Under a sweltering sun, hundreds of fairgoers sat patiently in the stands of the Washington County Fairgrounds arena, waiting for a time machine.
It appeared soon enough – two powerful draft horses pulling the lumbering wagon and making it seem like a plaything.
“They are really what made America land of the free. This horsepower did that,” intoned Forest Grove’s Lyle Spiesschaert, the show’s announcer.
The horses on display weren’t just a window into the nation’s history – when dry goods were piled high on carts and wagons – but also a piece of the founding fabric of Washington County, Oregon.
As suburban development has spread west, the large tracts of land necessary to raise these large animals have disappeared and many of their caretakers have moved south to Yamhill County.
Duane Van Dyke, the producer of the draft horse show, made the move two years ago after his wife, Diane, made it clear that they needed to buy more land or sell some horses.
That was an easy call for Duane. He couldn’t bear to raise fewer horses, so the family moved south. “We ran out of room for horses,” Van Dyke said.
Duane Van Dyke said his father grew up farming with horses and couldn’t wait until they got a tractor on the family farm.
Now his dad has a pair of working drafts that Van Dyke gave him – and he’s settled into plowing with horses again.
The 72-acre Van Dyke farm is big enough to allow him to pasture the animals year-round, and work them as well.
“It’s kind of a way of life for us,” Van Dyke said.
The “us” is the whole family. His daughter-in-law, and niece both drove in the County Fair. Both snagged top honors in the competition.
The patriarchs of the three driving teams on exhibition at the fair are all longtime friends.
“Big Mike and I practically came up together,” Van Dyke said. And Dave Cunningham drove his team of Belgians, all spruced up in gold tack.
“There is no bigger thrill in the world – you’re sitting up on that wagon (and) your leaders are 40 to 50 feet away from you,” Van Dyke said.
“You’d liken it not to a sports car but more like a big diesel rig,” he added.
They’re all bound by the love of the animals and old fashioned horsepower.