How I Became a Case Man

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Kevin Dunn readies Case #35654 for its trip to Indiana.
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Bob Rhode and Eric Brutus run the 65 HP Case in a Hoosier meadow.

3982 Bollard Avenue Cincinnati, Ohio 45209

Moving day, May 20th, 1995. By the evening of that day, Case
#35654 would be safely unloaded on the farm belonging to my father,
Joe Rhode, near Pine Village, Indiana. I was so excited about the
engine that sleep was a scarce commodity the night before the trip.
For Lloyd and son Kevin Dunn of Mt. Orab, Ohio, the day meant the
trucking away of the 65 horsepower engine Lloyd’s father,
Howard M. Dunn, had restored between 1968 and 1969. Kevin and Lloyd
would accompany the faithful Case to its new home in northwestern
Indiana, there to bid it goodbye.

With the understanding that the engine would be moved in May, I
had bought the Case in January. On that winter day, just after
snowplows had opened the main road, I had given Lloyd the certified
check to purchase it. As Russell-man Jay Hanselman of Georgetown,
Ohio, put it, ‘That gives you a weird feeling, doesn’t it?
You’re holding a check for one of the biggest amounts of money
you’ve ever had at one time, and then you hand it over.’ It
did feel strange, but I knew the engine was in tiptop condition and
worth the price. I took a look a the Case and thought,
‘I’ll see you again in spring.’

The months passed quickly from January to May. It seemed
impossible that irises should be blooming already. Following five
extra inches of rain, the morning of the 20th dawned clear, cool,
and bright. The day would be perfect for transporting the
engine.

I drove to the Dunn’s home where the Green line truck from
Washington Court House soon arrived. Kevin steered the Case while a
chain pulled the engine up planks onto the low-slung truck bed. The
weight of the Case that morning approached ten tons; Bill Lamb,
old-time engineer from Lexington, Kentucky, had recommended filling
the boiler full with water to keep the tubes from rattling. While
men busily chocked the wheels of the Case, a neighbor said,
‘There goes a piece of Mt. Orab history.’

The truck took off, with Lloyd and Kevin’s pickup and my car
falling into position behind. We circled Cincinnati on the freeway
through Kentucky. Once, we crossed a viaduct so high above the
valley that the trains down below looked like toys.

I thought how, in 1923, rails like those had transported my
engine to the Mountain Dew Coal Company, which had the Case agency
in Lexington, Kentucky. Bill had recalled that my 65 horsepower
Case was one of three engines parked on Fourth Street in front of
that dealership. The other two were a 45 horsepower and another 65
horsepower. I pictured how impressive a sight these three
freshly-painted, brand-new engines must have presented when
flatcars carried them on shiny tracks into the city! Cecil Johnson
bought Case #35654. Eventually, the Peale family acquired it.
Howard Dunn purchased it next.

I reflected how, back when the engine was built, freeways and
massive overpasses were distant dreams, and many bridges were too
weak to support an engine’s weight. Now here we were skimming
along at fifty-five miles per hour on a concrete bridge towering
above the railroads.

A comment of Lloyd’s came back to me. While we had been
waiting for the truck that morning, he had remarked how a favorite
aunt of his had witnessed incredible changes from her girlhood in
the Twenties until the present. I glanced out the car window at an
airplane nearly submerged beneath Ohio floodwaters and at a jet
trail in the sky overhead. On the other side of the median, an
ambulance was speeding on its way toward a modern hospital. A semi
truck loaded with the latest in farm equipment rushed along. From
the passing lane, a car’s CD player roared.

An overpass arching across the interstate in Indiana brought a
surprisean Amish buggy! The sun glinted from the spokes in the
wheels when the bearded driver slowed his horse and peered over the
railing at the Case zipping along underneath.

After about five hours on the road plus an hour for a truck-stop
lunch and a lively discussion about cheating in 4-H cattle judging,
we passed through Lafayette, where a prominent sign announced the
home of the Boilermakers, Purdue University. We were almost to
Dad’s farm on the plains of northwestern Indiana. ‘You have
lots of open country up here,’ Kevin observed. ‘It’s
like Kansas.’

The last two miles of gravel road brought us to the driveway,
soft from spring rains. ‘If I take her in there, we’ll be
stuck for sure,’ said Paul Clark, the truck driver and
president of the Clinton County (Ohio) Corn Festivala man who knows
that puddles and trucks bearing steam engines do not mix. The Case,
then, was unloaded on the gravel road. Dad pulled it with a tractor
while Kevin steered the engine into the wooded, grassy lot east of
the house. The truck hurried off to pick up a piece of equipment
near Crawfordsville.

Lloyd and Kevin stayed for pie, cake, and ice cream in the long
kitchen of the house where I had spent my high school years. As Dad
explained to the Dunns, Joe Williams, owner of a Reeves rig in the
early 1900s, had torn out an inner wall to make the kitchen large
enough to seat the threshing crew and to host the annual ice-cream
social which celebrated the end of the threshing season. The Case
engine had come to leave its ‘footprints’ where the Reeves
engine once had made tracks in the soft earth. Dad’s uncle had
been the engineer on that earlier rig, and now I would learn how |
to run the Case.

Just before Lloyd and Kevin started on their return journey to
Ohio, they sat in their pickup for a last look at the engine.

FIRST FIRING

July 23, 1995. The day dawned hot and muggy. Bits of wet weeds
clung to my shoes as I strode through the overgrown barnlot. There
stood the Case, ready for firing. Dad and I had spent long hours
painting the green and black parts of the engine; these glistened
in the dew. The wheels and gears would get fresh coats of paint
soon, but they still appeared bright red. The Dunns always kept the
engine well-painted, and, when I bought it, the time to tackle the
task had just rolled around again.

Eric Brutus, who runs a nearby farm, was helping Dad split wood.
In a few minutes Eric’s father, Glen J., arrived. Having owned
over two-dozen engines (mostly Case engines, including one of the
prized 110 horsepower models), Glen J. had agreed to share his
expertise in the first firing of Case #35654. Likewise an
accomplished engineer, Eric began to teach me the complicated art
of running a steam traction engine. He handed me a stick of wood
and a match.

With kerosene-assisted, businesslike flames finally warming the
firebox, Eric quit laughing at how many tries it had taken me to
start the fire, and he said, ‘Next, Robert, it’s time for
grease and oil.’ While Eric pointed to grease-cup after
grease-cup and I filled and twisted them, Glen J. kept up a running
commentary yes, about engines and how to operate them but also
about the now-legendary engineers he had known. I wanted to stop
what I was doing, grab a pen and paper, and take down the
fascinating stories Glen J. was telling, but we had a roaring fire
and an engine in need of oil. I had to work steadily and listen as
best I could.

‘When that gasket blew,’ Glen J. was reminiscing,
‘those other guys ran for their lives and left me on the
platform all by myself. There they were, peeking around the corner
of the barn, and Windy Stingle hopped in his car and drove into
town. He told the boys at the restaurant that, if they heard a big
explosion, it was my engine blowing up!’ I chuckled, almost
losing my balance on the running board and learning how to juggle a
wrench and oilcan.

During a first firing, certain moments assume a nearly
ritualistic significance: when the steam-gauge needle lifts off the
post, when pressure has mounted enough to start the blower, when
the flywheel glides into motion, and when the whistle proclaims its
imperial warning that the drive wheels are about to turn. My
brother Charles, from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, had joined us in time
to appreciate each of these fleeting milestones.

To guide the engine from the barn lot to the gravel road
resembled nothing so much as attempting to thread a needle with a
rope. The lane twisted through a narrow gate, turning sharply
beside a garage, and ducked under tree branches. ‘You steer,
and I’ll run the levers,’ Eric said. Right.

My arm benefited from ample exercise, spinning the steering
wheel to the left, twirling it to the right, over-compensating, and
flailing it back around in panic and chagrin. Even though I fully
expected to hear a crash, we cleared all obstacles, somehow.

Eric stopped the engine long enough for me to catch my breath,
then we were off again, hoping no car was coming when we boldly
entered the road, the massive iron wheels crunching stones.

Case #35654 chuffed along without incident, and I guided the
Christmas-colored machine onto a lane stretching into the distance
with meadows to either side. For most of the morning, Dad, Glen J.,
Eric, Charles, and I took turns driving up and down past bales of
hay.

By noon, the sky had deepened from hazy azure to cobalt gray,
and the first thunder reverberated across the prairie. Within
minutes, the rain was pelting down in sheets. On the platform, Eric
stated, ‘We’re standing on an iron engine.’ I could
guess what conclusion he would draw: ‘That makes us an
excellent target for lightning.’ We were soaked by the time we
slid into the seat of Dad’s pickup truck. Before we had taken
to our heels, we had happened to notice that the downpour was
causing the steam pressure to drop a few pounds. I had not realized
that cold rain could have that much effect on a boiler.

In the house, we gathered for a noon meal and entertaining
conversation. I wondered if the threshing crews of old had ever
dashed into this kitchen to escape a thunderstorm. After dessert (a
devil’s-food cake to celebrate Dad’s birthday, an
angel-food cake to celebrate mine), the sun broke through the
clouds, and we emerged into the outdoors where drips sparkled on
leaves and vines.

Eric and I fed the fire, and, in no time, the Case shook the
drips off the connecting rod. Toward the late afternoon, I felt
more confident about using the throttle and reverse lever, but I
relied on Eric to watch me carefully. Then came the inevitable we
had to urge the engine back through the gauntlet into the barn
yard. This time, I insisted that Eric have the pleasure of
steering.

We made it, stopping only once for Dad to lift a stubborn maple
bough with a pitchfork. With the fire dying out, Eric and I parked
the engine but left the crankshaft spinning slowly. Unlike my
Wilesco model engines, the Case continued to turn over for almost
thirty minutes before the pressure dropped too low. With engine
authorities Glen J. and Eric on hand, we had run the engine all day
without popping off and without getting stuck on dead center.
Except for a cylinder-cock lever as loose as the throttle was
tight, the Case had no problems.

Earlier in the week, I had stopped at B & B Steam
Restorations near Greensburg, Indiana, where Brian Vaughn had
introduced me to a co-worker as ‘a Case man.’ The first
firing had taught me that it would be a long time perhaps a very
long time before I would know how to run an engine, let alone
become enough of an expert to be called ‘a Case man’!
Still, I sensed a growing attachment to this giant machine which
had performed so perfectly throughout the day. I had not felt I
owned this engine until I had run it.

A crimson sunset blazed on the spokes of the wheels, but the
tires now wore thick coats of mud and gravel. To chip away this
cemented mixture would prove a challenge in the days ahead, but, on
this evening, I thought the Case looked like a master piecean iron
sculpture worthy of a museum of fine art.

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