Salt of the Earth: Baker County Ranchers Keep Tradition with Philanthropy.

By Robyn H. Smith

August 7, 2018

A long-standing tradition occurs in Baker City, Oregon every August, and I’m not talking about the East/West Shrine football game. I’m talking about the Cattlemen and Cattlewomen’s annual Shriner Steer Auction and Gridiron Tailgate.

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Geiser Pollman Park in Baker City on August 4th during the Gridiron Tailgate Fundraiser

Since 1975, Baker County ranchers have raised funds to purchase a steer from a local 4-H or FFA member to be auctioned during half-time of the Shrine game. The proceeds, reaching $15,000-$20,000 each year, are donated directly to the Shriners Hospital for Children. The auction is the single largest fundraiser for the hospital in Oregon.

“The first year, the meat went to the college for the Shrine players,” said Myron Miles. Myron has been involved in the fundraiser since Rod McCullough pitched the idea at a cattlemen’s meeting in 1973 as a way for ranchers to support a good cause while involving youth.

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Myron Miles serving up steak breakfast at the Gridiron Tailgate Fundraiser. Photo Credit: Baker County Tourism

Myron said, “the room got real quiet after that, and then someone said, well we can’t do it because we have no place to put the steer,” at that time, there was a three week gap between fair and the game, “well, I raised my hand and volunteered to take him, so that’s what I did; I took care of the Shrine steer before the auction.” Myron, a co-chair of the Cattlemen’s Membership Committee, is still an active volunteer. This year he was hard at work serving up steak and pancakes during the tailgate breakfast.

“There’s some discrepancy between historians about where the meat from the first steer went,” said Diana Downing,  “some say it was donated to Shrine players and some say it went directly to the hospital.” Diana is a Baker County Cattlewoman and is considered the “go-to” for the history on the fundraising event.

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Half-time for the volunteers. Left to right: Susan Bunch, Diana Downing, and Cheryl Buchanan. Behind: Mike Downing, Baker City Mayor.

I was able to chat with Diana, Susan Bunch and Cheryl Buchanan during the half-time of breaking down breakfast and setting-up for the Tri-tip lunch. Susan and Cheryl are sisters, and their family has been involved in the fundraiser breakfast for over 45 years.

“My dad, Duane Bunch, used to be in charge of the pancakes in the breakfast trailer. Most of the people involved today have parents and grandparents who started the breakfast – we’re keeping the tradition alive,” said Susan.

With keeping that tradition, the volunteers are continuing to raise money and awareness for children. All of the proceeds from the breakfast, lunch, and various other events hosted by the Cattlewomen, such as a silent auction and Beef Fit Run, go towards buying the steer from a young, local showman. Throughout the year, the Cattlemen and Cattlewomen split the funds and responsibilities to organize the event.

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The Cooks from the left to right: Matt McElligot, J.R. Streifel, Martin Arritola & Jake Bingham.

Each year a committee selects the Shrine Steer. The committee looks specifically for a high school senior who is familiar with the cattle industry. The major requirement: a calm steer.

“It’s crucial to have a well-trained steer because we have him in the park during the tailgate, on a flat-bed in the parade, and on the football field for the auction,” said Diana, “the money we’re able to raise pays market-price for the steer and the showman will always receive a plaque.”

In recent years, the Shrine game has moved a week ahead of fair, which takes away some thrill of a surprise bid at the fair auction, but being selected as the showman with the Shrine Steer has become a privilege and an honor for the youth of Baker County.

This year, Abby Graven’s Charolais-cross steer, Maverick, was selected for the fundraiser. Abby is a senior from Richland and a member of the Pine Eagle FFA Chapter. She started working with steers 4 years ago through FFA . Abby said her FFA adviser approached her about being put on the list for this year’s selection.

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Abby Graven and Maverick in the Shrine Parade.

“They came out to look at my steer and he behaved pretty well; they were able to walk up to him. Later on they called me and told me he was selected,” said Abby.

When asked about her future plans, Abby said she would like to go to Oregon State University or Colorado State University to pursue a career as an Ag-teacher or possibly medical school.

In the Portland Shriners Hospital, you can find a wall dedicated to the Baker County ranchers and steer showman who have continued this tradition over the years. In the hospital cafeteria, you can find a mural of the original breakfast trailer, built by an FFA group in 1973, the same trailer still used to serve up breakfast today.

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The original breakfast trailer from 1973

“All of us who are involved could donate the money we spend on scheduling and maintaining this event directly to the hospital, but it wouldn’t be the same,” said Mary Ellen Anderson, a Cattlewoman and event organizer for the fundraiser.

 

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Volunteers: Kay Marcfraff & Jean Bunch

It was clear this event is more than a philanthropy, it’s about keeping the community involved and continuing a true-to-the-roots tradition for Baker County. Sadly, the future of the fundraiser was a concern for many of the volunteers. In previous years, they planned for 1000 people to attend, but this year they only planned for 500-700.

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Stran, Stu, Janie, Jodi and Natalie Bingham and Dottie Miles waiting for the results from the Beef Fit Run.

The consensus: people aren’t as involved in organizations today. Mary Ellen voiced her concerns about the future of the association, noting that the younger generation is not invested and finding new ways to increase membership and encourage involvement is vital. Mary Ellen and her husband, Roy Anderson, have been members of the Baker County cattle associations for 25 years and they were at the tailgate to ensure everything ran without a hitch.

“This event happens because of the people who believe in the cause. We have a tremendous amount of good hearts here. These people are the salt of the earth and they’ll do everything they can for this fundraiser,” said Mary Ellen.

Now that the event has wrapped up, the volunteers will get together to talk about what worked well, and what they can improve on for next year’s event. So, mark your calendars and head to Baker City in 2019 for the Shrine game. While you’re there, plan on steak and pancakes for breakfast and a hearty Tri-tip lunch because there’s a group of remarkable ranchers who would love to share this tradition with you.

 

 

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