History of the J.I. Case & Co. from its origins in the 1840s to the late 1800s
About a hundred years ago, western New York state was the center of our wheat producing area. Among the many industrious farmers in the area were Caleb and Deborah Case who had taken up a homestead at Williamstown in 1811. Eight years later their fourth son was born and named Jerome Increase.
Mr. Caleb Case was not too fond of the hard work involved in flailing out his grain as this occupied he and his sons for the most of the winter, and only let up in the spring in time for them to start their field work. Small wonder then that Caleb Case was one of the first in his community to purchase one of the “Groundhog” threshers. His son Jerome took the greatest interest in the operation of this thresher and soon became the family thresherman. The efficiency of the “Groundhog” thresher as compared to the flail also enabled the Cases to do a bit of threshing for their neighbors hence we see Jerome I. Case as a custom thresherman at an early age.
By the time that Jerome I. Case was 24, he had acquired a small amount of money from his custom work. He now felt that he was ready to go and make his own way in the world, and it was only natural he should choose the trade he liked – threshing.
A number of improvements having been made in threshing machines by the Pitts brothers and others were now proving to be successful in operation by the farmers and threshermen.
Wishing to go west, and hearing of the wonders of the western regions adjacent to the Great Lakes, he picked Wisconsin, and finally came to Rochester late in the fall of 1842. He brought with him six of the latest types of threshers, for he had heard they would have ready sale out here on the frontier. These machines were bought on credit and five were sold at a profit which gave him a bit of capital with which to get started, and also marked him as a shrewd business man.
With the remaining machine, he resumed his trade of custom threshing. When not occupied by this, he was busy keeping his machine in repair. Working as he did, with and on his thresher, he discovered many of its shortcomings, and by discussing them with farmers, found that there was a need for an improved machine.
It was with this need in mind that he moved to Racine, then but a village located directly on the lake front and, therefore, assured necessary transportation facilities. Here he rented a small shop and started to build what was his idea of a good thresher. Success was his, for three years later he built a shop of his own located on the river. Sweep and tread powers were added to the line of goods. Case, wishing to keep his threshers in the front rank, also added improvements of other prominent thresher builders, such as Pitts, Wemple, Farquhar, Russell and others.
The threshers he built found ready sale in this new country which was rapidly being settled. In making business and collection calls, Case was taken from his shop more and more, so in 1852 he obtained the services of M.B. Erskine who he placed in charge of his shop. The shop grew with the increased demand for threshers till in 1855 it was necessary to add steam power to run the machinery and a foundry to insure a dependable supply of good castings.
The business soon grew to the point where it was necessary for Mr. Case to spend more of his time on company administration, and he was also interested in local and state government, as behooved the successful businessman, therefore he employed a Mr. R.H. Baker as general agent and collector for the company.
By 1862, apron threshers had been greatly improved, being now a completely enclosed machine with stackers and baggers, made in sizes up to 36-inch cylinder. These large sizes had been in answer to an almost constant demand for machines of more capacity. Horse-powers using as high as twelve horses, as well as portable steam engines, were being used to power these large machines.
The building of threshers, horse-powers and other machinery had finally reached the point where it required a considerable number of skilled men to manage the business, hence in 1863 a partnership was established under the title J.I. Case & Company although the shops were still known as the “Racine Threshing Machine Works.” In this new firm J.I. Case was president, his brother-in-law, Stephen Bull, vice president, with M.B. Erskine as factory superintendent, and R.H. Baker as general agent and collector.
They employed W.W. Dingee as mechanical expert and designer. Dingee had previously had a threshing machine manufacturing plant of his own in the east but was more interested in design than in manufacture.
During the war between the states, an American eagle had been carried as a mascot by a Wisconsin regiment and was named “ole Abe” by its members. At the close of the war in 1865 a picture of “ole Abe” was chosen by the Case Company as its trademark and by reputation has become one of the oldest and most respected in the heavy agricultural machinery field.
Their Apron thresher won so many prizes at various fairs that it became known as the Case “Sweepstakes” machine, but in spite of its fame, the cry was for more and more capacity.
The nation was moving westward, grain fields were growing more numerous and larger, and there was more grain to be threshed in a shorter time for now there were no barns large enough where the grain could be stacked and threshed during the winter. The grain had to be threshed after it was cut and cured and before it was buried in the snow.
The limitations of the apron machine under many Mid-Western threshing conditions had led to the development of several new types of threshers, known as rakes, vibrators, oscillators, etc. The Case Company, to follow the trend, developed a new thresher in 1869 which eliminated the apron. In this new thresher, called the “Eclipse,” the threshing mechanism consisted of two open type raddle rakes, one over the other and running in opposite directions. The upper rake carrying the straw from the cylinder and the lower one carried the grain on a tight floor underneath to the fanning mill or shoe.
Both the “Eclipse” and the “Apron” models were built giving the customers their choice. The production of the Eclipse rose to fifty a year by 1871 being made in a range of three sizes, while the Apron model was made in eight different sizes.
Threshers with their increased capacity required more power, straining the output of available horse-powers. Westward expansion had increased the price of horses to a point where steam engines were now coming into competition with them. The Civil War had brought on improved methods in steel manufacture lowering its cost, the benefits which were now being felt in the agricultural machinery field.
The year 1869 in addition to seeing the new Case Eclipse thresher was also the year in which they sold their first portable steam engine under the Case name. The sale of portable steam engines for use with their threshers gradually increased till in 1876, seventy-five were sold.
Portable engines as well as the threshers were drawn from place to place by teams of horses or oxen, involving a waste of animal power as well as slowing up the process of moving from one job to the next. This was especially so when the roads were poor and the heavy portable engines required extra teams to pull them through the bad places in the road. When horse-powers were used there were so many teams around anyway that the few needed to pull the threshing machines were always available. It can be seen that the portable engine with its own shortcomings led to the need for a self-propelling or traction engine.
Case added a traction attachment to some of his portable engines in 1878, thus enabling the power of the engine to be used not only to propel the engine itself but to draw the threshing machine and supply wagon. The steering of the engine was done by a team of horses hitched to a tongue on the front axle. This was partially done to overcome the frightening of oncoming teams when they met this hissing and fiery monster. Then too, many old farmers had a bit more confidence when someone had the rein well in hand.
The traction attachment used was Cooper’s patent inclined shaft, bevel gear drive which was fitted with an opposed bevel gear reverse and a ratchet type differential. This was used for a few years and mounted on their several sizes of portables.
A spur gear drive traction of their own design was developed in 1880, this was fitted with a link reverse and the conventional type differential. Horse-guide was still used and it was not until 1884 a hand-guide was advertised, thus making their tractions a fully independent power.
In answer to a demand for a straw burning engine from California and the Northwest, Jesse Walrath, mechanical superintendent of the company, developed and patented an attachment which made it possible to burn straw in their direct flue portable engines.
This attachment consisted of an external firebox mounted underneath the boiler barrel just ahead of the regular firebox. The straw was fired from the side and burned in this auxiliary fire box ,the flame entering the front ash pan door then passing up through the regular firebox and out the flues in the normal manner.
A number of these attachments were made and used with their portable engines attaining a degree of success. The demand was also for a traction straw burner, so a chain drive traction using their bar guide engine was developed. This traction was only made as a horse guided model as the straw burner attachments could not be used on engines having steering mechanisms and countershafts in front of the firebox. Using the chain drive enabled them to place the countershaft across the rear of the firebox. These Walrath straw burning attachments were discontinued about 1886, being replaced by a line of return flue straw burning engines of a type which proved more successful.