From a small corner of a former railroad depot to eventually taking up the entire building, the Oakdale Cowboy Museum has carved its niche in the community.
Oakdale – with its Cowboy Capital of the World moniker – was once home to more world champion rodeo cowboys per capita than any other town in the country. Over two dozen world champions hailed from Oakdale and the area also boasts more than a dozen PRCA, Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, Hall of Fame members. Cowboy Museum Executive Director Christie Camarillo said celebrating, sharing and preserving the city’s western heritage is what the museum is all about.
“The idea came to create a facility that commemorated our rodeo and ranching heritage, that actually came from a meeting at the Chamber of Commerce,” Camarillo explained.
She credited “good Oakdale people” with wanting to showcase the city’s unique history and said those discussions took place nearly 20 years ago. At that time, Camarillo was not living in Oakdale but said her brother Jerold, a two-time team roping champion, was one of the original planners.
“They said ‘let’s talk to some of the ranchers and cowboys, see if we can display some of those trophies and buckles and saddles’,” Camarillo said of the humble start.
Plans progressed, and the group was able to swing a deal with the City of Oakdale, which owned the former Southern Pacific depot along the city’s main F Street thoroughfare, renting a small 500-square foot portion to display their items.
Originally, the museum partnered with the Chamber of Commerce, was run by volunteers and they hosted fundraisers to help pay the rent.
Shortly thereafter, Camarillo left a longtime career in sales and marketing in the airline industry, returning home to Oakdale to take care of her ailing father. She was pleased with the establishment of the western museum, but felt her brother was not taking it as seriously as he should.
Meetings of the museum board, she explained, were on Monday nights.
“Once a month they met, and it was interfering with his Monday night football,” Camarillo said, chuckling over her brother’s priorities.
She let him know she wasn’t happy that he was missing the monthly meeting and he in turn let her know how he felt.
“He said ‘if you think you can do a better job, you do it’,” Camarillo said.
So she did.
Her brother obtained permission for her to act in his stead at the board meetings and it wasn’t long before the group realized they had the person they needed.
“Coming from the corporate environment, I was really used to working,” Camarillo said. “I was helping with everything, I volunteered, helped out on the fundraisers.”
Strictly a volunteer until 2000, Camarillo said that’s when she was asked to come in as the executive director, as the group wanted someone that could take the museum “to the next level.” They also by then had broken away from the chamber and were a non-profit agency.
Though she didn’t have training in museum operations, Camarillo did have 20-plus years’ experience in marketing and a lifetime of experience in the ranching and rodeo arena. It was, as they say, a perfect fit.
Eventually, the museum expanded from one corner of the former depot to taking up a couple of suites, finally purchasing the building from the city and utilizing the entire facility. They have rooms full of loaned trophies, saddles, photographs, memorabilia, buckles, even a gift shop … and rotating exhibits that have featured everything from champion bucking bull Bushwacker to local ranching families.
Camarillo said the original group that had the vision has seen their dream come to fruition, as the museum definitely keeps the focus on the community’s heritage.
They also host specific events during the year to keep the doors open.
“We have four successful fundraisers that we do every year,” Camarillo said. “Our support comes from a very generous community, without folks going to attend our events, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do.”
The Testicle Festival kicks off their year in March, working in cooperation with the Oakdale Rotary Club on that unusual – but always sold out – festival.
The Cowgirl Luncheon in April, during Rodeo Week in the community, is another sell out, and the museum hosts its annual Dinner-Auction in September. They also put on the Cowboy Christmas and Craft Show the weekend after Thanksgiving.
“Those are our big fundraisers that help us with our overall operating budget,” Camarillo said. “We have National Day of the American Cowboy in July – we work with the Oakdale Saddle Club on that to bring exposure to the day and our heritage.”
Camarillo said the area’s rodeo legends were more than willing to donate treasures from their pasts and share stories of their lives to bring the museum to life. She said visitors, no matter where they are coming from or going to when they stop at the F Street museum, learn about a community rich in history and iconic in western lore.
Along with paying the bills and keeping the museum open, the fundraisers also allow the museum to achieve another one of the original goals – provide scholarships to students who want to cultivate their western roots. Oakdale High School, in fact, is one of the few schools where students can letter in rodeo.
“We give $5000 in scholarships annually to graduating high school seniors, not just in Oakdale but in the Valley, they have to be active in rodeo or production agriculture, cattle and horses,” Camarillo explained.
Another $1,000 scholarship, the Doc Dorius Scholarship, is available for a student who “aspires to be involved in agricultural health, nutrition, livestock or ranch management,” said Camarillo.
Over the years, there have been a couple of different renovation efforts at the Southern Pacific depot, with upgrading, interior changes and painting, making the museum a welcoming place for visitors.
“It makes me smile when I see people like past rodeo champion Bill Martinelli come in and smile, looking at his photographs, or Ace Berry or my brothers, they bring people in,” Camarillo said. “They bring people in to promote, share their legacy and accomplishments, show what we have in the cowboy museum.”
Hours are Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; closed Sundays and holidays. The museum is at 355 E. F St., Oakdale.
“I like to say that the ‘cowboy spirit’ is alive and well in the walls of the cowboy museum and we are so lucky to have all this memorabilia and history, the ‘Cowboy Capital’ slogan is still very near and dear to all of us,” Camarillo added. “Being able to continue to work here, sharing a piece of our western heritage; that makes me smile every day.”IF YOU'RE GOING
Oakdale Cowboy Museum
355 E. F St., Oakdale
Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday; closed Sundays and holidays