The Threshing Machine King

J.I. Case and the steam behemoths
Paul F. Long
March 2000
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Case 20x36 12-bar cylinder steel threshing machine, about 1919, roughly 75 years after the invention of J.I. Case's first thresher.
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From the earliest eons of time, man has been a farmer.

The transition from nomadic hunter to agriculturist is hard to pinpoint. Thousands of years ago, a primitive farmer began plowing with a crooked stick and some type of power source, perhaps a combination of humans and draft animals. As recently as the middle of the 19th century, farm implements were little advanced from those used in Biblical times.

Only in the past several centuries has there been a breakthrough in the development of power sources other than beasts or humans. Building upon the groundwork done by James Watt in 1785, tremendous advancement was made in the 1850s. One of the individuals in the forefront of the development of a new power source was Jerome Increase Case, a man who came to be designated the “Threshing Machine King.”

Recognizing a need

Threshing machines obviously needed a source of power. Finding that a horse-power sweep or a horse treadmill would not furnish the power needed to operate his threshers properly, Case began manufacturing stationary steam engines early on and, ultimately, great steam traction engines.

J.I. Case came naturally to the love and manufacturing of farm implements. His father, Caleb Case, was a dealer for a rather primitive piece of threshing machinery called the “Ground Hog,” which was manufactured in England. After spending six seasons custom threshing with the Ground Hog in Oswego County, N.Y., Jerome moved to Wisconsin, where more grain was grown. He took along six Ground Hogs bought on credit. Perhaps Case was in part inspired to go west by the eloquent, romantic cry of newspaper editor Horace Greeley: “Fly, fly, scatter through the country, to the great West. It is your destination.”

Beginnings of a company

Arriving in Rochester with but one Ground Hog thresher, having sold the other five, Case began to work at making improvements on the implement. A local named Richard Ela was manufacturing and selling fanning mills. Case hit upon the idea of combining the threshing and fanning operation into one machine. During his stay in Rochester, he developed a thresher-separator, completing it in the spring of 1844. Case planned a factory for building his threshing machines in Rochester, but water rights on the river could not be obtained. Taking his thresher, he moved to Racine and launched the Racine Threshing Machine Works, J.I. Case, Proprietor.

In 1869 Case brought out what was touted as a highly improved thresher, a no-apron machine called the Case Eclipse. The appearance of this thresher was significant for two reasons. First, the new Eagle trademark appeared on each Eclipse thresher, and, second, Case recognized that in order to realize the full potential of the new thresher, some power source other than horse treadmills or sweeps must be developed.

The J.I. Case company trademark reportedly resulted in large part from an incident going back to 1861. At that point, Jerome Case happened to be in Eau Claire, Wis., when Company C of the Eighth Wisconsin was being mustered. The company mascot was a bald eagle named “Old Abe.” For four years the eagle was carried by the Company C soldiers and, although it was wounded several times, it came home with the regiment. The sight of the great bird apparently affected Case: When a trademark for the Case implements was conceived, Old Abe filled the role.

Driven to steam

Realizing the need for additional power to utilize the potential of his threshing machines, Case brought out the first of his steam engines in 1869. It seems likely he may have been inspired in his quest to manufacture a power source suitable for the American farmer by an address given by President Abraham Lincoln before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society at Milwaukee a decade earlier. There Lincoln said:

“The successful application of steam power to farm work is a desideratum — especially a steam plow. It is not enough that a machine operated by steam will really plow. To be successful, it must, all things considered, plow better than can be done with animal power, it must do all the work as well, and cheaper or more rapidly. ...”

Case Steam Engine No. 1 was manufactured to fulfill these needs. Apparently it did so successfully: In the ensuing years, 36,000 more of these portable steam engines were built to power American farm implements. The draft animal was not totally replaced: A team was necessary to pull the steam engine from job to job.

Ten years later, in 1876, the Case steam traction engine was developed. That year 75 of these engines were manufactured and sold. By that point, farmers — especially those in the wheat belt — were eagerly buying steam traction engines. During the 1870s, 3,000 of the mammoth machines were sold. A decade later, fully 5,000 steam traction engines were purchased to work the fields of North America.

Depending upon the horsepower provided, the great behemoths might weigh from a few tons up toward 20 tons. Some special-built engines weighed over 20 tons — a few manufactured by J.I. Case for hauling ore in mining communities, for example. In size and appearance, many of these steam traction engines were near-rivals to the old steam locomotives. The mammoth size of some engines generated problems: When moving from farm to farm, the huge implements routinely caused bridges to collapse.

An interesting highlight in the story of steam traction engines is the account of how Henry Ford in 1875 at age 12 was moved by the sight of one of the behemoths.

“I remember that engine,” Ford wrote years after the stirring event, “as though I had seen it only yesterday, for it was the only vehicle other than horse drawn I had ever seen. ...”
The rest is history: from that day forward, Henry Ford’s great interest was to make a self-propelled machine which would travel the roads of America.

Advertising, circus style

Ultimately, some 30 firms produced giant steam traction engines. That competition brought interesting advertising and promotional gimmicks. Wall hangers or posters (often hung in the farm kitchen), advertising in farm journals, and flyers which were distributed by hand, were common advertising promotions. Much less conventional and highly innovative was the use of great railroad “Specials,” long trains of flatcars loaded with farm machinery. Considerable advance publicity and advertising announced the proposed route of the Specials. It seems likely this was an idea inspired or borrowed from the circuses of the day.

Had he still been living, P.T. Barnum would surely have been green with envy at the colorful and flamboyant sales ballyhoo used by the J.I. Case Threshing Machine Co. The implements on the Case Specials were steam traction engines and threshers equipped with wind stackers, en route from the factory out to the dealers. Some of these trains consisted of as many as 25 flat cars — not the standard 35-footers but cars 50 feet in length, another innovation borrowed from the circuses and sideshows.

The J.I. Case special cars were painted red, white and blue, and on one flatcar was a calliope with a musician at the keyboard. Crossing the farm belt with the strains of such hits as “Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder” and “Over the Waves” blaring across the countryside, smoke belching from the locomotive engine, and flags and banners flying from the gaudily decorated cars of farm machinery, the Specials were the next best thing to having the circus come to town. The advance advertising insured that a crowd of country and city folks were on hand when the train pulled into the station. As the calliope rendered a lively number, a tall man dressed as Uncle Sam stepped out on the rear platform of the caboose. As the kids watched the immense figure in open-mouthed wonder, the tall individual dipped into a basket and scattered advertising buttons out over the crowd.

Years later one old timer recalled the wonder of it all. “I estimated the train was more than a mile long,” he said, “and it was loaded with shiny threshing machines and steam traction engines.”

The curtains close

But by the end of the 20th century, steam traction engines were beginning to lose the battle for supremacy on the American farm to implements powered by internal combustion engines. J.I. Case was already gone, as he died in 1891. By the early 1920s the Golden Age of the steam traction engine was coming to an end. The great smoke-belching behemoths, the threshing machines, and the huge crew of laborers necessary for the threshing operation were soon to become a part of the nostalgic remembrances of a lost and distant past. FC


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