Cities, Rust, and the Antique Powerland Museum

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Detailed view of a 1929 Peerless steam traction engine
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Side view of a 1929 Peerless steam traction engine.
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Head-on view of a 1929 Peerless steam traction engine.
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Front of a Case steam traction engine.
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Side view of a Corliss valve gear engine.
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Governor of a corliss valve gear engine.
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An Advance-Rumely oilpull engine.
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Detailed view of the Advance-Rumely oilpull.
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Advance-Rumely oilpull emblem.

It’s been hard to come by this summer, but come winter, rain will fall frequently in Brooks, Ore. It’s usually not the hard, swollen-dropped rain of the Midwest, but neither is it the misty drizzle of the Pacific coast. Here in Brooks, the rain falls as if it’s pacing itself.

Plunked down between Salem and Portland along Interstate 5, Brooks is a small town, threatened on two fronts by its neighbors’ appetites for land. Farmland to both the north and south has been folded into housing developments. Salem sits on the Brooks’ southern horizon like a molasses-slow army campaign, Sherman to its Atlanta.

Perhaps it’s the threat of the cities and the changes they represent that causes people to celebrate the old ways of farming here in Brooks. You could say that, but you’d be wrong. These aren’t people who would let the past go even if they woke and found skyscrapers in their backyards – many of those who come to Brooks actually live in cities all along the Western edge of the country. These are people who love the old things, but aren’t afraid of the new.

Talk to them long enough and you realize it might be the rain which makes them hanker to be around their collections of old iron. The rain makes the rust rise and, steadily, like the rain, collectors whose red-edged engines and tractors call the Antique Powerland Museum home set about the task of fighting it off.

Oregonian collectors of vintage farm equipment have been gathering to swap stories, parts, and information for nearly 50 years. No one remembers exactly when it started, but everyone agrees that Harvey Mikkelson hosting a threshing bee in Silverton, Ore., in the mid 1950s was what got the ball rolling. Through the years the show grew and changed until, in 1970, the first ‘Great Oregon Steam-Up’ was held on the leased land in Brooks where the museum stands today. This year’s Steam-Up was held the last weekend of July and the first weekend of August.

‘Most of the founders of the ‘Western Steam Fiends’ have gone on to the happy hunting grounds,’ says Larry Leek, former president and current vice president of Western Antique Power, Inc., the group which owns the land. ‘I think they’d be proud, though. We’ve got guys in each club who worked with the club founders and we’re pretty much coming along into the third generation. There’s a lot of history here and we’re getting more people involved.’ Kory Mikkelson, grandson of Oregon’s godfather of steam, Harvey Mikkelson, has gotten involved recently. Kory, 30, seems to embody the idea of returning to the past. Employed by computer technology giant Intel, he never really shared his grandfather’s fascination with the cutting-edge technology of the turn of the previous century. ‘I didn’t really get interested in steam engines until after he passed away,’ Kory says. ‘Better late than never, I guess.’

Kory, who just got the bad news that the boiler on the Russell on which he has been working failed inspection, has even introduced some of his fellow computer techs to the world of iron and steam. ‘Even if they haven’t had any connection with the stuff in the past, a lot of people love it out there,’ he said of the museum.

Part of the draw of the museum is that it seems to attract collectors with some amazing pieces. It should. Fourteen separate collectors’ groups, comprising the majority of Oregon collectors, share the museum land, in relative harmony. ‘When I first took over as president of Western Antique Power,’ Larry says, ‘Branch 15 (of the Early Days Gas Engine and Tractor Association) and the Western Steam Fiends were the only ones on the grounds.’ Today, the grounds, formerly an open field where tractors and engines would be parked, are home to a tractor museum, a truck museum, a vintage trolley line (which includes trolleys from as far away as Australia), a working blacksmith’s shop and a railroad depot. Future plans include a fire museum and a wheelwright’s shop. The biggest draw, though, are the steam traction engines and tractors.

Wayne Thackery, of Salem, is one of the collectors whose engines keep people coming back to the Steam-Up every year. The pride of his steam collection is a 15 hp Westinghouse built in 1913. Most of the Westinghouse engines were shipped to South America, Wayne says, so his engine is a rare find in the U.S. ‘Most of the literature I run into is written in Spanish,’ he says.

The engine was used to operate a Case thresher by the Sawyer Brothers threshing crew of Cave Junction, Ore., who actually had two: a 10 and 15 hp. The 10 hp engine, Wayne says, ended up in a logging museum and ‘the Smithsonian has asked for this one a couple of times.’ He plans to keep it right where it is.

Wayne likes to show off the Westinghouse because it’s a little different than most steam engines. Whereas most engines have a pipe inside for the heat to travel in, warming the water, the Westinghouse runs the water through pipes over the firebox. This system, Wayne says, makes the engine relatively efficient. ‘Most engines can take an hour or hour-and-a-half to steam up. I can get this steamed up in 30 minutes.’

Another of the museum’s prized displays is the single cylinder, 150 hp stationary Corliss Valve Gear engine with a 36-inch stroke and a 16-inch bore. Built by Allis Chalmers, the engine originally powered the B.P. John furniture factory before being moved to the Yoder Mill. The engine was loaned to the museum by the mill, but seems to be on permanent display. ‘They’ve never said anything about wanting it back,’ Larry says.

Larry also likes to show off an 1880 Case – which he says is likely ‘the oldest operating traction engine in the United States’ – and a Blue Erie steam rail crane.

It’s not all steam, though. You can’t just show the engines without giving examples of the types of things they would run. Larry lists a number of implements on display at the museum, but his favorite is an early McCormick reaper which is even too old to have been likely operated by steam. ‘It’s been about 175 years since McCormick invented the reaper,’ Larry says. ‘Before that, all grain was harvested by hand. That makes this reaper a pretty important piece of history.’

All of this history doesn’t come easy, or cheap. The museum grounds, owned since 1982 by Western Antique Power, Inc., once leased portions of the grounds to its 14 tenant groups. The system worked well until the land was recently denied the right to claim a farm tax deferral, so shareholders found themselves staring down the barrel of a $38,000 tax liability. Through discussions with the Internal Revenue Service, the company got the charge down to about a third of the original. ‘That was a big deal. None of these stockholders has ever made a dime off this land and everyone out here’s a volunteer,’ Larry says.

In order to avoid the sticker shock of their heritage, a new organ was formed. Now WAP leases the entire property to the non-profit Antique Powerland Museum Association.

But, considering the way even the least-populated meetings can degenerate into squabbling, the most amazing thing about the Antique Powerland Museum might be the way so many separate groups can attain such a high level of cooperation. Groups with so many different agendas should be throwing bricks at each other by now, right? Major problems have always been avoided, even though, as Wayne jokes, ‘We’ve broken a window or two.’

Larry Leek says that what keeps the peace is a love for the hobby. ‘You’ve got your usual bickering,’ he says, ‘but everyone knows that cooperation is what’s best for the grounds.’

Powerland groups also focus on what seems to be the most important job of the museum, keeping the younger generation of Americans in touch with their agricultural past. School tours often visit the museum, an event which Larry especially enjoys. Growing up on a farm in Minnesota, Larry suspects that the looks he sees on the faces of children at the museum is very similar to the one he wore at the same age, while watching threshing crews work. ‘It always amazed me as a kid to see how these things work,’ Larry says. ‘It still does.’

Wayne loves the attraction the Steam-Up seems to hold for so many people.

And that’s why Larry says that, despite the occasional squabbles, the logistical headaches and the bite of the taxman, he (and others) are still glad to be a part of the Antique Powerland Museum. ‘I think it’s all worth it,’ he says. ‘It’s worth it to me.’

‘First, it’s one of the biggest shows on the West Coast,’ he says. ‘For a long time it was just people going out there who were interested in this stuff, but now there’s more people coming all the time. It’s a cheap day out for a family and it’s great to see these people from the city who knew nothing about it — men, women, children — getting interested in this stuff.’

So call it the past’s last stand. While the cities smugly move toward Brooks, chewing up the farmland, history takes root in the minds of city dwellers on a weekend lark. Thanks to Antique Powerland Museum, city kids can still dream the steam-driven dreams of their great-grandfathers. FC

To contact the Oregon Antique Powerland Museum, call (503) 393-2424.

Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment