With the death of C.H. Wendel in August, the old iron community has lost its preeminent historian. The author of more than 30 carefully researched books during a 40-year career, Wendel was our resident expert on all things related to old machinery.
Whether you knew him as Chuck or Charlie or C.H., you knew him to have a deep and enduring passion for machines, engines and tools. The author of American Gasoline Engines Since 1872, Wendel also published definitive works documenting development of tractors, farm equipment, industrial engines and steam engines.
Born in 1939, Wendel did not bear witness to the period when mechanization came to the farm. But from an early age, he paid close attention to those who did. “I’d court the old timers,” he told me in a 2008 conversation. “I learned all I could from them, especially about the threshing days, starting as early as when I was in grade school.”
Taken in sum, Wendel’s talents, interests, aptitudes and discipline seemed designed for the most important role he would play: that of historian. Research was the cornerstone of his work.
Accustomed to the presence of errors in printed material, Wendel conducted as much research as humanly possible when writing his own books. “I refused to rely on hearsay,” he said. “But research is not easy work. You have to do a lot of digging, and even then, you’re not always going to be successful. Time has a way of clouding a lot of things.”
Antiquated printing technology was another of Wendel’s passions. Involving both complicated machinery and precision work, the printer’s craft was a perfect fit for him. A lifelong supporter of the Midwest Old Threshers in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, Wendel was instrumental in establishing Printers Hall there. “Printing keeps the brain active,” he mused.
For a man who taught himself to read, write and speak German, whose mind was full of schematics of engines built a century earlier, and who loved nothing more than a daunting mechanical challenge, it’s hard to imagine he had to work at keeping his brain active. But his was a mind of insatiable curiosity. “I’ve had to teach myself to get the most out of every day that I can,” he said back in 2008. Almost single-handedly, he built a solid foundation beneath this hobby, and that will long serve as Wendel’s enduring legacy. Hail and farewell to one of a kind! FC
Leslie C. McManus