How I Became a Case Man


Kevin Dunn readies Case #35654 for its trip to Indiana.

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3982 Bollard Avenue Cincinnati, Ohio 45209

Moving day, May 20th, 1995. By the evening of that day, Case #35654 would be safely unloaded on the farm belonging to my father, Joe Rhode, near Pine Village, Indiana. I was so excited about the engine that sleep was a scarce commodity the night before the trip. For Lloyd and son Kevin Dunn of Mt. Orab, Ohio, the day meant the trucking away of the 65 horsepower engine Lloyd's father, Howard M. Dunn, had restored between 1968 and 1969. Kevin and Lloyd would accompany the faithful Case to its new home in northwestern Indiana, there to bid it goodbye.

With the understanding that the engine would be moved in May, I had bought the Case in January. On that winter day, just after snowplows had opened the main road, I had given Lloyd the certified check to purchase it. As Russell-man Jay Hanselman of Georgetown, Ohio, put it, 'That gives you a weird feeling, doesn't it? You're holding a check for one of the biggest amounts of money you've ever had at one time, and then you hand it over.' It did feel strange, but I knew the engine was in tiptop condition and worth the price. I took a look a the Case and thought, 'I'll see you again in spring.'

The months passed quickly from January to May. It seemed impossible that irises should be blooming already. Following five extra inches of rain, the morning of the 20th dawned clear, cool, and bright. The day would be perfect for transporting the engine.

I drove to the Dunn's home where the Green line truck from Washington Court House soon arrived. Kevin steered the Case while a chain pulled the engine up planks onto the low-slung truck bed. The weight of the Case that morning approached ten tons; Bill Lamb, old-time engineer from Lexington, Kentucky, had recommended filling the boiler full with water to keep the tubes from rattling. While men busily chocked the wheels of the Case, a neighbor said, 'There goes a piece of Mt. Orab history.'

The truck took off, with Lloyd and Kevin's pickup and my car falling into position behind. We circled Cincinnati on the freeway through Kentucky. Once, we crossed a viaduct so high above the valley that the trains down below looked like toys.

I thought how, in 1923, rails like those had transported my engine to the Mountain Dew Coal Company, which had the Case agency in Lexington, Kentucky. Bill had recalled that my 65 horsepower Case was one of three engines parked on Fourth Street in front of that dealership. The other two were a 45 horsepower and another 65 horsepower. I pictured how impressive a sight these three freshly-painted, brand-new engines must have presented when flatcars carried them on shiny tracks into the city! Cecil Johnson bought Case #35654. Eventually, the Peale family acquired it. Howard Dunn purchased it next.

I reflected how, back when the engine was built, freeways and massive overpasses were distant dreams, and many bridges were too weak to support an engine's weight. Now here we were skimming along at fifty-five miles per hour on a concrete bridge towering above the railroads.

A comment of Lloyd's came back to me. While we had been waiting for the truck that morning, he had remarked how a favorite aunt of his had witnessed incredible changes from her girlhood in the Twenties until the present. I glanced out the car window at an airplane nearly submerged beneath Ohio floodwaters and at a jet trail in the sky overhead. On the other side of the median, an ambulance was speeding on its way toward a modern hospital. A semi truck loaded with the latest in farm equipment rushed along. From the passing lane, a car's CD player roared.

An overpass arching across the interstate in Indiana brought a surprisean Amish buggy! The sun glinted from the spokes in the wheels when the bearded driver slowed his horse and peered over the railing at the Case zipping along underneath.

After about five hours on the road plus an hour for a truck-stop lunch and a lively discussion about cheating in 4-H cattle judging, we passed through Lafayette, where a prominent sign announced the home of the Boilermakers, Purdue University. We were almost to Dad's farm on the plains of northwestern Indiana. 'You have lots of open country up here,' Kevin observed. 'It's like Kansas.'

The last two miles of gravel road brought us to the driveway, soft from spring rains. 'If I take her in there, we'll be stuck for sure,' said Paul Clark, the truck driver and president of the Clinton County (Ohio) Corn Festivala man who knows that puddles and trucks bearing steam engines do not mix. The Case, then, was unloaded on the gravel road. Dad pulled it with a tractor while Kevin steered the engine into the wooded, grassy lot east of the house. The truck hurried off to pick up a piece of equipment near Crawfordsville.

Lloyd and Kevin stayed for pie, cake, and ice cream in the long kitchen of the house where I had spent my high school years. As Dad explained to the Dunns, Joe Williams, owner of a Reeves rig in the early 1900s, had torn out an inner wall to make the kitchen large enough to seat the threshing crew and to host the annual ice-cream social which celebrated the end of the threshing season. The Case engine had come to leave its 'footprints' where the Reeves engine once had made tracks in the soft earth. Dad's uncle had been the engineer on that earlier rig, and now I would learn how | to run the Case.

Just before Lloyd and Kevin started on their return journey to Ohio, they sat in their pickup for a last look at the engine.


July 23, 1995. The day dawned hot and muggy. Bits of wet weeds clung to my shoes as I strode through the overgrown barnlot. There stood the Case, ready for firing. Dad and I had spent long hours painting the green and black parts of the engine; these glistened in the dew. The wheels and gears would get fresh coats of paint soon, but they still appeared bright red. The Dunns always kept the engine well-painted, and, when I bought it, the time to tackle the task had just rolled around again.

Eric Brutus, who runs a nearby farm, was helping Dad split wood. In a few minutes Eric's father, Glen J., arrived. Having owned over two-dozen engines (mostly Case engines, including one of the prized 110 horsepower models), Glen J. had agreed to share his expertise in the first firing of Case #35654. Likewise an accomplished engineer, Eric began to teach me the complicated art of running a steam traction engine. He handed me a stick of wood and a match.

With kerosene-assisted, businesslike flames finally warming the firebox, Eric quit laughing at how many tries it had taken me to start the fire, and he said, 'Next, Robert, it's time for grease and oil.' While Eric pointed to grease-cup after grease-cup and I filled and twisted them, Glen J. kept up a running commentary yes, about engines and how to operate them but also about the now-legendary engineers he had known. I wanted to stop what I was doing, grab a pen and paper, and take down the fascinating stories Glen J. was telling, but we had a roaring fire and an engine in need of oil. I had to work steadily and listen as best I could.

'When that gasket blew,' Glen J. was reminiscing, 'those other guys ran for their lives and left me on the platform all by myself. There they were, peeking around the corner of the barn, and Windy Stingle hopped in his car and drove into town. He told the boys at the restaurant that, if they heard a big explosion, it was my engine blowing up!' I chuckled, almost losing my balance on the running board and learning how to juggle a wrench and oilcan.

During a first firing, certain moments assume a nearly ritualistic significance: when the steam-gauge needle lifts off the post, when pressure has mounted enough to start the blower, when the flywheel glides into motion, and when the whistle proclaims its imperial warning that the drive wheels are about to turn. My brother Charles, from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, had joined us in time to appreciate each of these fleeting milestones.

To guide the engine from the barn lot to the gravel road resembled nothing so much as attempting to thread a needle with a rope. The lane twisted through a narrow gate, turning sharply beside a garage, and ducked under tree branches. 'You steer, and I'll run the levers,' Eric said. Right.

My arm benefited from ample exercise, spinning the steering wheel to the left, twirling it to the right, over-compensating, and flailing it back around in panic and chagrin. Even though I fully expected to hear a crash, we cleared all obstacles, somehow.

Eric stopped the engine long enough for me to catch my breath, then we were off again, hoping no car was coming when we boldly entered the road, the massive iron wheels crunching stones.

Case #35654 chuffed along without incident, and I guided the Christmas-colored machine onto a lane stretching into the distance with meadows to either side. For most of the morning, Dad, Glen J., Eric, Charles, and I took turns driving up and down past bales of hay.

By noon, the sky had deepened from hazy azure to cobalt gray, and the first thunder reverberated across the prairie. Within minutes, the rain was pelting down in sheets. On the platform, Eric stated, 'We're standing on an iron engine.' I could guess what conclusion he would draw: 'That makes us an excellent target for lightning.' We were soaked by the time we slid into the seat of Dad's pickup truck. Before we had taken to our heels, we had happened to notice that the downpour was causing the steam pressure to drop a few pounds. I had not realized that cold rain could have that much effect on a boiler.

In the house, we gathered for a noon meal and entertaining conversation. I wondered if the threshing crews of old had ever dashed into this kitchen to escape a thunderstorm. After dessert (a devil's-food cake to celebrate Dad's birthday, an angel-food cake to celebrate mine), the sun broke through the clouds, and we emerged into the outdoors where drips sparkled on leaves and vines.

Eric and I fed the fire, and, in no time, the Case shook the drips off the connecting rod. Toward the late afternoon, I felt more confident about using the throttle and reverse lever, but I relied on Eric to watch me carefully. Then came the inevitable we had to urge the engine back through the gauntlet into the barn yard. This time, I insisted that Eric have the pleasure of steering.

We made it, stopping only once for Dad to lift a stubborn maple bough with a pitchfork. With the fire dying out, Eric and I parked the engine but left the crankshaft spinning slowly. Unlike my Wilesco model engines, the Case continued to turn over for almost thirty minutes before the pressure dropped too low. With engine authorities Glen J. and Eric on hand, we had run the engine all day without popping off and without getting stuck on dead center. Except for a cylinder-cock lever as loose as the throttle was tight, the Case had no problems.

Earlier in the week, I had stopped at B & B Steam Restorations near Greensburg, Indiana, where Brian Vaughn had introduced me to a co-worker as 'a Case man.' The first firing had taught me that it would be a long time perhaps a very long time before I would know how to run an engine, let alone become enough of an expert to be called 'a Case man'! Still, I sensed a growing attachment to this giant machine which had performed so perfectly throughout the day. I had not felt I owned this engine until I had run it.

A crimson sunset blazed on the spokes of the wheels, but the tires now wore thick coats of mud and gravel. To chip away this cemented mixture would prove a challenge in the days ahead, but, on this evening, I thought the Case looked like a master piecean iron sculpture worthy of a museum of fine art.