Is Old J. I. Watching?


Very old and the very new engines

The very old and the very new shared space in the Case exhibit at the Rough and Rumble Reunion.

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When this story's first installment appeared (Iron-Men Album, March/ April, 1984), my wife, Helen CASE Brigham, had just survived her first encounter with a steam traction engine at Westminster, Maryland.

A great-granddaughter of J. I. Case, she was introduced to Tom Gingell's 50 HP Case and that was the genesis of a nostalgic trip through history and into the friendly, wholesome family of 'steam folks.'

The post-Westminster pilgrimage first took Helen to the 36th annual Rough and Tumble Old Thresher-men's Reunion at Kinzers, Pennsylvania, and subsequently led her to the big reunion at Mount Pleasant, Iowa, to George W. Hedtke's Hickory Oaks Farm in Davis Junction, Illinois, to Racine, Wisconsin, for a grand get-together with her great-grandfather's only surviving grandchild, to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., to visit the 'No. 1', to the corporate headquarters of Tenneco (current custodian of the J. I. Case Co.), and to Sidney, Ohio, for an embryonic meeting of what may become a national 'Case Collectors Association.'

A detailed description of this trek would take more space than Iron Men Album could possibly devote to this 'case,' so I offer only a few selections from Helen's marvelous and continuing experience as she has journeyed in the footsteps of old 'J. I.'

At Kinzers/Rough and Tumble At Kinzer's Rough and Tumble Reunion, the featured brand at the 1984 show was Case; so organizer Roland Woodward invited Helen as the honored guest. Our good friends from Westminster, Tom Gingell and his '50' were there and they pleased us greatly by winning some of the Friday night 'games' against a large assortment of other engineers and engines (Cases, Fricks, Rumelys and others).

A highlight of this stay for Helen was her first trip on a 110 HP Case, a beautifully restored 1912 goliath owned by Willis Abel and driven by Engineer Paul Stoltzfus, a handsome, powerful Amishman who old 'J. I.' certainly would have approved as a 'a most worthy and honest man.'

Among the scores of other new friends found at Kinzers were R & T Association President Otis Astle, who along with Roland Woodward was caught in the daily dawn-to midnight task of overseeing a very large show and still took time to make both of us feel well-attended and completely comfortable. We met Robert and Julie Lessig, who, with their 'kids,' devoted almost every minute of every day at R & T to prideful cleaning and polishing of their 30 HP Case. The friendliness at Kinzers gave us an appetite for more.

Whenever their 1916 30 HP Case wasn't making one of its frequent runs around the show grounds at Rough & Tumble, Kinzers, Pennsylvania, all members of the Lessig family pitched in with the care and cleaning of their pride and joy.

Mount Pleasant/Midwest Threshermen's Reunion

At Mount Pleasant, our stay as 'boarders' in the home of Marie and Sam Vorheis for several days would have been pleasure enough; but the Midwest Threshermen's Reunion was Westminster plus Kinzers with astounding embellishments and magnifications. I'm sure it's been said before, but I'll say it again the Mount Pleasant event is 'Mecca' for people who love vintage engines and machinery.

Helen watched in reverent awe as a horse-powered sweep operated a pre-steam J. I. Case Threshing Machine. Then, she stepped up a notch in agricultural history in the noon-time parade by riding the 'catbird' seat next to the stack of William Sater's 1886 12 HP Case engine, passing by a reviewing stand packed with some thousands of spectators. Her hair received a liberal shower of soot, which she wore proudly for the remainder of our two-week trip through the midwest and up into Canada.

On the last day of our Mount Pleasant stay, Fred Young, patriarch of the Young Company in Racine, Wis., visited with us. 89 years old at the time, Mr. Young braved 95 degree heat to 'troop the line' of several hundred gasoline tractors, stopping to offer free advice to those mechanics who were tinkering with their tractor motors and pointing out all of the many models which were equipped with his radiators. He also stopped frequently to admire some passing, lumbering, ancient steam engine, only to return his attention to his first love gas tractors with Young radiators.

Helen rides the 'catbird seat' next to the stack of William Sater's 188612 HP Case traction engine during a noon parade before the packed grandstand at the 1984 Midwest Threshermen's Reunion in Mount Pleasant.

George Hedtke's Hickory Oaks Farm

Near Davis Junction, Ill., Helen met George Hedtke, owner of five Case steam traction engines and what has to be one of the finest collections of antique farm machinery in the world. He had been corresponding with Helen ever since the story about her Westminster visit appeared in Iron Men Album.

George, accompanied by his pal, a venerable dog named what else? 'Casey,' met us at Hickory Oaks Farm, a beautiful, tree-shaded glade where, over the years, thousands of people have visited to enjoy periodic 'shows' where agricultural history springs to life. It's a place where the old machines harvest real grain fields and plows cut purposeful furrows in the preparation of the land for the planting of acres of real crops.

Hedtke's marvelous collection is packed into a large steel building, but George obviously is happiest when the engines, threshing machines, plows, binders and other assorted implements can be rolled outdoors to harvest the fields at Hickory Oaks.

In preparation for Helen's visit, George had fired up his 1911 110 HP Case. She spent a busy two hours riding, steering and learning the engine from Hedtke, who keeps the museum and the farm grounds in apple pie order even though he has a very demanding job as a supervisory electrician at Commonwealth Edison's nearby Byron Nuclear Power Plant. Helen picked up more soot in her hair and ruined another blouse as she received 'hands-on' instruction in steam engine operation from a master.

George Hedtke plays host to a happy passenger as he prepares to take Helen on a trip around Hickory Oaks Farm in his 1911 110 HP Case steam traction engine.

We stayed at Davis Junction with George's wonderful friends, Emil and Ethyl Svanda. For years, Emil has been a leading light on the team of people who have made exceptional contributions of their personal time, energy and money to the development of the 'living museum' at Hickory Oaks Farm. If there is ever to be a national J. I. Case Museum, this site has to be the leading candidate. Where else would you ever find a boiler from the dinosaur of steam engines, the 150 HP Case traction engine? It's there now!

Helen's planning to go back to Hickory Oaks for more lessons, because she wants to learn everything there is to know about main taining and running a 110. She doesn't want to drive a Cadillac or a Rolls Royce... she wants to be an engineer!

Roy I. Case, the last remaining grandchild of J. I. Case, admires a model of a Case steam engine being shown to him by Helen. 'Uncle Roy' is the oldest brother of Helen's father, Percival F. Case, who was an engineer and became a rancher on a piece of the Half Circle Six Ranch owned by old 'J. I.' and a business partner in southwest Texas. Raised in Texas, Helen has lived in Maryland since her marriage in 1950.

Racine, Wisconsin 'Uncle Roy'

At Racine, priority #1 was a visit with Helen's Uncle Roy I. Case, who, at 97, is the only remaining grandchild of J. I. Case. Judging from the sharpness of his mind and the brisk walk of this wiry man, he may last another 97 years.

After lunch at his favorite eating spot, McDonald's, he rode with us through Racine to show us places he remembers so well, including the site of J. I. Case's home, now occupied by an apartment house but still decorated at street side by a well-worn stepping stone, which was marked 'CASE' in large letters by a stone carver a century or more ago. Just a few doors up the street, he pointed to the still-standing home of J. I. Case's son (Uncle Roy's father), Jackson Case, where the grandsons (Roy, Helen's dad Percival, Harry and Jerome) romped under the reportedly 'stern discipline and flashing brown eyes' of their grandmother (J. I.'s widow), Lydia Ann Case.

Uncle Roy also led us by the J. I. Case Plow Works, where he worked as a young man in the early part of this century some years after the plow company split away from the J. I. Case Threshing Machine Company. Uncle Roy remembers going to the post office to sort the mail during the bitter days when farmers continued to address their orders to 'The Case Company' and the plow works and the threshing machine company fought daily over which orders went to which enterprise. The 'J. I. Case Plow Works' name was painted high on the side of the brick factory building where Uncle Roy used to work and is still clearly readable, although the structure was sold to Massey Ferguson years ago.

Helen and I took other trips in Racine as extensions of our tour with Uncle Roy. We journeyed to Mound Cemetery, where J. I. and Jackson Case, as well as other members of the family repose in a mausoleum. This structure, we understand, was equipped with a latch which could be opened from the inside out a tribute to J. I. Case's attention to detail in the pre-arrangement of his accommodations to make sure he could escape the death lock if the opportunity presented itself.

A special 'find' at Uncle Roy's home was a copy of a typewritten 'book' of stories about J. I. Case and Lydia written by their oldest granddaughter, Lydia Crosby Wallis. The manuscript, now copied for Helen and our two sons, provides a great insight into family relationships from the early days of J. I. Case's proprietorship until his death (Ah, but that's another story!)

Also at Racine, after several unsuccessful attempts to 'go through channels' with the Case Company's public relations staff to arrange a visit to the plant and to see the museum pieces stored there, we reached out to George Hedtke's good friend at Case, Field Service Engineer Harry E. Kline. A veteran of a half-century of important work at the J. I. Case Company, Harry is now the unofficial curator, protector and defender of a priceless collection of Case memorabilia everything from steam engines to airplane motors. One of the original 'ground hog' threshers J. I. used when he began his career as a travelling thresherman is stashed among the many other treasures housed in an old factory building where Harry Kline almost single-handedly tries to protect the collection from rot and rust under a leaky roof.

Helen stands atop the old 'Case' stepping stone in Racine, Wisconsin, at the front of the site where the home of her great-grandfather, J. I. Case once stood.

The Making of 'Dreams'

In that old building on the Case plant site, Helen and I came to the joint conclusion that her newly emerging role as a keeper of the J. I. Case flame, should involve helping people like George Hedtke and Harry Kline by doing what she can to kindle a spirit of prideful interest among top officials at Tenneco (now the corporate 'mother hen' of the J. I. Case Company). Her aim is to make sure that, somehow, the thousands of people who currently care about America's heritage of leadership in agriculture, in applied steam power and in progress by invention will be able to share the beauty of pieces which sit in some disarray in an out-of-the-way building in Racine.

Her idea could evolve into an attractively situated, living museum, where Case machines and engines can be demonstrated and maintained with support from the corporate 'godfather' in tip-top, fully preserved, working condition and not locked away in an old building (or bolted down to a platform, as is the case with the 'No. 1' Case engine at the Smithsonian).

George Hedtke's Hickory Oaks Farm in Illinois would be a centrally located, beautiful base for Helen's 'dream museum.'

Her other idea would involve putting together a 'traveling' exhibition to go from city to city by train or trailer featuring leading 'characters' in the history of the J. I. Case Co. and Tenneco. This is another 'dream' which could come true with considerable support from the corporate 'godfather.'

To this end, Helen visited Tenneco's corporate offices in Houston last fall to discuss her thoughts with Senior Vice President for Corporate Affairs Gordon B. Bonfield. More recently, she attended the 1985 Tenneco shareholders' meeting where she met the corporation's Chairman and Chief Executive Officer J. L. Ketelsen.

In between these meetings, she sandwiched a journey to Sidney, Ohio, where Bruce Davis and others are hoping to launch a national Case Collectors Association. The next meeting to discuss the proposal will be held at the Darke County Steam Thresher's Association Reunion on July 13 at Greenville, Ohio. The association won't be a high-powered, over-organized group; but it could become a rallying point for people steam people, gas people and others who believe the J. I. Case heritage is worth remembering and preserving. The Case Collectors might well serve as an important link in the chain of developments which Helen hopes will lead to the fulfillment of her dreams, which have evolved from the day of her first ride on Tom Gingell's Case engine a year and a half ago.

Helen pays a friendly visit to Case Engine 'No. 1', which currently is 'at home' in a corner of the permanent exhibit of early farm equipment at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C,

Harry E. Kline, a field service engineer with the J. I. Case Company, shows Helen the ground hog thresher which is believed to be one of the originals used by J I. Case when he was a traveling thresherman.

Old 'J. I.' Would Approve

At Kinzers, when Helen spoke to the assembled crowd from the reviewing stand at the conclusion of the Rough and Tumble parade, she said:

'I enjoy being with people like you so much. You are wonderful, friendly, strong people; and, in my heart, I know old J. I. Case would have loved you, too. He would have enjoyed doing business with the honest and friendly people I've met at every turn during my three days at Rough and Tumble.'

The feeling apparently was mutual at Kinzers, because Otis Astle presented the Rough and Tumble 'President's Trophy' to Helen. That's an award usually reserved for the best appearing unit on the grounds during the annual show.

Like old J. I. Case, his great-granddaughter, Helen CASE Brigham, believes in working with people she admires. She'll work night and day, around-the-clock to make her dreams come true. Given the facts, I am sure her great-grandfather would approve of what Helen's up to.

Wherever he is, old 'J. I.' is on her side; so watch out Tenneco!