Farm Collector

Rare 1885 Case Thresher Model

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.

“Some of the original pulleys were still in place, so I took them to Steven Kasten, a model maker in Sioux Falls who is very good at making replacement parts,” he says. “He cast the new pulleys out of brass. He also made replacement concave teeth using a pattern I copied from a tooth of the cylinder. I remember helping my grandfather repair his Case thresher, and I remembered that the concave bar used the same tooth design as the cylinder. So I made a pattern out of brass, filed and shaped it, and Steve used it as his pattern.”

Willard also created new belts for the thresher from player piano bellows material. “That material is rubberized and made of non-stretchable cloth,” he says. “I lapped the ends and used Tear Mender adhesive to glue the laps.”

Master of miniatures

The Case thresher is not the first model he’s brought back to original condition. One of his favorite models is a salesman’s sample of a Perkins windmill. While the essential drive hardware was intact when Willard acquired it, the rotor, vane and portions of the tower were missing.

“Fortunately, a friend who owned a full-sized Perkins windmill sent me measurements for the missing parts,” he explains. “I approximated a scale for my model and then fabricated wooden parts from an old piece of walnut lumber.”

Willard recreated the curved rotor frame by boiling lengths of walnut, bending them over a piece of PVC pipe and curing them in the sun. He cut thin slices of walnut to fabricate rotor blades and the vane, and used more of that wood to make replacement parts for the windmill’s tower. To replicate missing hardware, he fabricated facsimile rivets from straight pins, used tiny machine screws for bolts and cut square nuts from slices of square keystock.

Most of the more than two dozen models in Willard’s collection were complete when he acquired them. His collection includes salesman’s samples of an Adams road grader and an Auburn wagon, and models of an Ohio Cultivator Co. hay press and a hay tedder still in its original case. He has a model of an 1886 Kirby horse-drawn mower, an 1858 Buckeye wood frame mower and a Buckeye Red brass mower, an Avery walking plow, a Buckeye reaper and more.

Along with the Case thresher, Willard’s most prized possession is an intricately designed Superior Drill No. 3 patent model constructed from walnut, nickel, steel, brass and areas of gold wash finish. The mint-condition model includes a copy of the original patent papers, and original shipping box complete with wax seals stamped by the U.S. Patent Office.

“Although it’s always nicer to collect models that are 100 percent complete, I believe that rare pieces can be restored professionally with no effect on the value of the piece,” says Willard, who intends to display his Case thresher at the 20th National Case Expo in Albert City, Iowa, in August 2011. “I’ve been very satisfied with each piece I’ve restored.” FC

For more information: Contact Willard Zeeb at (605) 387-5577; P.O. Box 491, Menno, SD 57045.

Jerry Schleicher is a country humorist and cowboy poet. He grew up on a crop and cattle operation in western Nebraska, and now lives in Missouri. Contact him at 8515 Lakeview Dr., Parkville, MO 64152; e-mail:

  • Published on Jan 14, 2011
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