J.I. Case, a Man of his Word

Entrepreneur J.I. Case stood by his products – and his customers.

| June 2017

The year 1842 is considered to be the year Case Threshing Machine Co. began, even though J.I. Case didn’t actually manufacture his first thresher until 1844. Thus, 2017 is the 175th anniversary of the firm and a short biography of its founder is in order.

Starting out with groundhogs

Jerome Increase Case was born Dec. 11, 1819, in Oswego County, New York, the youngest of several children of Caleb Case, a farmer, and Deborah Jackson Case, who was said to be kin to President Andrew Jackson. Caleb owned one of the crude groundhog threshers of the day. The groundhog was an improvement over the hand flail used for centuries to beat grain from the heads, but after the spiked cylinder of the groundhog had done the flail’s work, it still was necessary to toss the grain and chaff into the air so the wind could separate the two, a process called winnowing.

During the late 1830s, young Case did custom threshing using his father’s groundhog machine. At that time, New York farmers were cutting back on wheat production, switching to orchards and dairy herds. As Case worked and dreamed of a more efficient thresher, he saw opportunity in the huge wheat fields he’d read of in the upper Mississippi River valley.

In 1842, the 22-year-old Case bought six groundhog threshers on credit and left New York for Racine County in Wisconsin Territory. Settling in Rochester, he sold five of the machines and did custom threshing with the sixth. During the winter of 1842-43, Case built a machine combining a fanning mill with the groundhog to separate the chaff and grain, but it wasn’t a success and couldn’t be used for the 1843 harvest. The following winter, several improved models were built; they were easily sold in 1844. These first Case threshers included a fan-cleaning device and the cleaned grain was delivered separately from the straw and chaff.

Interest in these improved machines convinced Case to become a manufacturer instead of a thresherman, and he moved to nearby Racine, where water to power his factory was readily available. A small shop was rented and quickly outgrown. In 1847, Case built a three-story, 30-by-80-foot factory equipped with a steam engine. Naming his venture Racine Threshing Machine Works, Case made many improvements in his threshers over the next three decades. He developed some of the improvements; others came through acquisition of manufacturing rights and patents.

A man of integrity

During those years, the farm equipment industry was rife with examples of patent infringement, and court cases of the era reflect many resulting lawsuits. The fact that Case isn’t named as a defendant in such suits attests to his character and honesty.