a wagon pulled by donkeys. “Donkeys!” she laughed. “And no one knew who we were. ‘Who are you?’ people called out.” She remembered this with a smile while displaying the hat she wore.
She liked the brim of this hat much better–the hatband is the belt she was wearing in her photo above, and over her shirtdress when she arrived at Pomona.