Treasured Tractors:

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Eric HansenErl McLaughlin

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Photos by Eric Hansen

Along rural roads, the sight of a pole barn usually indicates harvested hay stored inside. However, on the McLaughlin homestead near Enterprise, Ore., a massive metal building houses mechanical pieces from the past once used for land cultivation. Lined up from one end of the barn to the other, 30 antique tractors take you back in time from 1908 to 1938. Owned by a man passionate about restoring farm relics to their original state, this 'historic hobby' has turned into one of the largest tractor collections in the Pacific Northwest.

Erl McLaughlin, a barley farmer, began his pursuit of bringing back mothballed agricultural machines in 1983. Looking for something to do during the cold winter months, he spotted an old tractor in need of repair outside of Enterprise. Deciding it would be fun to restore, he purchased the piece, thinking it would be a one-time-only project. Said Erl, 'I thought after I'd restored this tractor, I'd get tired of it.'

Almost two decades later, Erl is still taking apart tractors and putting them back together in top running condition. His efforts require months of research per piece, including information from old farmers, and hard physical labor. Touring his tidy workshop, it's easy to see how each tractor is meticulously re-made.

'The hours spent on a tractor depends on the degree of difficulty and what shape it's in when I get it,' he said. 'I take extreme care when handling the original parts. However, a few parts are reproductions, since some tractor companies are no longer in existence. When that happens, I just get on the phone and find out what's available.'

For his 1917 Model 10-20 Titan, manufactured by International Harvester, restoration took approximately 400 hours. One of a few existing today, from an estimated 80,000 built between 1916 and 1921, the Titan's bluish-gray body and cherry-red spoked steel wheels glisten with spit-polish shine. The tractor's brand name and IHC logo are perfectly placed. 'Attention to small details, like a company's decal and brass tag stamped with a serial number, makes each tractor complete,' he said.

Erl acquires tractors throughout the United States, as well as British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan. By word of mouth, people contact him regarding tractors for sale. He stresses that some of his tractors have more notoriety than others, but all are special in his eyes.

Browsing through his barn, Erl proudly points out a 1908 Case portable steam engine, which looks more like a train than a tractor. Its black bulk required hauling it to the field with a horse team before firing up the water to generate the power. A horse-drawn water wagon stands nearby, unrestored. 'If I've got a steam engine, I've got to have water, too,' he says. 'But I'm not going to restore the wagon. Sometimes the authenticity of things are worth more than new paint.'

A tractor trade also gave Erl a highly-sought-after 1925 John Deere spoked flywheel model; it's uncommon spoked 'D' giving the green machine uniform rotation.

Erl's rarest tractor, a 1915 gas-powered 10-20 Case, is one of only two known to exist. 'The first time I saw it 12 years ago, I didn't know what I was looking at,' he said. 'The second time, five years later, the tractor had been dismantled, with the parts piled in a shed.' Though someone else bought it before Erl could make an offer, he occasionally kept in touch with the new owner to see if he would sell the tractor. When the owner passed away, his widow sold the tractor to Erl.

As Erl slowly runs a hand along each of his vintage treasures, his reverence for farm machinery still in use today, with continual changes throughout the last century, is matched with respect for those who invented the equipment in the first place. 'Engineers were smart back then, since they didn't have models to copy and had to come up with their own ideas,' he said. 'That's what makes them interesting to collect. I still have so much to learn about tractors built before I was born.'

For more information: Erl McLaughlin, 65708 Sunrise Rd., Enterprise, Ore., 97828; (541) 426-4407 (phone and fax); email: mclaughlin@oregontrail.net. Collection (including a horse-drawn sulky plow, cultivators and corn planters, and an assortment of original cast iron seats) shown by appointment.

Susann Keys, an active member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America and the Northwest Outdoor Writers Association, lives and works in Corvallis, Ore.