OMAK — Walk down Omak’s Main Street and it’s quickly evident that you’re in a town stuck in a frontier time — a time when cowboys and American Indians ambled into town for refreshment and entertainment after a dusty day chasing cattle on the range, felling trees in the woods or nurturing apples in surrounding orchards.
Omak was just waking up from a quiet, snowy winter nap when I took the 100-mile drive from Wenatchee to linger for a few hours at the end of February. Temperatures soared to the 50s for the first time this year. Snow was receding from local parks, and there were lots of people wandering through town with smiles on their faces. A couple of bundled-up men sat drinking sodas and smoking at a cement picnic table in front of a giant mural of the town’s famed Suicide Race — horse-mounted riders racing down the side of a mountain next to an Indian encampment along the Okanogan River, painted on the side of a building. Inside the building, a foursome of Colville tribal members took a warmer point of view as they sat on a couch in a thrift store soaking up the sun and gazing out the window at light traffic on the street.
Late winter into early spring is a slow time of year in town even as activity churns in rural orchards and the nearby lumber mill — one of two mills owned and operated by the Colville Confederated Tribes. The 2,300-square-mile Colville Indian Reservation stretches between the Okanogan River at Omak east to Lake Roosevelt.
But there are indicators to be found all year long pointing to the town’s greatest tourism draw, the Omak Stampede and World Famous Suicide Race, held each August. It’s a time when Omak bustles with enough Western excitement to keep the town afloat as a curiosity stop for travelers year-round.
A sign at the Central Avenue entrance to town reads “For the Cowboy’s Glory.” Businesses along Main Street include the Stampede Motel, Stampede Mini-Mart, The Lariat, Rancho Chico, the Shorthorn Tavern and the curious Stampede Teriyaki.
This year’s Stampede will be the 75th. For those few who know nothing about the annual four-day event, its highlights include an Indian encampment, four days of top-flight professional rodeo, a carnival and the unique, love-it-or-hate-it Suicide Race. Up to 20 horsemen — and occasionally horsewomen — insanely gallop full speed down a steep cliff and across the Okanogan River to the rodeo grounds each day of the Stampede. Preliminary heats are held the first three nights, with top competitors qualifying for the finals Sunday.
Animal rights groups have long protested the race for its danger to the horses. Dozens have had to be euthanized over the years after they’ve suffered broken legs. There have been no major injuries the past two years, but 19 deaths were recorded in the previous 20 years. The race continues largely because of its popularity, drawing about 20,000 spectators annually, and the fact that it follows a traditional rite of passage for tribal men. Nearly all of the riders are members of the Colville Confederated Tribes and must be members of the Colville Owners and Jockeys Association.
Omak was one of the last towns in Okanogan County to get started, but it quickly became its largest. Okanogan, four miles to the south, was the county’s first town, established in 1886. That town was named Alma, later changed to Pogue, after the region’s most successful orchardist and only country doctor at the time, Dr. J.I. Pogue. Two years later, in 1907, the name was again changed, this time to Okanogan. Dr. Pogue, according to Bruce Wilson’s book, “Late Frontier: A History of Okanogan County, Washington,” was unhappy about losing his namesake, and urged a local surveyor named Ben Ross to plat another town a few miles north. Ross had had similar ideas and quickly set to work. The new town was named Omak, an Indian word for “good medicine” — but the plateau above, homesteaded by Dr. Pogue, became known as Pogue Flat.
Ross sold town lots briskly for $25. Corner lots sold for $35. Within months, the new town had a mercantile store, bank, hotel and post office. The town prospered after roads were built accessing orchards at Pogue Flat. It also helped that Omak became the main trading area for the Colville Indian Reservation, created by order of President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. Omak was incorporated in 1911.
Omak residents had other disagreements with Okanogan, setting the stage for a continuing rivalry in high school sports. During the temperance movement a decade before national Prohibition, many Washington towns voted to banish alcohol. Omak, with its sober orchardists and missionary-influenced Indians, voted 97-2 in favor of prohibition in 1910. Okanogan saw things differently. Residents there decided to support the town’s two saloons and veto prohibition by a vote of 82-40.
The two towns also competed to become the Okanogan County seat when it was decided in 1913 that the existing county seat, Conconully, was too remote once the mining boom in that area slowed. A primary election was held to narrow the field. Okanogan won out and the courthouse was moved there in 1914. Omak won a valuable contest a few years later, however, when the town successfully wooed the Biles-Coleman Lumber Co. to establish its lumber mill there rather than in Okanogan, giving Omak a major employer and significant economic advantage. By 1928, Omak had become the largest town in the county with a population of 2,100 residents, about half its present population.
New growth in former orchards
Omak and surrounding Okanogan County took a big hit a decade ago when apple prices spiraled downward. Many orchardists were forced to pull out their trees. Others lost their land. Packing sheds that had been major employers shut down. But the area is coming back, says Paige Patrick, Omak Chamber of Commerce office manager and past president. Patrick says Western Washington residents are starting to buy lots in the former orchard land with plans to build their retirement homes. The area’s vast outdoor recreational opportunities have always been a draw, she says.
A Wal-Mart Super Store, a Home Depot, the Omache Shopping Center and a new hotel on the north side of town have made the area more hospitable to visitors as well as new settlers looking for reasonably priced land. Several fast food restaurants have popped up and a new Starbucks is slated to open this spring. The Colville Tribes plan to build a new casino a few miles to the south. The stores also have been a draw for visiting Canadians, especially now that the monetary exchange rate is at par.
“There’s lots of building going on,” Patrick said. “It always amazes me how people find Omak. We’re starting to see a lot of people moving in.”
Rick Steigmeyer: 664-7151
Founded: Ben Ross, a surveyor and civil engineer from Illinois, homesteaded in the area and then platted the town in 1907. The town developed quickly and was incorporated in 1911 with W.H. Dickson as its first mayor.
Where: 98 miles north of Wenatchee on Highway 97
u A new draw-bridge at Omak to allow steamships up the Okanogan River collapsed on its first use June 3, 1911.
u The Omak Stampede was started in 1933 by local stockman Leo Moomaw and rodeo organizer Tim Bernard as a way to spur Omak’s stalled economy during the Great Depression.
u The Indian encampment during the Omak Stampede is the Colville Confederated Tribes’ largest annual powwow. The 2,300-square-mile reservation includes part of Omak.
u The Colville Confederated Tribes, with their two lumber mills and casinos, are responsible for about a third of Okanogan County’s economic base.
u Omak is an important stop on the North Central Washington Quilt Shop Hop held each fall.
Four seasons of fun
Spring: Fishing, hiking, biking, concerts and plays at the Omak Performing Arts Center
Summer: Attend a rodeo and watch the Suicide Race at the Omak Stampede in August, horseback riding, camping
Fall: Hunting, fishing, biking, birdwatching
Winter: Snowmobiling, cross country skiing, alpine skiing at the Loup Loup Ski Area, ice fishing, catch first-run movies at the Omak Film Festival
The Breadline Café
Phone: (509) 826-5836
Where: 102 S. Ash St., Omak
When: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday
How to pay: Cash, check, debit or credit
Children’s menu: Yes, and one for seniors, too
Alcohol: Yes, microbrews, local wines and full bar
Menu: Innovative sandwiches on fresh baked bread, salads, pasta, Angus beef steaks, slow roasted turkey and corned beef; homemade soups and pies; milkshakes, espresso