Farm Collector

The Man Behind the Books: C.H. Wendel’s Passion for Antique Machinery

Looking for the ultimate authority on antique farm equipment? C.H. “Chuck” Wendel is your man. Fascinated by machinery since the days he wore short pants, Chuck is an acclaimed author and historian on the subject. He’s written nearly three dozen books covering various types of antique machinery, authored a column in Gas Engine Magazine for 18 years, and led tour groups to Europe, Australia and New Zealand in search of antique machinery. But who is the man behind the books? Read on: Ten things that may surprise you about C.H. Wendel.

A born natural: Chuck grew up on a farm near Cedar Rapids, Iowa. His dad farmed with horses and his great-uncles had steam engines. “They threshed and ran sawmills and drilled wells,” he says. “There was a certain mechanical bent in the family.” As a boy, Chuck specialized in self-taught deconstruction. “I have always been an inveterate tinkerer,” he says. “I took a lot of things apart. I was always trying to find out how things work. If I ever got in over my head, it just made me work harder to figure out what I’d done wrong.”

Learning the old ways: For Chuck, farming was a means to an end. “I always enjoyed farming,” he says, “but I was more fascinated with the machinery.” He delved in at a young age. “I’d ask the old timers questions,” he says, “and tried to learn all I could about the history of the equipment and why they did things the way they did. As early as my grade school days, I was picking those guys’ brains, especially to hear their memories of threshing days.”

Some people discover a hobby, immerse themselves in it, tire of it and then move on. For Chuck, antique machinery has been a lifelong interest. “This is a passion for me,” he says. “I’ve never burned out on it. Steam engines, gas engines, tractors, anything – and not just farm equipment. I could easily have gotten into old cars but I successfully resisted that temptation. I’ve always had a great fascination with mechanical things.”

“I’ve always been interested in printing. The printer’s craft involves complicated machinery and precision work. It keeps the brain active. And the printed page is not nearly as hard to move around as a 10 hp engine.”

Green at the beginning: Chuck’s engine collection began with a John Deere 6 hp stationary engine on factory trucks. “That was my first engine,” he recalls. “I bought it in 1959 for $5. I brought it home, unloaded it off the trailer, cleaned it up a little and it ran.”

German-made jewel: The reigning authority on antique stationary engines, Chuck has seen just about everything in the book. But one engine that continues to hold his attention is the German-made Junkers. “At one time I had a couple hundred gas engines,” he says, “but all I’ve kept are a few rare ones, and the Junkers diesel is the most unique engine I have.” A single-cylinder opposed-piston diesel, his Junkers is one of a very few anywhere in the world still in running condition.

The Junkers line – considered the first successful highspeed diesel – had its heyday during and after World War II when engines were in short supply in Germany. “They made them in big numbers,” Chuck notes, “but they ran them to death; they just wore them out.”

Master of the keyboard: When youthful ambition collides with reality, even carefully built plans can dissolve. After graduating from high school, Chuck attended Concordia College, River Forest, Ill., where he majored in music. “Pipe organ performance was my passion,” he says. “I taught myself to play the organ, and I played every chance I got, a lot of Bach. After college, I thought I would teach music.”

Ultimately, those plans changed. “I had a pipe dream of building organs,” he says. “There’s no big demand for organ builders, but if there had been one nearby, I would have pestered them to death to get involved in that.”

“I have always been an inveterate tinkerer. I took a lot of things apart. I was always trying to find out how things work. If I ever got in over my head, it just made me work harder to figure out what I’d done wrong.”

Building a career: Shifting gears, Chuck became an electrician, working on commercial and industrial projects. “With industrial work,” he says, “you had to think, you had to be able to design a circuit, do something that wasn’t in the book. You had to learn to be creative.” He worked out of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, until 2005.

Digging in deep: An early thirst for knowledge (when he was 3, his mother taught him to read) fueled a lifelong interest. As a youth, he read anything he could get his hands on. Later, he taught himself to read, write and speak German. “A lot of the mechanical research I did, I found the material in German,” he explains.

That kind of disciplined study has become his hallmark. The author of nearly three dozen books on antique machinery, Chuck is a stickler for accuracy. “I have a fetish about accuracy,” he says. “To me, if you’re going to write with inaccuracy, you should not be writing.” For his projects, he conducts extensive research, going back to original antique machinery literature whenever possible. “I never let anybody else do the research for me,” he says. “I’ve always been a one-man show. I know some people disagree with things I’ve written, but by and large, it’s right.”

When it comes to research, hard work is not necessarily its own reward, especially in the field of antique machinery. “Research is not always successful,” Chuck notes. “Time has a way of clouding a lot of things. A lot of these companies just disappeared.”

Another keyboard: C.H. Wendel’s career as an author began with a question raised during a conversation at the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. “A bunch of people wondered who built all the engines from Waterloo, Iowa,” he said. “No one knew; there were a lot of theories. So I said, ‘To heck with it: I’ll do it myself.'” The result was his first book, Power in the Past, a History of Gasoline Engine and Tractor Builders in Iowa, 1890-1930, published in 1971.

More than 35 years later, he’s still at it. His newest book, American Industrial Machinery, 1870-1920, was published in summer 2008. “I hope it will be my magnum opus,” he says. With the heft of his earlier American Gasoline Engines tomes, the book covers stationary steam engines, sawmills, machine shop tools, construction machinery and printing equipment from what Chuck calls “the golden era.” Until the Civil War, he explains, industrial machinery in the U.S. was very primitive. “From 1880-1910, that’s when it all blossomed,” he says. “The Civil War forced innovation.”

When he began his career as an author, Chuck wrote in longhand. “I started using a computer in 1981,” he recalls. “And when I started doing research, that was back when we still wrote letters to track down information.”

The printer’s craft: The art and science of printing technology is another of Chuck’s passions. “I’ve always been interested in printing,” he says. “It’s just another aspect of mechanics. The printer’s craft involves complicated machinery and precision work. It keeps the brain active. And the printed page is not nearly as hard to move around as a 10 hp engine.”

In recent years, Chuck has been instrumental in creation of Printers’ Hall at the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant. An elaborate permanent exhibit packed with working antique printing equipment, the display draws masses of crowds and, importantly, volunteers. Chuck donated his collection of antique printing equipment; the display now includes three dozen major pieces, some of which are powered by restored steam engines.

“It’s a dynamic exhibit where we actually use the machines and preserve the letter press,” he explains. Printers’ Hall even publishes an eight-page newspaper during the annual show. “There are a number of printing museums around the country,” Chuck says, “but people tell us that ours is the only one of this size and quality.”

A clear agenda: A man of many and varied interests, Chuck is unfamiliar with the notion of boredom. It’s easy to picture him in a workshop cluttered with multiple projects, with an internal “to do” list that scrolls endlessly. But don’t mistake him for some absent-minded professor. His focus is deliberate. “I teach myself to get the most out of every day I can,” he says. “If you really want to succeed at something, you have to be the best there is. Then you’ll succeed.”

  • Published on Aug 1, 2008
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