Tuesday, July 5, 2011


IMG_2181Six times a year, on the first Saturday of each month from May through October, Erl McLaughlin opens the gates of his farm to welcome visitors to an amazing display of what might best be described as “reclaimed” antique tractors.  I’m not usually drawn to old machinery – or tractors old or new – but we were near Enterprise on the first Saturday of July so figured we would take a break from hiking to visit his collection, Sunrise IronI’m so glad we did!

Erl McLaughlin is a farmer, and farming is what he does spring through fall.  In winter, he restores old machinery, mostly tractors (he has more than 30 in his huge tractor barn) – but other interesting farm machinery as well.   (His wife, Mary Ann, describes it as “a hobby run amuck”.) Each piece is cleaned; parts that are missing or broken are repaired or machined; the tractor is reassembled and repainted – then run for 5 hours before being settled into the tractor barn, to join the vast collection of machinery, old wooden wheels, tractor seats, a STONE plow (!), a water wagon and various other old farm implements. 

Stone Plow Wooden Wheel Wooden Wheels with Solid Rubber Tires

Farmers who couldn’t afford metal plows made plows of stone.

This wooden wheel has a pneumatic rubber tire.

These two wooden wheels have solid, hard rubber tires.

Sunrise Iron isn’t on a main road; in fact, it is a mile or two off the nearest paved road.  No big parking lot, no admission charge (though donations were accepted).  When we arrived, Erl and Mary Ann were assisted by a couple of friends from Joseph, who were busy cooking and serving cobbler baked in Dutch ovens.  There is absolutely nothing commercial about this display – it is simply a jam-packed barn on a working farm with a fantastic view of the Wallowas, the Seven Devils (in Idaho), the Zumwalt Prairie, and the big, big sky.

Advance Straw Burner - ran on steam. Detail of the front of the Straw Burner

Each tractor has a sign identifying its age, manufacturer, model number, and where it was found.  My favorite of all the tractors is a Case three-wheeled model, manufactured in 1915, found in Baker City, Oregon.   This tractor was dismantled, all the parts stored in burlap bags, when Erl found it.  He described putting it together as “working on a puzzle”… yeah, a big, rusted, 3D puzzle! 

What tickled me about the tractor is this: the seat is in the back, sticking out on the right hand side. Sitting on the seat, the driver can’t see what direction the single front wheel points, so an arrow is attached to a shaft on the front wheel as a steering aid!

Three Wheeled Tractor with arrow Front Wheel with arrow

The 1915 Case 3-wheeled tractor, now one of two known to exist.  Erl found it disassembled, stored in bags.

The arrow allows the operator, sitting on a seat in the back, to see which direction the wheel is going.

Another machine that caught our eyes is simply a series of gears.  Two teams of two horses were hitched to the clot of gears; the horses walked around and around gear wagon, which transferred their energy to a drive shaft (protected by a ramp the horses walked on as they passed over the shaft) that could run a thresher, a mill, a pump.  Horsepower!  The whole setup was on wheels, so could be pulled by horses from site to site.

Odel inspects the gears Metal Wheel

A series of gears converts real horse power to a 500 rpm drive shaft to run other machinery.

This is one metal wheel design – we saw many different designs.

The wheels of the old tractors were interesting in their own right.  Prior to 1934, rubber was not used on tractor tires.  Instead, we saw a variety of metal designs, all aimed at providing traction – and none very effective, according to Erl. 

Though Erl’s collection is fascinating, it is Erl and his wife Mary Anne that I remember best when I think of visiting Sunrise Iron.  We have found everyone in Joseph and Wallowa County to be friendly, but Erl and Mary Anne (and the friends who were helping out) will always stand out in my memory for their welcoming warmth and humor.   What an interesting slice of life!

Erl McLaughlin and Odel Next for renovation

Erl McLaughlin and Odel in the tractor barn.

Next up for renovation.


  1. What a neat day, full of historic artifacts..which I love!! Those old wheels were really something..Hard to believe they got very far!! Have fun in Oregon!!!

  2. Wow! What a find you guys have shared with everybody. Hopefully Erl McLaughlin will be able to get his priceless collection someplace - somewhere so it will live on to remind people of how this country was able to get where we are today.

    Sunrise Iron is now on our bucket list.

  3. Amazing that you even found this place!

  4. I have been reading some photography stuff lately, that Al recommended. One of the most important notes for good photography has to do with getting to the the heart of what you are seeing, look up close. I love how you did that with your story today. you took the big world of Eastern Oregon and honed in on the sweet spot. thanks, Laurie.

  5. These are the kinds of places I love to find. It was wonderful.

  6. looking forward this weekend to what they call a steam show here in md the town of easton.have been going for 30 yrs they have alot of equipment like that plus a huge fle market an alot of good food.really enjoy yor blog safe travels bob in md

  7. What a cool and unusual stop! Love it! Nina

  8. How very cool is that? Thanks for sharing.