Helen Case Brigham, great-granddaughter of J. I. Case, recently enjoyed the opportunity to follow in his footsteps when she took the helm of Thomas R. Gingell's 50 HP Case at the Mason-Dixon Historical Society's Steam Gas Round-Up.
In 1850, Jerome Increase Case the founder of the J. I. Case Company and pioneering inventor/manufacturer of agricultural equipment was traveling the Midwest selling his machines, trading horses and standing behind every deal he ever made.
A letter 'J. I.' wrote to his wife, Lydia, on September 5 of that year from Madison County, Indiana, described how some purchasers of one of his machines abused the equipment so badly that 'they condemn it as worthless ... say they could not thrash 30 bushels of good winter wheat in a day with it and that they will have nothing more to do with it.
'If I can get horses, I will show people that the machine is just as I recommended it to be,' Case wrote. 'It is going to detain me longer than I expected, but I shall make every possible effort to return (home) as soon as possible.'
Five days later, he wrote Lydia again to report: 'The men who had the machine got it so much out of repair that I was not able to put it in order, try it and get away again until this morning. They had completely murdered the reputation of the machine. Could only average whilst thrashing some 30 bushels of wheat per day.
'They utterly refused to pay me for the machine,' Case continued, 'and the neighbors (Hoosiers in full), supposing the machine to be Yankee humbug, advised them to sue me for damages.'
Case settled with the complainers, refunding money and taking back the machine.
'Then, in order to show the 'cattle' that the machine would thrash 200 bushels a day, as recommended by me,' he continued, 'I thought it best to put it in operation; and, after much trouble, I succeeded in getting good hands and horses to make the trial. All (witnesses) united in saying that, if the machine could thrash 200 bushels in a day, it could not be equalled by any in the country.
'We got the horses broke to the machine and ready to start at 12 o'clock,' Case noted. 'That afternoon, we thrashed and cleaned nicely 177 bushels of wheat and stopped to take our dinner and tea in the time. This seemed to please and surprise my friends, the Quakers.'
It was this tradition of pride in any equipment that carries the Case name that brought J. I. Case's great -granddaughter, Helen Case Brigham, to the Mason-Dixon Historical Society's 21st annual Steam and Gas Round-Up Days at the Farm Museum in Westminster, Maryland, this fall.
Helen heard about the event, after reading about a similar rally of old farm machines in 'The Gaithersburg Gazette,' a Maryland weekly which ran a story with photos showing a Case steam engine owned, beautifully restored and operated by Thomas R. Gingell of Emmitsburg, Md. In a telephone conversation, Gingell invited Helen to the Mason-Dixon gathering to see and ride on his Case engine.
From the minute she arrived at the Farm Museum grounds until she headed for home five hours later, Helen Case was in a state of ecstasy. Throughout her 50-plus years, she had read about her great-grandfather and had heard family stories about him. In her youth, on the Case Ranch in Eldorado, Texas, she had driven a gas-fueled Case farm tractor; and she had seen the old J. I. Case steam engine on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
But, at Westminster, Tom Gingell took her aboard his operating, 50-horsepower Case Traction Engine. He took Helen for a ride in the machine, circling the Round-Up site wide open at two to three miles an hour. Then, Tom stoked the fire box to get up a good head of steam and after a few basic instructions put old J. I.'s great-granddaughter in the driver's 'seat' (not a seat at all, you have to stand to operate this machine!).
Helen had a blast, as farm machinery buffs gathered around at the Mason-Dixon Historical Society's Round- Up to meet J. I. Case's great-granddaughter.
If the 'Old Man' happened to be looking down on the scene from Heaven (or wherever) on that day, he probably smiled broadly to see 'a chip off the old block' at the throttle of Gingell's shiny black, circa 1920 Case steam engine.
Helen certainly smiled broadly, flushed with Case pride and responding to the enthusiastic greetings of Round-Up visitors who came to meet her and shake the hand of 'old J. I.'s great-granddaughter' after the public address announcer introduced her to the crowd.
'Listen to that engine ... That's beautiful,' Helen shouted over the sounds of the energizing steam while she remained at the helm of Gingell's machine. Later, when Tom took over to hook up to a belt and demonstrate the engine's power, Helen's description of the belt's 'whomp ... whomp ... whomp' in combination with the engine's powerful, steamy throbs was: 'That's magnificent!'
Toward the end of 'her day' at Westminster, Tom invited Helen to drive his Case engine in the Round-Up parade; and, by this time, she was handling the machine like a veteran throttle wide open, whistle blowing, waving and smiling to the crowd.
'If anybody in the crowd had said a bad thing about that engine when I was driving it in the parade, I would have crawled down from the cab and punched him in the nose,' she reported at the end of the day, her Irish jaw jutting out and her blue eyes flashing much as J. I. Case's jaw must have jutted and his eyes must have flashed when he fixed the machine in Indiana and showed the complainers and their witnesses that the Case thresher could 'thrash' 177 bushels in half a day (almost twice the production he had promised) and that J. I. Case was a man of his word.
In addition to getting her first opportunity to operate a Case steam engine at Westminster, while there Helen also heard about the 'Big Event' the Annual Reunion of the Midwest Old Settlers and Threshers Association in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, where Tom Gingell and others say she might get to ride possibly even drive a Case engine with the power of more than 100 horses.
Since Helen is a Case, as in J. I. Case, she probably will never rest easily again until she journeys to Iowa or wherever she has to go to drive one of those big machines. The Case pride and the Case love of useful, reliable, powerful machinery are in her blood. If there is a Case machine bigger than Tom Gingell's 50-horsepower beauty, then, DRIVE IT SHE MUST! How do I know this? Why, I've been married to J. I.'s granddaughter for 33 years.
Author's Note: Helen Case is the daughter of the late Percival Fuller Case, formerly of Racine, Wisconsin, home of the J. I. Case Company. P. F. Case moved his family from Evanston, Illinois to Case-held ranchland in southwest Texas in 1938. Helen was raised on the family ranch, an active participant in the care of herds of sheep and cattle. Since 1950, when she married a Marylander, she has lived in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Jerome Increase Case, founder of the J. I. Case Threshing Machine Company, one of America's pioneering inventors/manufacturers of farm machinery in the late 1800's.