It Was Destined To Happen: A Higher Power Was At Work


#25's piston side looks familiar to those who've seen Case #1 at Smiths onian.

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Int. J.I. Case Heritage Foundation 204 East Melbourne Avenue Silver Spring, Maryland 20901

A wonderful power was at work one Friday afternoon in Wauseon, Ohio, early this summer when the 'Little Engine That Could,' chaperoned by its proud caretaker Mahlon Detter, paid a surprise visit to the 45th reunion of what's believed to be the oldest continuously scheduled annual ag heritage show in North America, the National Threshers. This great steam engine and tractor exhibition happens every June, but this year was special the J.I. Case line of vintage machinery was featured and the Little Engine kind of upstaged the big boys.

The weather was steamy high humidity, 90-plus in the shade and I was taking pictures of a big Case engine pulsating with power on the belt of the National Threshers' sawmill before a large, appreciative crowd. I was wiping a drop of sweat or maybe a bit of sawdust out of the camera's viewfinder when, voila!! Out of the corner of my eye, at a distance, I saw Case engine No. 1. That little historic rascal was supposed to be bolted down and locked up tight in the Smithsonian's Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., but right there in northwestern Ohio, 50 or 70 yards away from me and many hundreds of miles from the Smithsonian, I was seeing '#1'. At least, at a distance, I thought I was!

Forgetting the big Case engine, deserting the sawmill, I rushed to the Little Engine and, while its obviously proud and friendly escort was occupied chatting with another excited spectator, I circled what I now knew was a #1 clone, because I had discovered immediately at close range that this was not Case No. 1. The number of the Little Engine was there, as clearly visible as the day it was put there almost 120 years ago. It said 'No. 25.' And, I said out loud, 'Wow!' Click-zip, click-zip, click-zip, click-zipa whole roll of 35mm film was shot in no time in honor of the arrival of #l's slightly younger sister. The family resemblance was remarkable.

Soon, I was chatting away with Mahlon Detter, who I discovered is the restoration engineer for the Sauder Farm and Craft Village at Archbold, Ohio, no more than a dozen miles south and west of the National Threshers' show grounds. I learned that Case engine #25 used to belong to the city of Angola, Indiana, slightly west of the Ohio border, and for many years had powered a pumping operation for the community's public water supply. This made my inquiry even more urgent, since, in addition to being involved with J.I. Case Heritage, I spent more than a quarter-century of my professional career in the service of water utilities.

Immediately, I made a connection. Here was a rare and wonderful little Case engine 8 HP portable, reportedly built in 1870 within a year of #1 and probably inspected daily by J.I. Case himself as it was being assembled. I shared some wishful thinking with Mahlon: 'On October 20-22, 1989 at Bonner Springs, Kansas, people from all over America will be gathering to celebrate the induction of J.I. Case by the National Agricultural Hall of Fame. Since #1 is bolted down and locked up at the Smithsonian and #25 has some freedom, what can be done to convince #25's owner, Sauder Farm, that the little beauty should be allowed to travel from Ohio some hundreds of miles to serve as the star of the great Case Celebration at the Ag Hall of Fame?'

'That might not be a problem,' said Mahlon Detter. 'Mr. Sauder likes to do things like that he likes to share. He just might be interested.' After a good chat, I asked Mahlon to be sure to go to the Case Heritage tent where my wife, Helen Case Brigham (she's a founding director and secretary-treasurer of the J.I. Case Foundation), was headquartered during the National Threshers' Reunion, to show her the engine and hear what she had to say.

Without any preparation or prompting from me, I understand Helen's first comment after seeing the Little Engine was 'That's got to be at the Ag Hall of Fame for J.I.'s induction; what can we do to get it there?'

'Let me talk to Mr. Sauder,' Mahlon told her. 'He just might be willing to send the engine out there.' Just as I had done, Helen received a brochure about the Sauder Farm from Mahlon and supplied him with our address and phone number, emphasizing that we were headed for Racine, Wisconsin, then would be returning to Ohio the following weekend to attend a show featuring the Case line at Van Wert, and might have time to stop at Sauder Farm by heading a little bit north as we made our turn for Maryland and home.

A week later at Van Wert, Mahlon visited Helen at the Case Heritage booth, happily reporting: 'Mr. Sauder says he'll send the engine to your celebration in Kansas.' Oh, boy! Up until now, we had not met Mr. Sauder, but we knew he must be a wonderful man. I'm not sure whether Mahlon received a hug from Helen, but he certainly deserved one! We vowed to take an extra day on the road going home to turn north to Archbold to pay a visit to the Sauder Farm and hopefully meet its founder, Erie Sauder.

When we arrived at the Farm on Monday morning, we were disappointed to find that Mr. and Mrs. Sauder had left that morning on a trip. We received a most cordial welcome from the Farm's staff, including Curator Gerry Frazier. He took us into the Farm's largest museum building to see the Little Engine in its assigned spot right next to the #1 Baker engine (it lives at Sauder Farm, too!). We discovered that the Sauders had gone to Washington with friends for the week that spanned the July 4th holiday. We were headed for our home in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., and the Sauders were visiting Washington! Just coincidence or a higher power at work? I think a higher power!

The Sauder Farm's staff sent Mr. Sauder a message to call us. He did. We met the Sauders for dinner. It was a friendship at first sight! They are a caring, remarkable, totally wonderful and interesting couple, both dedicated to the completely unselfish sharing of their knowledge of history and dedicated to the preservation of the tools, equipment and methods which pertain to the history of Ohio's 'Black Swamp' area. Erie Sauder, a farmer's son but the grandson of a master woodworker, began his life's work as a furniture-maker, using hand tools and drawing on inherited ability. He was successful. He did good work. He welcomed new methods that allowed him to increase production and maintain high quality, and today the Sauder Furniture Manufacturing Company he founded is the world's largest producer of unassembled furniture. Although Erie, at 85 years young, spends most of his time working with the continuing evolution and enhancement of one of America's finest living history villages and a superb museum featuring authentic late 19th century heritage exhibits, he remains as chairman of the board of Sauder Furniture Manufacturing. His son serves as the company's president and oversees the management of its daily operations.

'They still seem to listen when I come up with an idea at meetings,' he notes without the slightest hint of bragging. But, I'd guess, Erie comes up with plenty of good ideas for the family business, just as he does for his principal, full-time occupation: active hands-on management of his dream come true, the Sauder Farm and Craft Village, which now also includes a recently completed, magnificent conference center, appropriately named 'Founder's Hall.'

Erie Sauder and his wife Orlyss.

Although he has plowed a large measure of his personal wealth into the development of this historically significant complex and its priceless contents, he's not one to buy things carelessly. Some years ago, he heard of the Little Engine, which was by then hidden away in its owner's garage outside of Angola. He offered the owner a good price. The man refused. Sometime later, the owner of the Little Engine died and some collectors who knew about the engine offered the widow a very low price. The widow called Erie Sauder to tell him what they were offering and to ask if his original offer to her husband was still good. He stood behind his offer, which was many thousands of dollars higher than any other offer the widow had received. Erie Sauder impresses this observer as a square dealer, someone for whom honesty, integrity and fairness are essential ingredients of doing business, just as they were for J.I. Case in his time.

Many Foundation members had the opportunity to meet this remarkable octogenarian in October at the Ag Hall of Fame. He and Mrs. Sauder accompanied #25 to Bonner Springs. They discovered that he's absolutely the youngest, most interesting and most alert 85-year-old they've ever met.

For a much broader view of what the Sauders have done to preserve and recreate history, I suggest that those readers who travel about the country visiting ag heritage shows would be wise to include a side trip to Arch bold, Ohio, to visit the Sauder Farm (open late April through October). Once there, a visitor can enjoy a meal at the Farm's 'Barn Restaurant' and see one of the greatest collections of authentic exhibits and demonstrations ever gathered to tell about an important segment of American history, covering agricultural, industrial and community life during the last quarter of the 19th century. If the visitor is lucky, as many visitors are, Mrs. Sauder may be found filling in as interpretive guide in Sauder Farm's summer kitchen, or Erie may be discovered doing anything from training a new employee to standing in as the resident craftsman in the woodworking exhibit.

Whenever a reader of this piece does meet either of them, keep in mind that it was these great folks who turned the Little Engine that Helen and I hoped might be able to journey to Kansas for the J.I. Case Induction Celebration into the 'Little Engine That Could!' As I said at the top, it would seem a higher power was at work in support of bringing #25 into the caring hands of Erie Sauder, to the Foundation's attention at Wauseon, and then to the J.I. Case Celebration. If so, Mr. and Mrs. Sauder are instruments of that power. God bless these wonderful people.