JOHN DAY - With a fresh paint job, new murals and growing exhibits, the Grant County Ranch & Rodeo Museum is putting out the welcome mat for tourists this summer.

The museum is in its third year of celebrating Grant County's roots in ranching, rodeo and the cowboy culture.

According to organizers, it's getting better and better.

"It seems like every week, we're getting something else to add," said John Aasness, a leather crafter and former ranch hand who is on the museum board of directors.

One of the early aims of the museum was to recognize the top rodeo talent that has sprung from Grant County. Aasness said he figured that when they first started researching the subject, he'd find "maybe 15 top riders" from the local area.

"I came up with 58, and that was from memory, which in my case isn't that great," he quipped.

The greats include some recent national winners, such as Cody Jessee, a national bareback riding champ, and Dustin Elliott, the top bull rider in the nation in 2004.

Today, the displays in the museum hold photos and newspaper clippings of many rodeo greats, dating back to the 1950s. One room also holds finely crafted saddles used and owned by champion riders. The array includes names from the past, as well as the present.

Rodeo is thought to be the only sport that has grown out of working skills - ranching - so organizers also wanted to honor that history as well.

The museum introduces visitors to many of the county's longtime ranch families, who have donated photos and other items for display.

The ranch exhibits offer a glimpse of the cattle drives, cattle ranching, home life, school days, horse-packing, and even the buffalo and sheep ranches of the past.

The museum also honors the traditions associated with rodeo, from rodeo royalty to Western arts.

One room is devoted to arts such as silversmithing and leathercraft. Organizers note that four of the leading saddle-makers in the Northwest today hail from Grant County: Troy Richardson, Pat Lee, Tom Berry, and Clair Mullin.

"We've probably had a dozen leading saddlemakers since 1910 in this area," said Aasness. A saddle by one of those greats, Carl Elmer, has been displayed in the Smithsonian.

A miniature bronc saddle crafted by Leonard Oster is on display at the museum.

The museum occupies a building provided through the generosity of Grant County Ford, Aasness said. It recently was painted on the outside, and Mt. Vernon artist Patricia Ross added several new murals to the collection running along the south and east walls.

Organizers said the museum operates on small grants and donations, plus the admission fees. However, Aasness noted, no one is turned away for inability to pay the $3.

"We sincerely appreciate the support we have received from the community and the business benefactors," said Aasnes.

The museum's board is led by officers Tobe Zweygardt, president, a rancher; Mary Jo Rowell, vice president, a former Grant County rodeo queen; and Betty Elliott, secretary/treasurer, grandmother of the 2004 PRCA Champion bull rider. In addition to Aasness, the directors include Gary Gregg, antique stagecoach and buggy maker, and Janyce Bond, a former Grant County rodeo queen.

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