On his way home from the 1948 J.I. Case centennial celebration, Roy Kite decided that, by golly, there was nothing stopping him from buying an old Case steam engine and putting on his own show.
As the Case dealer in Bird City, Kansas, Roy knew a thing or two about farm equipment. He scared up an engine in Norcator, a couple of counties east, outbidding the junk man by $10. Two years later, in 1950, his wife and mother helped him put on his first show at his farm near Bird City.
Seventy years later, the Tri-State Antique Engine & Thresher Assn. – the outgrowth of that show – is going strong in Bird City. In a move that would surely have pleased Roy Kite, the Tri-State group hosted the J.I. Case Heritage Foundation International Expo in 2020. “It was a very successful event,” says Rod Klepper, treasurer of the Tri-State group. “There were people here from all over the U.S.”
Complete offering at high plains show
The Tri-State group moved to its current 45-acre site on the northeast edge of Bird City in 1976. The grounds today contain more than 25 buildings, a country kitchen, restrooms and showers, working printing and blacksmith shops, a train caboose and an original cookshack. Permanent displays showcase relics of everyday farm life of the past, giving visitors a glimpse of farming methods spanning decades.
Among the offering are 15 operating steam engines, more than 200 antique tractors, 35 antique cars and trucks, 30-some stationary gas engines and 100 pedal tractors. More than half of that inventory is owned by the threshers association; the remainder is on loan.
Demonstrations are held daily. Events include corn shelling and grinding, sawing at an operating sawmill and shingle mill, steam engine races, plowing, harvesting, blacksmith demonstrations, antique vehicle parades and more. Supported by a membership of about 400 from Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska, there’s always something going on at Bird City.
Restoring a 1918 10-20 Case
When Joe Ballentine of Onaga, Kansas, took on restoration of a 1918 Case 10-20, it was not his first rodeo, and that’s a good thing. “It was probably my most challenging restoration,” he admits.
The four-cylinder 10-20 he displayed at the 2020 Bird City show represented Case’s first attempt at a lightweight tractor (it weighs 5,500 pounds). Built to compete with the Bull Tractor Co. Little Bull, the three-wheel design gained little traction in the market. “Case had a lot of trouble selling these,” Joe says.
Produced from 1915 to 1918, the 10-20 had a one-speed transmission (one forward, one reverse). “Gears make it go forward,” he says, “and chains make it go in reverse.”
The tractor’s brake was basically a belt pulley brake, Joe says, but it has to be in gear.
Lubrication was provided by a splash system and a drip oiler for the bull gear. Its hand-shift, spring-loaded cone clutch is both unique and difficult to operate.
During the three-year production run, just 6,679 10-20s were built. The model sold so poorly that it took two years after the end of production to burn through the remaining inventory. “It was very, very poorly designed,” Joe says. “The engine was totally enclosed, so it would get real hot, and the carburetor, water pump and magneto were very hard to get to.”
The tractor was not in running condition when Joe got it. It needed extensive head repair, and both water pump shafts had to be replaced. He had to re-babbitt the rods, did work on the governor and had a new manifold fabricated. He made a new bracket for the tractor’s magneto, which sits at an angle. The 10-20’s starting tank had a small filler cap, but it was long gone, so Joe found a cap that would fit.
The tractor’s bull gear cover was also gone. “I fabricated that myself, to keep the dirt off,” he says. All of the lugs were gone, including cone lugs on the coast wheel. Even the directional arrow from the top of the radiator was missing. To make for easier access, Joe built a wood frame to rest the sheet metal on, and a friend in the HVAC business helped bend sheet metal. “I basically tore it down to the bare frame,” he says.
When he started looking for an early Case tractor, Joe attended an auction where a 15-20 was on the sale bill. “I saw it sell for $50,000, and said, ‘Well, I’ll never own one of those.'” In 2016, a lead finally panned out and Joe got his 10-20.
Producing gears with a 1905 hobber
During the Bird City show, doors to more than 25 buildings on the grounds are thrown open. Tucked into the corner of one are a Corliss standard engine built by Murray Iron Works, a steam-driven water pump, ancient machine shop equipment, antique tools – and a gear hobber.
Royce Chambers, Sterling, Colorado, runs the display, and he is the right man for the job. “I just like old stuff,” he says. He has learned to operate the Farwell automatic gear hobbing machine manufactured by The Adams Co., Dubuque, Iowa. The hobber produces gears up to 20 inches as well as sprockets and worm wheels. “It was designed so you didn’t have to be a professional machinist to run it,” he says.
Adams began building gear hobbers in 1901. Royce guesses the Bird City unit dates to about 1905. The hobber is designed to allow blanks to be stacked. “You could do 10 of the same size at once,” he says. “But the blanks have to be cut to the correct diameter so the teeth come out right.”
The Adams hobber was invented by F.O. Farwell, a prolific American inventor. The recipient of several patents, Farwell developed a timing device that allowed machine gun bullets to be fired through a plane’s whirling propellers without striking the blades, a device of considerable interest to the U.S. government during World War I.
Today, firsthand knowledge of how antique tools and machinery were used is vanishing. Royce does what he can to keep the past alive by studying old books and catalogs. He shares interesting discoveries in occasional Facebook posts. “I enjoy learning new things,” he says.
Bringing great-granddad’s “almost new” tractor back to life
When a Kansas man bought a tractor in 1957, he probably didn’t count on it getting a second wind more than 60 years later. But family ties – led by Logan Armbrister, Ellis, Kansas – gave that 1956 Case 400 LP Standard a new lease on life.
“My great-granddad bought the tractor almost new in 1957,” Logan says, “and it was still in use on the farm in 2005.” By the time Logan got his hands on it, the fourth-generation tractor was complete but the engine was stuck.
Logan, who graduated from high school in May 2020, farms and runs a cowherd. He began restoring the tractor before graduation. “I’d been wanting to restore it for a long time,” he says. He worked on it in his school’s ag shop, and got an assist from his dad with engine work. A fresh coat of paint at a local body shop capped off the project.
The Case 400 is fairly rare, but LP tractors in general are not uncommon in Kansas. “There are probably more LP tractors in Kansas and Oklahoma than anywhere else,” Logan says. “My granddad said you used to be able to buy LP for a nickel a gallon around here.”
As a kid, Logan was told his great-granddad’s Case 400 was originally a dealer demonstrator tractor. Post-restoration, it’ll be in retirement. Logan’s plans for it include little more than shows and parades. He’s happy with the way the project turned out. “It looks damn nice and I’m proud of it,” he says.
Restoration showcases 1956 Case 300 LP tractor
John Ahlers’ collection of nearly 120 Case tractors includes many nice original tractors. So when he decided to restore a 1956 Case 300 LP, he wanted it done right. “I wanted it to be as original as possible,” he says. That meant conducting a parts search that took years.
The tractor’s engine was in excellent condition. John (who lives in Bigelow, Minnesota) reworked the radiator and water pump, put in a new clutch and new brake seal, and reworked the bushings on the three-point hitch. The wide front end was in bad shape and had to be replaced. He also redid the entire front grille and left fender and replaced the tractor’s tires. The project was completed in time for the 175th J.I. Case anniversary display in 2017.
The Case 300 LP did not win rave reviews when it was built in 1956. “Case built the 300, the 400 and the 500 that year,” John says. “The 300 was the small tractor of the bunch. A lot of people hated that round nose.”
But the tractor, which he describes as being “pretty rare,” remains high on John’s list of favorites. A lifelong Case enthusiast, he remembers buying his first Case collector item at age 5. His collection reflects unique dedication. “I have the sale bills for a lot of my tractors,” he says.
Remembering ‘The Farmer’s Car’
Too expensive for most farmers but shunned by city dwellers, Case automobiles failed to gain market acceptance
The J.I. Case line of farm equipment is well known. But did you know Case also built a line of automobiles? In fact, the company produced 27,788 cars from 1910 to 1926. Collectors are aware of perhaps 120 surviving cars. Four were on display at the Case Expo in Bird City.
“The Case car was supposed to be a farmer’s car,” says collector Norm Hays, Vernon, Colorado. “But in 1918, a Case sold for $1,800. You could buy three Ford Model Ts for the same money.”
Ironically, the average farmer could not afford a Case car, and non-farm buyers were put off by the farm connection. “The Case car had a little more quality than a Ford,” Norm says. “A lot of them were basically hand-made. But that farm-related name didn’t help sales. It just wasn’t a prestigious name among the general public.”
Norm showed three case cars at Bird City: a 1914 Model 35S five-passenger touring car, a 1921 seven-passenger touring Model V and a 1925 Model X. The 1914 car is his favorite. “I like the originality of it,” he says. “We did put a new top on it so we could tour.”
Norm and his wife, Diane, have taken the 35S on several organized road runs. “It runs good,” he says. “It just doesn’t look real good.” The car’s top speed is about 35mph. “That’s plenty fast with two-wheel mechanical brakes,” Norm says. “Every part in it is over 100 years old.”
The 1921 Model V, with a 6-cylinder headless Continental engine, was originally part of a Longmont, Colorado, touring company specializing in mine tours near Leadville. And the 1925 Model X gives a nod to a once famous race horse.
The car sports the full ‘Jay Eye See’ package (dual side mounts, bumpers, sun shade, spotlight and trunk). “Jay Eye See was a race horse owned by J.I. Case,” Norm explains. “It did fairly well on the racetrack, so the car was named after the horse, for advertising purposes, I suppose.”
With a wood carriage construction and the special package, “The Model X is kind of rare,” Norm says. Wayne and Georgia Gamm, Bowling Green, Missouri, showed the fourth Case Car at Bird City: a 1923 Model X. FC
For more information: The Tri-State Antique Engine & Thresher Assn.’s 2021 show, set for July 29-31, will feature Kory Anderson’s replica of the 1904 Case 150hp Road Locomotive. Call (785) 734-2291 or visit Tri-State Antique Engine & Threshers Assn., Inc.
Leslie C. McManus is senior editor of Farm Collector. Email her at Lmcmanus@ogdenpubs.com.