J.I. Case, a Man of his Word

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A groundhog thresher at the Midwest Old Threshers Museum, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.
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Jerome Increase Case.
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A circa-1885 Case return-flue, straw-burning steam engine. Although it was self-propelled and fitted with steering gear, it wasn’t intended to pull heavy loads. The engine was equipped with features allowing it to be pulled and steered by a team of horses.
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The iconic Case eagle on a 1917 Case catalog.
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The first Case factory in Racine, Wis., from a 1917 Case Machinery catalog.
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A circa-1855 woodcut of a Case thresher and 2-horse tread power in action.

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.

It was common then for farm equipment manufacturers to sell their machines through agents, mostly on a time payment plan. Just as many manufacturers made exaggerated claims for their machines, more than one buyer refused to pay, claiming fraud on the builder’s part. Another example of Case’s integrity is that very few records have been found of lawsuits claiming his machines to be faulty.

One of few such cases, and this one personally handled by Case himself, involved a Marion, Indiana, man who refused to pay for a Case thresher. The Indiana man claimed the machine couldn’t thresh more than 30 bushels a day and called it “a Yankee humbug!” Case went to Marion, hired experienced men and teams, and got the thresher ready. At noon Case started, feeding bundles to the outfit himself and, in six hours, threshed 177 bushels of wheat, much more than had been claimed possible in an entire day. The farmer paid for the thresher.

In about 1884, Case again demonstrated his commitment to his customers. A Minnesota farmer bought a new Case steam engine and thresher. The thresher wouldn’t clean the grain well, even after an experienced thresherman had made many adjustments. The farmer went back to the Case agent who, after trying and failing to fix the machine, called in the home office. A troubleshooter was sent out from Racine. Failing to make the thresher work properly, he wired the home office, asking for either a new machine or a refund for the farmer.

That was too much for Case, who hopped the next train and arrived on the scene at about noon. He worked all afternoon and the thresher still wasn’t right, so that evening Case asked the farmer for a can of kerosene. The man brought the kerosene and Case, without saying a word, doused the brand new separator and lit it with a match. As the machine burned, Case put on his coat and hat and boarded a train for Racine, where he arranged for a new Case thresher to be delivered to the farmer the next day.

A taste for fine horses

By 1863 the business had grown so much that Case formed a partnership with Massena Erskine, Stephen Bull and Robert Baker, naming the venture J.I. Case & Co. In 1880, the partnership was dissolved and a $1 million dollar corporation, J.I. Case Threshing Machine Co., was formed with Case as president, Stephen Bull as vice president and Frank Bull as secretary. Massena Erskine was superintendent, Charles Erskine was treasurer and Charles Lee and Jackson I. Case were directors. Jerome I. Case continued as president until his death on his 72nd birthday on Dec. 11, 1891.

This brief look at Case’s life omits mention of his other interests, chief of which were fine racehorses (he owned the world champion trotter, Jay Eye Cee), and his 200-acre farm, Hickory Grove. He was part owner of a 270-foot, three-mast schooner, the J.I. Case, that carried cargo between Chicago and Buffalo, as well as the J.I. Case Plow Works. Case was also active in both the Wisconsin and Racine County agricultural societies, and served as president of a Racine bank.

The company that J.I. Case established 175 years ago enjoyed a solid reputation for dependable, well-engineered and sturdily built machines which continues to this day, although now only the initial “C” in CNH (Case-New Holland) remains as a reminder of the once mighty J.I. Case Threshing Machine Co. FC

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at letstalkrustyiron@att.net.

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