Making a Case for Antique Farm Equipment and Implements

Collector says antique farm equipment is often overlooked

Herb Wessel's barns are full of vintage treasures, including a thresher dating to 1926, and two Case horse-drawn plows of equal age.

Herb Wessel's barns are full of vintage treasures, including a thresher dating to 1926, and two Case horse-drawn plows of equal age.

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Herb Wessel believes in the preservation of antique farm equipment that tells the story of farming over the last 100 years. At his farm in northern Maryland, he has barns full of implements to prove it. 

"A row of tractors doesn't tell anybody anything," he says. "'I specifically collect the implements the tractors would have pulled or powered. We're losing the equipment faster than the tractors. People are more interested in tractors; I'd like to see more people interested in equipment. Some tractors are so over-restored they look better than brand new, and then there are ropes around them so no one can touch them. I like for stuff to be in working order and ready to go."

Herb's collection does include a selection of tractors, but the emphasis is on antique farm equipment, some dating to the 19th century. There are also automobiles, pickup trucks, steam engines, dairy equipment, old license plates, vintage tools and farm toys. There are even some model airplanes suspended from the rafters.

"I used to build them as a kid," he says. "I still build them once in a while just to see if I can keep my hand in it."

But despite the amazing variety, there is a theme to Herb's collection. That theme is symbolized by an eagle, which represents Case, a name known throughout the farming industry for more than a century. It's part of Herb's farming heritage. The 1948 Case D tractor previously owned by his father and the 1954 Case 400 he bought new are proudly displayed and still used around the farm.

"My hobby is genealogy," he says. "Three of my grandparents were German. My grandfather bought a farm in Howard County (Maryland) in 1898. I moved here (to Carroll County, Maryland) in 1958. We've always been in dairy farming, but I got interested in the mechanics. I learned by experience how to fix the tractors."

Herb tells the story of how he came to own and restore a rare 1918 9-19 Case tractor.

"They came out in 1915," he says. "It was the first small tractor Case came out with and it was made in Racine, Wisconsin. This one came from Massachusetts. It's had all new sheet metal and a complete overhaul. I've had it quite a while. A guy called me about it because he'd seen it advertised in a local newspaper. I wasn't interested until I saw it had round spoke wheels, as opposed to flat. Then I knew it was rare. I called the owner (in Massachusetts) and he quoted a price. You couldn't tell by the picture, but it sounded like it was worthwhile and I went up with my trailer. Well, the engine was stuck, the differential was stuck and the rear wheels were stuck, so I said 'no thanks'. The guy said 'make me an offer' so I made a ridiculous one and he accepted. We loaded it on the trailer and brought it home. My son Philip and I worked on it for a year. There are a few around, but it's probably the most rare tractor I have."

Herb also likes horse-drawn equipment. His collection includes a 1900 Case lister, a horse-drawn corn planter made especially for the dry western states. It planted the seeds in a trench to preserve available moisture. When the seedlings reached a certain height, the trench was filled in with a special cultivator. His collection also features a couple of 1920s Case manure spreaders, some pre-1930s Case plows, and a 1930s Case hay loader, which was hooked behind the wagon to bring in the loose hay. He's restored a 1920s-era one-horse Case mower he bought at an auction.

One of the oddest-looking machines in Herb's collection is a 1915 Case 10-12 three-wheel gasoline tractor which came to his farm from Canada via Nebraska. The tractor seat hangs off the back of the machine, making one wonder how the poor driver could see where he was going.

"They only made about 5,000 of these," Herb says. "It was obviously not a good design and they didn't make any more, but they had to start from scratch. The motor sits in crossways and so does the radiator. It pulls by one wheel, which would not be good on hills. The front wheel, which is off to one side, provides the steerage. The seat is way back ... they weren't made for creature comfort."

Some of the equipment in Herb's collection was designed for specific areas of the country. A Case thresher from the 1920s is almost 20 feet wide (including the header). It was typically used in the Great Plains, where space was unlimited.

"It's a threshing machine on wheels, with a gas motor and a header on the side that feeds the grain into the side of the thresher as you're going 'round the field," he says. "The machine is pulled by a tractor with a driver. There would be an operator on the combine to control the height of the header and keep an eye on the mechanisms. This one came from Ohio. I went after it and brought it back."

In the western U.S., individual farmers owned their own threshing equipment for harvesting their thousands of acres. On the smaller farms back east, things were a bit different.

"One farm would have had one and then it would go from farm to farm," Herb says as he looks over his collection of Case threshers. "Some farmers would have this as a side line. It could also be full time, doing the threshing in the summer and fall, and operating a sawmill in the winter and spring."

Along with the vintage Case implements, Herb has a piece of equipment that was essential for farmers using steam engines. From the late 1800s through the 1920s, Case made water wagons that could go into the fields to help keep the engines running. Herb's is a tanker on wheels, complete with a red bunker on top to carry the coal.

Herb's collection includes a beautifully restored 1918 Rock Island Heider 12-20, also known as a Model C. On its sides are the words "Rock Island Plow Co. Heider. Rock Island, Ill. U.S.A."

"Rock Island sold Heider tractors and then bought the company in the late teens," he says. "Case bought Rock Island in the late 1930s to get their manufacturing facility in Rock Island, Illinois."

While Case made an extensive array of tractors and farm equipment, it also produced a line of automobiles between 1911 and 1927. Herb explains that more than 25 years have passed since the restoration of his 1913 Case auto, but the classic is still in good working order. He says 1913 was the last year Case produced right hand drive models, and the first year they used electric headlights. In a separate workshop is the skeleton of a 1927 Model Y Case auto in the very early stages of restoration.

"My son Philip and I are working together on this one," Herb says. "They didn't build many of these. This is the only Model Y touring model we know about."

How does Herb find all his Case treasures? "It's mostly word of mouth," he says. "I do check the Internet, and I am a member of the J.I. Case Collectors Association and the Case Heritage Club. They're both international groups and I get information from them. Russell Wolfinger is president of the J.I. Case Association. He lives in Hagerstown, Maryland. Carl Turtle is the president of the Case Heritage Club and he lives in Howell, Michigan."

Once, the Wessel farm boasted a thriving herd of dairy cattle. Now the dairy barns are full of history, commemorating a century of dedication, commitment and long hours of sheer hard work as farmers strove to make a living and feed the country.

"I'd like to see more people collect equipment," Herb says. "A hundred tractors in a row is just boring. It's what they pulled or powered that is interesting to me. At shows we do threshing demonstrations. It's educational, and that's important. We show the people the wheat, and we tell them that's their bread." FC 

Jill Teunis is a freelance writer in Damascus, Md.