Rare 1885 Case Thresher Model

Restored to perfection, this rare Case thresher started out as a display model

| March 2011

Serious collectors of rare patent models, salesman’s samples and display models of vintage farm equipment are generally interested only in complete models. But when South Dakota collector Willard Zeeb had an opportunity to acquire the unique 1885 J.I. Case agitator thresher now residing in his collection, a few missing pieces didn’t deter him.  

Willard says the Case thresher is a one-of-a-kind salesman’s model that was most likely a display model in the Sioux Falls, S.D., brokerage firm of Norton & Murry, Case agents in the late 1800s. Over the years, the model disappeared from public view, only to resurface at a household auction in Sioux Falls about 20 years ago. When well-known model collector Doug Frey (since deceased) subsequently acquired the thresher, he discovered that not even the people at Case IH realized the model existed. Willard added the thresher to his collection of farm equipment models about two years ago.

Working with vintage materials

“It was a diamond in the rough when I purchased it,” says Willard, who lives in Menno, S.D., with his wife, Donna. “Fortunately, the cast iron portions of the thresher were intact. But the 3-row concave bar was missing, as were four pulleys and the wooden pitman arm. The model was also missing the wooden platforms where the bundles were loaded, cut open and shoved into the machine by hand, and the side shaft and gears that shake the grain out.”

Because of the model’s rarity, Willard was determined to restore it to its original condition. “I contacted the U.S. Patent Office and they sent me a copy of the original 1881 patent papers and line drawings of the thresher,” he says. “I also acquired an 1885 almanac and guide book published by J.I. Case, and from photos and descriptions I found in the book I got a good idea of the parts I’d need to replace.”

Willard says replacing wooden parts is usually the easiest part of a restoration project, as long as he can find aged wood that matches the original. “It’s important to use aged wood with a fine grain,” he explains. “When I replaced the wooden bundle platform and stand, I used some very early wood from an old fruit crate. That wood had at least a 60- or 70-year-old patina, which is practically impossible to recreate from new wood. I also fashioned the wooden pitman arm using an old piece of maple flooring.”

Replacing the metal parts proved to be a greater challenge. Willard patterned the sideshaft for the grain shaker on an original full-sized thresher he located in Nebraska. He was able to replace the two missing gears with parts from Stock Drive Products/Sterling Instruments in New York.