OAKLEY — Gary Whiteley doesn’t recall missing a single Oakley Pioneer Day during his 81 years in town.
“I don’t think I’ve missed any of them,” he said.
Pioneer Day celebrates the arrival of the first members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known as Mormon pioneers, to the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847. The day is a state holiday in Utah with an associated celebration, including a parade known as Days of ’47.
In the Oakley valley, residents have not only embraced the celebration for decades, they have expanded it to an eight-day celebration, which this year will be held July 10-18 with events every day except Sunday, July 12.
Whiteley remembers the Oakley celebration’s early days including Pony Express relay horses races that started in Burley and ended at the arena in Oakley. Teams of five or six horses and their riders would relay race the 22-mile distance.
“Anyone could enter their horse. But you had to have a pretty good horse to run it,” he said.
The horses would follow Idaho Highway 27 off the roadside between the two towns and the highway would shut down during the race. People were encouraged to follow along behind the racers but not wait in front of the horses because they might become startled, he said.
“It was fun to watch,” Whiteley said.
The events have always included a parade down Main Street, which is Whiteley’s favorite event now — because it passes in front of his house.
“We always make sure to have parking blocked off in front of the house for visiting relatives,” he said.
It’s a staunch tradition for people who have moved away from Oakley to return for a visit during the festivities.
“They just can’t give it up. They like to come home and see their friends and visit with them,” he said.
Harlo Clark, who turns 66 on Tuesday, has also lived in Oakley his entire life.
“The celebration has been a highlight for everyone who has lived in Oakley for generations,” he said.
Clark’s grandfather, John A. Clark, told him that the Days of '47 were first celebrated in the Oakley basin and as the town grew it moved there.
He also recalls looking at his grandfather’s early pictures of the event and seeing all the horses and buggies.
In the town’s early days, he said, there was an ice house in one of the buildings that was used as a community refrigerator. Residents would gather ice from Goose Creek and the dam after it was built and store it there.
“If it was a good year and not too hot, we’d have ice cream,” he said.
They also started the celebration with a sunrise salute.
“Someone would be assigned to light dynamite off to wake everyone up at 6 a.m.,” Clark said.
For 50 years, Clark’s grandfather would organize a commemorative speaker at the church and a deep pit barbecue for the community.
This year, the Oakley Booster Club will serve a chuck wagon breakfast.
There will also be a parade honoring pioneers.
The Oakley Vigilantes built the rodeo arena, which was first used for horse riding competitions between riding clubs and was later used for rodeo events, including a children’s rodeo. The children’s rodeo, called a gymkhana, draws spectators to watch children cling to sheep for timed ride, Clark said.
Other longstanding events are a community meal and the Goose Creek Run Off 10K race, which includes other distances.
Clark said the Goose Creek Run Off was started after the 1984 near flooding of the dam. Cassia residents pitched in to frantically build a canal in three days to divert the potential flood waters to the river that would have swept across Oakley and Burley.
One of the newest events is the Bump and Rub Car Race that draws so many spectators it’s held on two nights, he said.
Clark said some events like matinee performances at the theater and basketball tournament were canceled this year due to COVID-19.
“There’s only been two years the celebration wasn’t held,” said Clark, “And both times were during pandemics. I guess we’re getting brave.”
It was cancelled during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic and during the WWI cholera pandemic, he said.
Although no one is lighting dynamite anymore to get people out of bed the morning of the celebration or racing horses from Burley to Oakley, many of the time-steeped traditions of Oakley Pioneer Days will continue to make history this year.
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