H. E. “DOC” PFENNING
Inducted in 1997
Dr. H. E. Pfenning helped conceive, organize, and produce the first Ellensburg Rodeo in 1923. Although many community members share responsibility for the first Ellensburg Rodeo, Pfenning’s vision, organizational skills, and hard work looms large in its history.
Trained in large-animal veterinary medicine, H. E. “Doc” Pfenning was an integral member of the 1920s Ellensburg ranching and cowboy community. Pfenning visited the roundups and “Sunday rodeos” held in the Kittitas Valley, and he dreamed of one day staging a large-scale “Wild West Show” in the town of Ellensburg. When other community members expressed an interest in this plan, Pfenning led the organizing committee. He traveled to Pendleton, Oregon to observe the staging of their famed Roundup. This background, combined with Pfenning’s wide exposure to cattle roundups and rodeos and Wild West Shows, took form in his program for the 1923 Ellensburg Rodeo.
The September 13-15, 1923, Ellensburg Rodeo featured 18 major events advertised as the “greatest Wildwest Roundup in the State.” Valley residents remembered its myriad components. Chalmer Cobain described the gala grand entry parade, bucking broncs, calf roping, relays, bulldogging, and special Indian horse racing. Cobain said the 1923 contestants were “real cowboys” not “these drugstore cowboys”! They competed in “wild horse races, stagecoach races [and] chariot races.” Howard Thomas remembered the first rodeo was “a good one” and Mrs. Lillian Pope agreed, noting, “You knew pretty much everybody that was riding in it…it really made a difference because it was more of a local show.” The Ellensburg Record was equally complimentary, reporting that the rodeo’s “Riders are Skillful and the Horses and Steers are Wild.”
By all accounts, Doc Pfenning and his committee had done a superb job.
In addition to organizing and producing the rodeo, Doc Pfenning also organized the selection and coronation of the rodeo royalty and negotiated the historic annual participation of the Yakima Indian Nation in the Ellensburg Rodeo. After doing all of this, Doc Pfenning then proceeded to announce the show. Microphones and public address systems were unheard of in 1920s Ellensburg. Using only a megaphone in Ellensburg’s large new arena, Pfenning’s voice boomed out and over the crowd of approximately 2500.
Moreover, Pfenning organized and produced the first Ellensburg Rodeo parade. Locals remember him as a leader of that parade, decked out in western duds astride his black horse Midnight. The next year Pfenning pressed local business people and townsmen to “dress western” for the rodeo, sporting hats, boots, ‘kerchiefs, and snap-button western shirts. He believed this “costuming” would please the tourists from Seattle and make the Ellensburg Rodeo even more popular.
After more than two years of immense labor, Dr. H. E. Pfenning stepped down as producer of the Ellensburg Rodeo in 1925. He left a legacy that has endured these 75 years. He is survived by his daughter Barbara Pfenning Wright, a former Ellensburg Rodeo Queen.