Sisters: Oregon’s Modern Wild West

Sisters Oregon is known for its Western theme, however few know the origin of the tradition.

Central Oregon is host to a plethora of small towns, but one of the most interesting is Sisters; known for its art-driven community and late 1800s-style buildings and furnishings. With a heavy emphasis on the “rugged frontier” aesthetic, this town hosts a saloon, old-west-style clothes shops and an annual rodeo. Many residents take pride in the style of their home, dressing in cowboy boots, hats and other Western attire. These unorthodox traditions beg the question, why?

The answer lies in the history of the town itself. Although it was originally home to Paiute, Warm Springs and Wasco Native Americans, the town was founded in the early 1900s by pioneers. A couple years after its establishment, the population started to grow and the economy became more reliant on the timber industry. The local sawmill provided lumber for the townspeople and bridges on the Oregon Trunk Railroad.

In 1923, however, the town faced a major setback in the form of a fire that ravaged 10 buildings, and the following year when another fire destroyed six more. Despite the hardship, the town found its resilience, rebuilding to become officially incorporated as a town of Central Oregon. A few decades later, in 1978, Sisters began to officially build its well-known Western theme while under the ownership of Harold Barclay.

A loan of $5,000 from Brooks Resources was given to Sisters under the condition that a more Western theme be implemented to make the area more attractive to visitors. The town grew attached to its new identity, and the plan to make it a more endearing place to shop flourished.

In a Nugget News article titled, “How Sisters Became Sisters,” Bonnie Malone describes the situation, “This (loan) would give Sisters a unique image and enhance its attraction. If a business owner kept the Western theme frontage for ten years, the loan would be forgiven.” 

However, the town kept this theme for much longer than ten years, and the Western aspect became entrenched in the appearance and activities of the community. The most prominent reason was because it attracted tourists and created a steady income for the town’s small businesses. Today, the town is still a major tourist attraction, especially in the summer when visitor numbers peak. 

The town also attracts visitors through events like the Sisters Rodeo, an annual Western-themed show with barrel races, bull riding and steer wrestling. According to the official website of the Sisters Rodeo, the rodeo has inspired the Western theme of the city of Sisters. 

However, that doesn’t mean the Western theme has always maintained its force over the years. Jim Cornelius, a Sister’s inhabitant of over 30 years said, “Over the time I’ve been here the theme has waxed and waned in strength.” 

The commercial buildings that the Sisters Planning Department approved exemplify this. Many of these nationwide companies, such as Subway, McDonalds and Dairy Queen, didn’t have a Western theme. These buildings may have dampened their outward appearance to fit in, but they couldn’t transform their entire business personality to fit into Sisters.

However, Sisters isn’t the only small town with a theme, a Washington town by the name of Leavenworth, is observed to also share a similar, but more strictly enforced, Bavarian-style theme. 

“Some people have stated that they think Sisters should adopt Leavenworth’s strictness in enforcing the theme, but the idea has never stuck,” says Cornelius. 

This is because, for the most part, Sisters inhabitants are pleased with their home. The small town has a charm and endearing quality that draws in tourists and locals alike. Although the town’s theme’s distant future remains unknown, it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.