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Klondike Kate in all her splendor.
Klondike Kate in all her splendor.

Welcome to your eighth edition of Mind Bend-ers, a special feature offering you the inside scoop on quirky Bend history and offbeat trivia.

Women in Bend have always been the adventurous sort, pursuing passions like skiing, rock climbing, rafting, and marching through downtown wearing a showgirl costume and rolling a cigarette with one hand.

The latter was the domain of Kate Rockwell, more commonly known as Klondike Kate. Klondike Kate earned her nickname from an illustrious career as a vaudeville performer and showgirl, which included a stint in Alaska before the spring of 1910. That’s when Kate plunked down the cash for a horse, a gun, and a camping outfit.

In other words, all the necessities for a lady of the time.

She bought a piece of property 40 miles east of Bend sight-unseen and spent three years homesteading to earn the title to the land. When she wasn’t wrangling cattle, Kate frequented local dance halls and became the 1915 equivalent of a cougar, marrying a 20-year-old cowboy when she herself was 39. The marriage lasted only a few years, and was one of many tumultuous relationships in her life.

“She was a good businesswoman, but she made poor decisions with men,” explained Vanessa Ivey, Museum Manager for the Deschutes County Historical Society.

The house where Kate lived on Franklin Avenue in Bend. Notice the stone fireplace built by "bums" Kate picked up around town? Not too shabby!
The house where Kate lived on Franklin Avenue in Bend. Notice the stone fireplace built by “bums” Kate picked up around town? Not too shabby!

Hey, haven’t we all done it a time or two?

In any case, Kate eventually left her homestead in the mid 1920s and moved to downtown Bend on Franklin Avenue to be closer to the general populace. The general populace had mixed feelings about that.

“People either took to her and became friends with her and called her Aunt Kate, or they highly disapproved of her and avoided her,” explained Kelly Cannon-Miller, executive director for the Deschutes County Historical Society. “She was the source of a lot of rumor mongering.”

Her choice to hire local transient men to construct her new fireplace and do other work on the home raised the ire of cultured folks in Bend, many of whom found it unladylike for a woman to pick up bums. “Some people thought she was a prostitute or a lady of ill-repute, but that was never the case,” Ivey added.

Klondike Kate is honored in one of the newest paintings added to the Tin Pan Alley art collection. The painting was created by Sheila Dunn, and can be seen in the alley beside Toomie's Thai Cuisine.
Klondike Kate is honored in one of the newest paintings added to the Tin Pan Alley Art Collection. The painting was created by Sheila Dunn, and can be seen in the alley beside Toomie’s Thai Cuisine.

For those who adored her, Kate was a legend. She earned accolades for tending to the sick, particularly during the flu pandemic of 1918 when the whole city of Bend was quarantined for two months. The Bend Fire Department made her an honorary member for her tireless efforts to bring food to firefighters while they fought blazes on cold nights. Charitable to a fault, she was famous for declaring, “Whenever I get down to my last dollar, there’s always someone who needs it more than I do.”

Kate died in 1957, and her ashes were scattered from an airplane over the site of her former high desert homestead. Perhaps that’s part of why her spirit lives on in Bend. You can see it every day in the fearlessness of our outdoorswomen and in the brazenness of the ladies out on the Bend Ale Trail. Whaddya say we all lift a pint in memory of Klondike Kate?

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