If you think the unexpected never happens in small country towns, consider the strange story of Dave Tucker and Joseph, Ore. On October 1, 1896, Tucker was shot, wounded, and captured after he and a few buddies robbed a bank in Joseph, which was, then as now, a tiny hamlet at the foot of the craggy Wallowa Mountains in Oregon's northeast corner.
After serving time, Tucker returned to Joseph, took up sheepherding, and in due course rose in the community. And in an ironic twist—one befitting the unwritten code of the Old West that a good man could always overcome a bad past—he became the vice president of the very bank he had robbed.
Joseph is still a place where you encounter the unexpected. The town is named for the 19th-century Indian leader Chief Joseph, whose band of Nez Perce once summered in the surrounding Wallowa Valley before being forced onto reservations. Joseph sits at an elevation of 4,190 feet, and first-time visitors who come expecting high-desert conditions are often unprepared for the town's deep-blue lake, pristine rivers, and dramatic backdrop of 9,000-foot snowcapped peaks, which rise abruptly from the lush valley floor.
Given its proximity to both Hells Canyon and the Eagle Cap Wilderness, it's not surprising that Joseph has long been a hub for fishing, hiking, rafting, boating, and cross-country skiing. But no one could have predicted that this isolated town of 1,200 would also become a thriving center for art.
In 1982, with pressures increasing on Joseph's economic mainstays of ranching and timber, a local entrepreneur opened a foundry where artists could have sculptures cast in bronze. The foundry's eventual success attracted the notice of artists from around the world and drew other art-related ventures to the town. Today, Joseph is home to two working foundries and a dozen galleries, showcasing mostly traditional art rather than the abstract or avant-garde.
Joseph's art scene is centered on Main Street, where the storefronts house galleries, places to eat, and a few remaining old-timers like the hardware store and lumberyard. The street was recently gussied up with vintage-style lampposts, paving-stone sidewalks, and large bronze sculptures depicting everything from a cougar to a girl strolling in a garden. Near one end of the commercial district is the Manuel Museum, which has a small collection of Nez Perce artifacts in addition to Western-themed bronzes, John Wayne memorabilia, and Civil War objects. At the other end of town, the Wallowa County Museum is a veritable trove of local curiosities, including the shaggy horsehide and bearskin coat once worn by a country doctor when making winter house calls. The county museum occupies a creaky bank building—the same one where Dave Tucker got into trouble more than a hundred years ago.
Joseph hosts a number of art festivals from June through August, but the quieter weeks of early fall are also a great time to visit: Days usually remain warm while nights are crisp, the mountains fill with the gold of turning aspens and tamarack pines, the fishing and hiking are superb, and there's still plenty of art.
On a tour of the town's original foundry, Valley Bronze, you'll witness most of the process involved in making a sculpture—from the creation of molds to hand finishing with a variety of patinas—though the actual pouring of molten metal is off-limits for safety reasons. You can, however, have a look at the finished product in the Valley Bronze gallery.
Bronze sculpture is not the only artwork in Joseph. You'll find a wide range of work, from locally designed silk-screened shirts at Moonlight Graphics to high-end jewelry, paintings, and prints at Indigo, a year-old gallery in a restored 1909 house.
When you've had your fill of art, head just outside of town to Wallowa Lake, a four-mile-long oval bordered on one side by steep, forested mountains and on the other by towering glacial moraines. At the lake's far end, you'll find pine-shaded Wallowa Lake State Park—a good place for a picnic—as well as cabins, simple resorts and eateries, and diversions like go-carts and boat rentals. An aerial tramway leads to the summit of 8,200-foot Mount Howard, where you'll have views of the valley, nearby peaks, and, in the distance, the forbidding Seven Devils range that looms over the Idaho rim of Hells Canyon.
If you'd like to go a bit farther afield, try a backcountry hike or horse trip into the 358,000-acre Eagle Cap Wilderness, an untouched region of mountain streams, forest, and alpine meadows that's the largest wilderness area in the Pacific Northwest. The Wallowa Mountains Visitor Center, located six miles away in the town of Enterprise, has permits for trailhead parking and plenty of information on Eagle Cap's 500 miles of trail.
You can also get off the beaten path with a trip down the Wallowa, Imnaha, or Grande Ronde rivers. The Joseph Fly Shoppe can arrange a scenic float or a fly-fishing expedition. On fishing trips, guides will show you how to cast for steelhead trout, and they'll provide the right pole, waders, and flies. The scenery is beautiful on either kind of trip, and you'll often spot otters, eagles, or bighorn sheep.
Joseph and the Wallowa Valley still seem remote, even with modern jet travel and superhighways, but this "Land of Winding Waters" was once a center of the Nez Perce world. In recent years the Nez Perce have begun to reestablish a presence in the valley, holding an annual summer powwow near the town of Wallowa. The hope is to one day erect a cultural center here to relate the tribe's story.
For a long time, though, one place—the grave of Chief Joseph the Elder, father of the town's namesake—was the most tangible reminder of the valley's former inhabitants. The grave is still there, on a rise overlooking the lake and the mountains. There's not much to the site—a stone column and a bronze plaque; the sound of wind and crickets; offerings of animal bones and bits of fabric left by visitors. But in Joseph, as elsewhere, it's often the simple places that are the most unexpectedly moving.
P L A N N I N G Y O U R T R I P
All phone numbers are 541 area code unless noted. Be sure to pick up AAA's Oregon/Washington TourBook and map as well as the Northwestern CampBook. For more information on Joseph, contact the Wallowa County Chamber of Commerce, 426-4622, (800) 585-4121, www.travelwallowa.com/index2.htm, or the Joseph Chamber of Commerce, 432-1015; or visit www.josephoregon.com.
WHERE TO STAY
Indian Lodge Motel, 201 S. Main St., 432-2651. Well-maintained '50s motel built by Hollywood actor Walter Brennan, with 16 simple units from $67.
Wallowa Lake Lodge, 60060 Wallowa Lake Hwy., 432-9821,www.wallowalake.com. Restored 1920s lakeside lodge with 30 rooms and cabins from $78 to $175.
Wallowa Lake State Park, 432-4185, (800) 452-5687. Camping spaces start at $16.80; yurts are $28.35. The park's cabin is $78.75, $56.35 after October 1.
WHERE TO EAT
Embers Brew House, 204 N. Main St., 432-2739. Pizzas, sandwiches, and Oregon microbrews.
Old Town Cafe, 8 S. Main St., 432-9898. Home-style breakfast and lunch.
Vali's, 59811 Wallowa Lake Hwy., 432-5691. Hungarian dishes like chicken paprika.
Wildflour Bakery, 600 N. Main St., 432-7225. Homemade baked goods, as well as breakfast and lunch.
THINGS TO SEE AND DO
Valley Bronze, 18 S. Main St., 432-7445, www.valleybronze.com. Foundry tours $5.
Wallowa County Museum, 110 S. Main St., 432-6095. Open through September 17.
Manuel Museum, At Hot Lake Springs Hotel, 66172 Hwy. 203, Le Grande, 963-4685, www.hotlakesprings.com..
Wallowa Lake Tramway, 59919 Wallowa Lake Hwy., 432-5331, http://http://www.wallowalaketramway.com. Open through September, weather permitting; $15.50, kids 10 and younger $8.95.
Wallowa Mountains Visitor Center, 88401 Hwy. 82, 426-5546.
Eagle Cap Pack Station, 59761 Wallowa Lake Hwy., 432-4145, (800) 681-6222. Open through September; half-day horse rides from $55 per person, as well as multiday trips and parasailing.
Joseph Fly Shoppe, 203 N. Main St., 432-4343, www.josephflyshop.com. Guided fishing trips from $80 per person, scenic floats through September from $50 per person.
Manuel Celebration & Tournament of Bronzes, Mid-October. Hot Lake Springs outside of Le Grande, 963-4685.
Alpenfest, September 22-24, 426-4622; Swiss/Bavarian-themed festival.
Nez Perce Art Show & Auction, September 23, 886-3101
Photography by Larry Geddis and Linda Eytchinson/Inland Northwest Images
This article was first published in September 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.