David Boyce (right) of Aurora is pictured with a 1915 steam tractor at the Great Oregon Steam-Up in 2018 (File).
For a half century, a unique playground called Powerland Heritage Park near Brooks has collected and honored the machines that shaped Oregon’s early development.
Its summer Great Oregon Steam-Up celebration has drawn crowds from the very beginning to admire and watch the steam tractors and gas tractors, the railroads, motorcycles, trolleys and lumber machinery that made the Willamette Valley what it is today.
The highly anticipated Steam-Up, opening this weekend, will be Powerland’s 50th festival, and will be bigger than ever, said volunteer Tom Tomczyk.
“If there isn’t something you find interesting at Steam-Up, you need to get to your doctor quickly and see if you still have a pulse,” said Tomczyk. “It is one of the best entertainment opportunities in the mid-valley for young and old alike.”
The Steam-Up runs 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday the next two weekends – July 24-25 and July 31-Aug. 1. Ticket information is available at www.antiquepowerland.com.
The park and the Steam-Up celebration have distinctively Oregon origins. They began as well-loved get-togethers for area farmers nearly 100 years ago, said Paul Duchateau, a Powerland volunteer and connoisseur of early steam traction engines.
“It all started with summer meet-ups in the 1930s, with farmers out in the fields celebrating steam-powered threshers that were already historical at the time,” Duchateau said.
“Farmers felt nostalgic for the machinery they remembered from when Willamette Valley agriculture become mechanized in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
“They ran the old steam engines and held threshing bees,” he said.
“Back then, those get-togethers were held at different locations come summertime,” said Duchateau, “like at the [Harvey E.] Mikkelson farm out in Silverton, and other farms and places over by Woodburn. The old owners loved the vintage equipment. They wanted to bring the old tractors out and show them off.”
From there, gatherings started drawing other people.
The Antique Powerland of today is vastly larger than these early get-togethers. In 1970, the Powerland park was established on the Frank Petzel farm just west of Interstate 5 on Northeast Brooklake Road. Dedicated aficionados and tinkerers established the 62-acre location to more permanently preserve Oregon’s past, and share this history.
The first Steam-Up, in 1970, wasn’t fancy, said Tim Dezotell, whose grandfather, Percy, was one of the founders. It featured “nothing more than a few historical steam engines and tractors run by steam and gas,” Dezotell recalled.
Since that small beginning, Powerland Heritage Park has expanded in many directions, all of them consistent with that original 1970 vision of discovery, history and fun. It is now comprised of 14 museums, all of which participate enthusiastically in Steam-Up.
The museums house vintage cars and motorcycles, Caterpillar tractors (one of the largest collections in the country) and an operating, belt-driven machine shop from the 1920s. Yet another museum displays an operating stream-driven sawmill; and another, vintage John Deere tractors.
During a typical year, more than 15,000 visitors attend the event.
This summer’s Steam-Up will feature old-time tractor pulling contests and machinery demonstrations, showing early threshing and flour milling methods. There will be country-style music and square dancing, food vendors, a huge flea market, a vintage blacksmith shop with volunteers forging metal into implements while people watch and ask questions.
And freshly churned ice cream will be made right on site.
“I think back to the original Powerland being a place for old guys to get together with old steam engines and see if they could make them run,” Dezotell said. “Well, those old guys are gone now. The Steam-Up has become a family event for young and old. We here are just caretakers to pass this history on to the next generation and for everyone to have fun.”
Attendees have been worried about whether the celebration would go on this year, since COVID-19 canceled the event in 2020. Caretaker Tom Brock said, “a lot of people are already calling and coming by, to make sure we hold it this year.”
Among the many Steam-Up attractions, Duchateau will be on hand to share little-known information about the park’s collection of old steam engines, many of which he himself has studied, acquired and restored.
“I guess I just like playing with old toys,” he said.
His massive early CASE tractors ran thrashing machines to separate kernels from wheat stalks in the early 20th Century.
Meanwhile, at the logging museum, energetic young people will demonstrate and compete in logrolling, chainsaw cutting, tree climbing and axe throwing. A short distance from there, visitors can ride on an historic trolley, a gigantic steam tractor and on a miniature railroad.
For decades, attendees have swarmed to see the “Parade of Power,” presented each day at noon. Volunteers drive an impressive procession of tractors, roaring, steaming and clattering, around a half-mile track.
In 2020, the Oregon Heritage Commission recognized the Great American Steam-Up with an Oregon Heritage Tradition designation. The Steam-Up, said Katie Henry of the Heritage Commission, “allows Oregonians the opportunity to … learn about the history of machinery and farm equipment. It’s also a unique event that contributes to the heritage tourism of the area.”
These days, the park is run entirely by more than 700 enthusiastic volunteers from all walks of life that work to honor the beginnings of this exceptional place. Tomczyk said that he and other volunteers gladly take on the challenges “because we feel a need to preserve our history in an active way, not just in the written record.”
“We want to give back to our community in a way that is enjoyed by others,” Tomczyk said, “and hope that some of our efforts and enthusiasm will outlast us, and be enjoyed well into the future.”