An agritourism journey into the heart of Eastern Oregon brought me an amazing array of activities. While I came to this beautiful and rugged country for the Salt Lick Auction, I saw that and did so much more. The idea of auctioning off salt blocks that livestock, through the process of obtaining salt, carve into artistic creations, caught my attention and fueled my desire to visit Baker City.
Timothy Bishop of the Baker County Tourism took me up on my wish to cover this event and arranged a wonderful itinerary that began with a trip to Mary Neske’s Power of the Past open air agricultural museum. The Power of the Past offered a great collection of old iron, assembled in most part by Mary’s late father Pug Robinson.
There were steam engines, beautiful old tractors, plows and more, but for me, the mother lode was two iconic cook shacks that Mary said were used during the 30 years that they held shows. The Robinson family opened their collection to the public and started up these vintage machines that moved agriculture forward through the years. If available, Mary will take visitors through her amazing museum. Contact Baker City Tourism for details.
After visiting Mary at Power of the Past, I saw some of the real life artists of the Salt Lick Auction. These Black Angus cattle belonged to Fred and Beth Phillips who had just finished moving some of their cattle down from the mountains when we met up. This was my introduction to permitted grazing, where cattle are moved to the federally owned national forest land for part of the year, then herded back down to private property come fall. Some of the bovine artists we visited were first time moms and they had not been part of the mountain crew. Beth said these young cows would not fare well in the mountains. Since they were still growing themselves and raising calves, they needed the lush irrigated pasture in the valley.
During our visit we did spy some salt lick action with a few of the beautiful Angus gathered around one particular block. They were not impressed by our visit and watched us warily as we took pictures.
After seeing the cattle, I checked into the oldest house in Baker City, the lovely Wisdom House, which is owned by Tim and Veronica Johnson. “It is a home I had admired for 20 years,” Veronica said, “before I took the plunge and bought it.”
Wisdom House offers local art for sale and Veronica holds events there, as well as rents the house to visitors. Much of the local art profiles the agricultural aspect of the area. I purchased a picture of a buffalo and a lamb, created by a local artist.
Soon it was time to head to the auction that was held at the Crossroads Art Center. Locals and visitors alike gathered to watch the Whit Deschner, the founder of this event, and the colorful auctioneer Mib Dailey sell off the artists’ creations. Ginger Savage, the Executive Director of the Crossroads Art Center explained that salt lick blocks come in a variety of colors, from Cobalt blue, which comes from Colorado, to the usual white salt, to brown, which is a mineral salt block, to red selenium blocks and even yellow sulfur. There were 40 entries and the artists were cattle, deer or elk, and this year, for the first time, a rabbit. The Phillips had three entries in the event and their three-year-old grandson had named each one.
Whit Deschner started this event mixing art and agriculture as a local effort to raise funds for Parkinson’s disease, from which he suffers. The former commercial fisherman said the event started out as a joke and, while the event is an amusing one, the resulting $70,000 in funds (before this latest auction) raised for Parkinson’s research is serious cash.
One moment of brevity during the auction was when Sparkle the fainting goat was the final judge in determining the winner between a tie of two artistic blocks. Sparkle was able to choose without fainting, so tragedy was averted.
Two creations by real life artists sold for a princely sum and these beautiful pieces, one a sculpture and one a mosaic, will grace the lucky bidder’s homes. In downtown Baker City, a huge bronze salt block is on display telling the story of this community effort.
Right outside of Baker City is a very historic stop – the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Trail. While visiting this amazing museum I actually stood in some of the ruts of the Oregon Trail.
One of the most exciting stops was on the Sumpter Valley Railroad, where I got to be an engineer for a day. This 3-foot-wide, narrow gauge, heritage railroad located in Baker County runs between McEwen and the historic mining town of Sumpter. Timothy Bishop and I rode the rail to Sumpter with Sam McCloskey and his daughter Jennifer Jenks. According to Sam, “We are the only father/daughter steam locomotive crew in the country.”
Besides crewing the steam engine together the father/daughter team runs their own diesel mechanic shop in Baker City. Sam got his start with steam at the age of eight when his dad bought a 1916 Case steam tractor.
Steam connects tractors and trains together and ties in with agritourism. As an engineer for the day I got to sit up front in the engine and see firsthand this 1920 piece of history in action. Sam showed me how to move the levers, push the break and when we approached a public-crossing, I blew the whistle, two long, one short and then another long.
Jennifer made sure the water in the engine stayed at the right level while they both kept an eagle eye on my actions. Timothy Bishop took lots of pictures, sometimes appearing to be literally hanging out the side of the train! We had an amazing ride with beautiful mountain views as we trundled along the track!
The Sumpter Valley Railroad, in its earliest years, was used to transport lumber and later gold.
We also traveled to the horse-powered farm of Marvin and Pam Brisk. While at the farm, Marvin hooked up a team of magnificent Belgians and took us out to his corn field on a wooden sled. Once in the field he unhooked the sled and hooked up the team to a McCormick Deering corn binder and proceeded to cut a row of corn. Marvin and Pam grow sweet corn and sell to locals. Once the corn is no longer viable as sweet corn, it is feed for the livestock. I was honored to watch him bind a row of corn. Next, Marvin, Pam and their daughter Anna proceeded to pick up the bundles and place them on the sled.
Marvin took the majority of the corn out to his Scottish Highland cows for feed. We tagged along and watched. When I asked about the variety of cattle, Pam laughed and said that their neighbor’s bull, a Black Angus regularly jumped the fence so they no longer have a bull, and the Angus is responsible for the crossbreed cattle selection.
The Brisk farm is like walking back in time. They have horses, cattle, chickens and geese, lambs and goats. Pam sells eggs and goat milk, some locally, and some right off her front porch in a refrigerator. She has just started enjoying making goat cheese for her family’s consumption.
Marvin is quite entrepreneurial and has created several pieces of machinery, which he sells to fruit and vegetable farmers that, like him, prefer to use horse power. He was just placing the finishing touches on a device that will lift onions, garlic and root crops out of the ground.
A trip to the town of Halfway provided a glimpse at the lovely Pine Valley Lodge and a sighting of farm machinery on several corners. While looking we met up with Bill Schuhle who told us that the machinery on display is an outgrowth of the Pine Valley Community Museum. Bill took us on a tour of the museum, which revealed a stash of antique farming equipment as well as a lot of local items and an extensive storyboard of the town of Cornucopia, where Oregon’s largest gold mine was located. The town now is pretty a ghost town, but the history is fascinating. There is some revitalization going on, such as the renovated jail.
At Cornucopia Lodge I had a chance to go for a short horse ride with Jeff Artley, who along with his wife Sara, manages the lodge. Jeff also takes groups up on pack trips into the Wallowa Mountains. He takes packs to the designated camp site, or he guides people on camping expeditions. It depends on the individual, and what they want, Jeff explained.
As for our ride, I rode on a horse named Hoss, who knew pretty quickly who was boss and sadly it wasn’t me. I loved the ride and the beautiful mountain-view. Hoss, however, was quite glad to get rid of me at the end of our adventure.
The Cornucopia Lodge was the perfect place for an evening of recoup. Sara made an amazing supper. It was great fun talking with Jeff and Sara and Tom Gonzales, the maintenance man, and hearing about their interesting adventures and how they came to be in this mountain lodge, surrounded by gold mining history.
Another adventure into agricultural preservation was at Erl McLaughlin’s Sunrise Iron, near the town of Enterprise. Erl has a huge building filled with rare antique tractors, plows, steam engines and more, that I explored at length. Time didn’t allow me to see the rest of the horse-drawn and other equipment as well. Erl shares his amazing collection with the public by appointment and during an annual event. Each year Erl and his late wife Mary Ann have opened their farm to the public so others can come and see some of the agricultural history that he has on display. Erl shared some of Mary Ann’s beautiful antiques, collected over the years, as well. To come and see his treasures at Sunrise Iron, contact Erl, 541-426-4407, firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.sunriseironllc.com for details.
Driving through the Wallowa Mountains, one of the seven wonders of Oregon, and part of Hell’s Canyon seeing this majestic countryside was a treat. Eastern Oregon with its ranches and museums is a farm girls dream.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cindy Ladage is farmer’s wife and an award winning columnist for Farm World. She recently won the American Women in Communications Clarion award for her column “Wrenching Tales”. Cindy writes for antique tractor and toy magazines along with other publications like and her travel blog is Traveling Adventures of a Farm Girl.