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First Things

J.I. Case Leaves a Giant’s Legacy

Leslie C. McManus

In this issue of Farm Collector, historian and columnist Sam Moore takes a close look at J.I. Case, the founder of the J.I. Case Threshing Machine Co. This year marks the 175th anniversary of its founding: What better time to revisit the life of a legendary American industrialist?

A self-made man, Case was a compelling figure in American history. His business success alone is a fascinating story of uncommon enterprise. When, for instance, hard cold cash was unavailable, Case accepted customer payments in the forms of animals, supplies and land. Both a patriot and an astute marketer, he adopted the eagle as the symbol of his company in 1865. He was a man of larger than life passions, engaged in breeding racehorses, early auto racing and Great Lakes shipping ventures.

In his column, Sam shares a couple of anecdotes that go a long way toward illustrating what kind of man Case was. I’ll not repeat them here – you’ll enjoy reading Sam’s column – but they show a man of great integrity. He had immense confidence in the quality of his company’s product and did not hesitate to back that up with a level of personal involvement exceptional in any era.

Still, more than a century after his death, it is impossible to truly know the man and his motivations. Was Case a man of exemplary ideals, or one who had such complete confidence in his products that he refused to accept the possibility of failure until presented with evidence to the contrary?

 Whether his focus was on satisfying the customer or simply proving that he was right, the end result was an uncommon emphasis on quality. Either way, the farmer won, and it is that legacy that Case enthusiasts throughout the world celebrate this year.

More than a century after his death in 1891, Case remains a giant among manufacturers of American farm equipment. His mark on the evolution of mechanized farm equipment is a lasting one, and a cherished chapter of Americana. We shall not see his like again. FC

Leslie C. McManus,

Make Show Safety a Priority

Leslie C. McManus

There are certain truths that we can depend on. Here’s one: Accidents happen. Unless you live in a vacuum – and even then, a vacuum seems vulnerable to external threat – accidents will happen.

The good news is that we can do much to prevent accidents, and that’s a vitally important thought to consider as we begin a new show season.

Safety is one of our most basic responsibilities. We owe it to our families, our friends, and to all the people who come to our shows. And, when everything is said and done, we owe it to ourselves.

And why wouldn’t we put a priority on safety?

Because it costs too much? Bet it doesn’t cost as much as hospital bills, funerals or lawsuits.

Because it takes too long? Bet it doesn’t last as long as regret.

Because it might decrease the number of exhibitors or attendees? An accident at your show is not likely to grow attendance.

One of the leading topics of conversation in this hobby today is how to boost show attendance. A comprehensive safety plan is an excellent place to start. If you give people a choice of attending a safe event or a dangerous event, the vast majority will choose safety.

Safety doesn’t have to be expensive. It doesn’t have to look like a police state. It can be done in a friendly, respectful, effective manner: Ask the folks at the Mid Michigan Old Gas Tractor Assn. in Oakley, or those at the Great Oregon Steam-Up in Brooks. And there are others, all over the country, setting the example rather than turning a blind eye.

If your club has a great approach to safety, tell us about it. We’ll spread the word. Clubs looking to beef up their safety plans don’t need to reinvent the wheel if you are willing to help. Working together, we can make safety a priority! FC

Leslie C. McManus

P.S.: Planning to take in as many shows as you can this year? Let our new Farm Collector Show Directory be your personal travel agent! Packed with information on more than 1,000 shows coast to coast, the directory puts dates, locations, features and contacts at your fingertips. It also contains a handy index arranged by show name, and contact information for collector groups and organizations across the U.S. and Canada.

In the Eye of the Beholder

Leslie C. McManus

Eye appeal is at the heart of a varied collection assembled by Nebraskan Steve Renz (read about Steve’s collection). Steve gravitates to the piece marked by exceptional artistry and design, whether it’s a buggy tag or a cast iron seat or a check-row planter.

If all collections were assessed in a clinical manner, eye appeal would no doubt be the primary motivator in many. Industrial design today reflects an almost insatiable appetite for the futuristic ideal. In today’s world, flourishes are few and far between.

Steve’s collection may be rooted in eye appeal, but it also honors the small businessman and the industrial designer. Windmills, buggies, hardware, tools and implements were often produced by small local operations and sold fairly close to home. Those small businesses were the backbone of thousands of small towns, in an era that, decades later, seems bathed in unprecedented optimism and promise. It is hard not to feel nostalgic about the growth and industry that gave our hometowns liftoff a century ago.

Steve’s collection also salutes the early industrial designer. Industrial products of the late 1800s and early 1900s reflect a sensibility unknown today. Where today’s products are streamlined, those of the past were ornately embellished. Hand-drawn pinstriping and lettering, typography and remarkable detail elevated industrial pieces from the mundane – making them highly sought by collectors a century later.

At least some of us are hard-wired to the past. As children, we were already drawn to old things, old ways; as adults, we collect old things. I have no doubt that people 50 or 75 or 100 years from now will build collections of relics they remember from their youth.

What is less clear to me is what, exactly, those items will be. Flip phones? Dash-mounted GPS systems? Drones? A tractor built in 2010? You’d have to be a technician to work on any of those: For a collector, getting it running is the real deal. And none of today’s mountains of stuff is particularly rare. What fun is it if everybody has one?

If that leaves you shaking your head, you’re in good company. The man who bought a Waterloo Boy in 1918 is probably equally befuddled as to why you’d spend good money on an old pile of junk and put even more money into making it look better than new. Beauty, as ever, is in the eye of the beholder! FC

Leslie C. McManus

Everything Old is New Again

First Things

The more things change,” a wise friend once observed, “the more they stay the same.” To process that, a slightly twisted mind is required – the kind of mind that doesn’t balk at the old riddle, “what’s the difference between a duck?*”

This issue of Farm Collector is likely to make you reconsider the meaning and value of the descriptors old and new.

For me, it all started with Sam Moore’s column on the Duesenberg. I’ll leave the details to Sam, but here are three simple facts for you to digest. One, this manufacturer built cars for less than 20 years; two, the company has been out of business for decades; and three, surviving Duesenbergs are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. A niche product produced by a struggling firm at a price only the super-rich could afford: This could just as easily be a page out of the current season’s playbook.

Then Josephine Roberts chimed in with a thoughtful consideration of tractor restoration. She even went so far as to suggest that, sometimes, old things should be allowed to just be old. Rust and scrapes and fading paint can be viewed as a badge of honor. That’s almost heresy in a culture that prizes the new, shiny thing, and in a world where, even in third world countries, landfills are swelling – and yet, in some areas, it’s a growing trend.

The fine print in a 1903 ad for the Kansas City Lightning line was the final thing to catch my eye. The company chose the words “Old and reliable” to describe itself and its products. It was a deliberate choice: Old and reliable were about the best things you could say about a manufacturer and a product in that era.

Today, of course, it’s all about new. Unless you’re talking about fine wine or craftsmanship, the word “old” is most often seen in a negative context: Trade off your old car, bring in your old computer, upgrade your old kitchen. Basically, consumers want new whirligigs produced with old-fashioned quality. And yet, there is undeniable allure in the old treasure. It’s rather like real estate, that finite substance they’re not making more of. The more things change, truly, the more they don’t! FC

*The answer? One of its feet are both alike.

Leslie C. McManus

Making Connections Through Farm Collector

First ThingsSanta came early for me in 2016. In early December, I received a letter to the editor from Wendell Starkebaum who shared a short, sweet story. I won’t spoil it for you, but I will say it is exactly the kind of thing I’ve long hoped for.

The folks who read Farm Collector are scattered all over the U.S. and beyond. You come from all walks of life and pursue work in countless professions. Some of you have ties to a farm; others can do no more than dream of that. And yet all of you form a community, no matter how far-flung or diverse.

Shows and clubs bring many of you together, and that is an invaluable association on many fronts. There is the social aspect, the fellowship, if you will; there is the service you provide just by putting on a show. There is the educational aspect, both among collectors and among visitors. Many of your efforts target school children, and that is another very fine connection.

But in my heart of hearts, I always hoped Farm Collector would spark something special. Perhaps a reader would discover an ancestor’s inventive side through a patent illustration. Perhaps in these pages someone would stumble onto something long lost, or solve the mystery of an old photo, or recognize an unusual piece and share knowledge of its background.

Years ago, Josephine Roberts, our faithful columnist in Wales, sent old photos taken in Canada 80 or 90 years ago and we published them. Intellectually I knew it was a long shot, but the cockeyed optimist in me was just sure that someone’s grandson’s neighbor’s wife’s sister would see the photos and tell us the story behind them. That hasn’t happened – yet.

But we do finally have a special bond brought about by Farm Collector. It’s the kind of thing that shows what a special connection exists between like-minded folks – and it’s just enough of a spark to put a warm glow on a cold winter day. Here’s hoping your new year is full of sweet moments like these! FC

Leslie C. McManus

The Rise of Farm Tractor Design

First Things

It is hard to imagine today, when designers impart form (and sometimes function) to just about everything, that there was a time when design was really not part of the equation.

The end of that time coincided with the first wave of farm tractors. In this issue of Farm Collector, Robert Pripps explores the rise of industrial design in tractor manufacture.

When practical, working tractors came on the scene, one imagines that the farmer was so relieved to have a machine doing the lion’s share of the work that he scarcely considered what the thing looked like.

In the 1920s and ’30s, innovation was unfolding so rapidly that new products were embraced in a rather primitive manner. Rooms were lit by one light bulb hanging from the center of the ceiling. Knob-and-tube wiring passed through holes cut in joists. Henry Ford’s Model T was available in any color, so long as it was black.

But there is something almost impossibly quaint about the utilitarian items of our past. It’s kind of like the old days of network TV, when it was a safe bet that if “Gunsmoke” was on, everybody you knew was watching. Or the days of party line phones, which were an admitted nuisance, but if you lived in the country, they were everybody’s nuisance.

But then somebody took a bite of the apple and the utilitarian seemed suddenly just the least little bit shabby. On tractors, design splashed onto every surface: Grilles became elegant. Louvers added a bit of automotive flair. Seats, fenders and hood ornaments fairly bloomed with design elements.

Today of course we are awash in design. Scarcely anything is utilitarian anymore. Even things that should be are given bells and whistles to justify a higher price. But good design is a beautiful thing, and when form follows function, better yet.

As we close the books on 2016, I am remembering far-flung friends, old and new. Last summer, a new friend in Wales taught me the phrase Lechyd da! He maintains that it is the Welsh version of “cheers!” There is also the very real possibility that it means, “Your goat is handsome.” No matter how you say it, all of us at Farm Collector send our very best wishes to you this holiday season. Cheers! FC

Leslie C. McManus -

Rain on Your Parade? Dealing with Rain at Tractor Shows

First Things

If there was any common denominator during my experience at shows this season, it was rain. Although it did not rain at every show I attended (well done, Mt. Pleasant!), rain made an appearance at most others I took in.

There are many (including me) who check weather forecasts roughly 29 times a day for 10 days before attending an outdoor event. Others (also me) scoff at such behavior. A friend of mine is calm in the face of a damp forecast. “If it rains,” he says, “we’ll get wet.”

Still, an ounce of caution is worth a pound of cure. Things I’ve learned about rain at tractor shows:

Headed to the Tri-State Gas Engine & Tractor Assn. show in Portland, Indiana? People may warn you that it will rain there. Believe them.

The day you wear rain boots to a show is probably not the day it will rain. That said, wearing rain boots should not be considered a form of insurance.

Disposable rain ponchos are apparently a novelty at tractor rallies in western Scotland, where they generate great amusement for the locals who are, without exception, clad in sensible, substantial raingear.

On return to a hotel room after a day spent slogging about in the mud (and I mean the kind of mud that consumes shoes and socks or coats the bottom 4 inches of your jeans) there is a certain satisfaction in pitching mud-coated items in the trash – certainly more satisfaction than is achieved by spending the next hour cleaning said items for use the next day.

When bending over to retrieve and re-install a shoe sucked off your foot by mud, remember to replace the lens cap on the camera swinging from your shoulder first. Remember the law of gravity: What goes up, must come down. And not always where you want it to.

And finally, when options for shelter are limited, given a choice between standing in a downpour and seeking refuge in a crafts building, the average man develops a sudden enthusiasm for crafts. Don’t take it so hard; it’s not for the rest of your life. And who knows? Maybe there’ll be an ice cream vendor in there too! FC

Leslie C. McManus -