For the first time in almost 40 years, the city of Philomath canceled its annual Frolic & Rodeo summertime event this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
It was just one of the countless events canceled this summer, but one that stripped the small, historic logging town of a beloved rural tradition — a tradition that has stood the test of time as the town grew more urban and the timber industry declined.
The Philomath Frolic & Rodeo showcases all manner of talent in the small town of about 5,000 people. Kids ride sheep and catch trout with their bare hands. Lumberjacks compete to see who can chop wood the fastest.
The community spends all year planning the three-day event, working together to orchestrate a menagerie of family entertainment around a professional rodeo. There’s a rodeo queen pageant, a fun run, a cornhole tournament, dunk tanks, live music, fireworks and an enormous supply of grilled chicken.
On the final day of the celebration, about half the town parades through the streets while the other half cheers them on. The grand finale is a seemingly endless line of log trucks, all shined up with their most impressive timber in tow.
Normally, canceling the Philomath Frolic & Rodeo would be unthinkable. But this year, Gov. Kate Brown’s order banning large gatherings gave organizers little choice in the matter.
“What could we do?” Philomath City Manager Chris Workman said. “It was a pretty short and difficult conversation.”
Workman couldn’t bear to let the event go without any kind of festivity, though.
“I was thinking at the very least we could still do the fireworks and do it in a manner that’s safe,” he said. “Everybody seemed to rally around that idea. There was definitely a strong sentiment that we want to do something for the community to help in this kind of depressing, difficult time.”
So, they canceled almost all the trappings of the traditional Frolic. There was no mutton busting, no mechanical bull riding, and no grilled chicken. But there were fireworks.
“With fireworks, you can see ’em anywhere in town and stay socially distanced,” Workman said.
“The rodeo queen was there,” Workman said. “Board members came in boots and hats and took donations. Anybody from anywhere could watch the show.”
Workman now believes that one night could end up being the highlight of the year for Philomath.
“It was terrific. It was great,” he said. “It was a fun summer night in a not so fun summer.”
A timber town tradition
In the days leading up to the Philomath Frolic & Rodeo parade, you’ll typically see local logging companies cleaning their finest trucks and equipment.
Last year, while his drivers were scrubbing the grime off his fleet of log trucks, Russell Watkins of Watkins Trucking was replacing his old mudflaps with shiny new American flags.
“Part of it, I guess, is probably showing off,” he said. “Showing what you have, and pride in the community event. For a few years, there weren’t very many trucks in the parade, and here lately there’s been quite a few. I think it’s helped bring some of the community spirit back to town. Philomath’s been a timber town forever. So, it’s good to get a little bit of timber back in the parade.”
His wife and the company’s co-owner, Lisa Watkins, said having log trucks in the parade shows support for an industry that faces ongoing controversy.
Watkins convinced her husband that he should drive his own truck in the parade for the 30-year anniversary of their business.
She said having log trucks in the parade shows support for an industry that faces ongoing controversy.
“I think that sometimes people forget what industries are supporting your town,” she said. “I think it’s a good reminder that there’s a lot of family wage jobs here in the timber industry still.”
The timber industry has always been a part of the Philomath Frolic event, which in past years has been called the Buckaroo and Loggers Frolic, Frolic Timber Festival and the Frolic Lumberjack Carnival.
In recent years, it has featured a lumberjack competition organized by a local competitor named Cody Labahn. Competitors throw axes at targets, race to chop and saw through blocks of wood and leap up onto springboards to lop off the top of a 30-foot pillar.
“I just love this sport,” Labahn said. “We’ve turned it into a competition but it’s all stuff they had to do back in the day. They used to have to springboard up the butt end of the log just to get high enough into the tree to cut it down.”
At last year’s competition, longtime log chip truck driver Rick Wells came to watch the event and said it’s one way to keep the culture of the timber industry alive.
“I’ve worked in the timber industry since 1983,” he said. “A lot of mills have gone away that used to be here. That’s the biggest change. There’s almost no federal timber anymore. There’s some but not like there used to be.”
Mary Johnson, secretary of the Philomath Frolic & Rodeo said some people get bored of watching so many log trucks in the parade, but for her it’s an important recognition of the town’s founding industry.
“No matter what you think about logging, on whatever level, you can’t live in Philomath and not acknowledge that that’s what built this town,” she said.
A tribute to Frolic founders
The site of the Philomath Frolic & Rodeo was named Skirvin Park after the family that donated their land to the community.
In 1983, Paul, Walt and Carl Skirvin started developing rodeo grounds on their family property with the express purpose of hosting a rodeo in Philomath. They enlisted Ken Steuve to help build the new home of the Philomath Frolic & Rodeo. Stueve became the first president of the organization and held that position for 32 years before retiring.
“It was fun,” Stueve said. “I had a lot of great people that volunteered their time and effort. We’re a small town. We work together and give back to each other — a family, you might say.”
Steuve and others recently added a sculpture of a horse to an area on the property they’re calling the Horse Plaza.
“It’s a piece of art that symbolizes volunteerism and togetherness as a community,” Steuve said. “It’s to give back to all the people who have donated their time and helped develop the rodeo and events that go on in the city of Philomath.”
Current Philomath Frolic & Rodeo President Darrell Hinchberger said he thinks of Paul Skirvin as the “founding father” of the event.
“He developed this land. He donated it to the city,” Hinchberger said. “It’s because of Paul Skirvin, the family of Paul Skirvin, his wife, his brothers, his nephews aunts and uncles, and that whole body of people that have allowed this to continue happening.”
Paul Skirvin died in 2019 less than a year after his wife Lola Skirvin died in 2018. To honor them, the Frolic & Rodeo organized a riderless horse event in the rodeo arena last year.
In an interview with the Philomath Express newspaper in 2017, Paul Skirvin explained why he decided to give back to the community by donating the land to the Frolic & Rodeo.
“It’s the only thing Philomath’s got during the summer,” he said. “It keeps them going.”
Maybe next year?
Without a Frolic event this year, Workman said what’s keeping the community going now are high hopes for next year.
“There’s a lot of unrest, a lot of uncertainty,” he said. “Overall, people are trying to keep a positive spin on things and look forward to better days ahead.”
A handful of relatively small, outdoor events have helped preserve a sense of community spirit this summer. The town dedicated new tennis courts and a new park and got way more volunteers than it needed to do some maintenance work.
“I think people are hungry to get together,” Workman said. “We put out a request for 20 people and I think we had 60 people show up. People are anxious to get out, get working.”
It’s hard to find ways to keep the community connected while also maintaining social distance.
“It’s weird,” Workman said. “There’s not a lot happening in smaller towns right now, and you can’t even get together to commiserate about them not happening.”
Right now there’s no end of the pandemic in sight, he said. But that leaves plenty of time to plan for the next Frolic event...whenever that may be.