Andrew Ebling is a young guy who thinks old. Take antique tractors, for instance. “I like how archaic some of them are,” says the 35-year-old Dundas, Minnesota, business manager. “I like how simple the designs are. Early tractors show the transition in design, so the earliest ones were always the most interesting because you saw just how the foundation was laid to build a tractor.”
Andrew, his dad, Gary, and brother, John, share a tractor collection. Among the early tractors in their stable is a rare 1912 Case 20-40 tractor. Some say it might have been the first Case tractor sold in California. “It’s not possible to prove that claim,” Andrew admits. “Justin Click (owner of the tractor before Andrew and his family bought it) says it’s pretty hard to substantiate that, but it came from an era when that was very possible.”
The first Case gas-powered tractor – the Paterson – was built in 1892 (one year after the death of company founder J.I. Case) but the tractor was not considered a success. Case next entered the gas tractor market in 1911 with its 30-60.
Along with the 30-60, the 20-40 was part of Case’s first foray into gas tractor manufacturing, Andrew says. “It was the beginning of the company and what they thought was the best way to design a tractor, then manufacturing one that they thought could make a profit,” he says. “That’s all part of this tractor.”
With a serial number of 536, the Ebling family’s 1912 Case was undeniably part of the initial run of tractors manufactured by J.I. Case Threshing Machine Co. “My understanding is that this tractor was probably assembled on the street or in the parking area right outside the Case factory,” Andrew says, “because they didn’t have a huge inside assembly area at that point.”
Found in poor condition
The Case 20-40 was discovered 15 years ago in Gridley, California, at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in Butte County. “The farming community there goes back well into the 1800s,” Andrew says. “(Tractor collector/restorer) Justin Click saw the tractor for sale by a couple of brothers who had found it up in the mountains and brought it down to their place in the foothills.”
Early tractor sports unique features
Keeping a 1912 tractor in shape
Because the 20-40 has been restored, Andrew says maintenance is fairly simple. He oils moving pieces and parts, hand-oils the rocker arms, makes sure the grease cups are filled, and fills a couple of oiler cups located under the back part of the tractor, near the spot where the driver stands.
“The journey of enjoying these tractors presents different issues than you have with newer tractors, where it’s a matter of whether the battery is dead, or if there is good spark, or the fuel might be bad,” he says. “The older steel wheel tractors are much more problematic. They’re like different horses. You had to learn each horse’s tics and personality so you could really work with them. With these old tractors, you can’t just hop from one to another, because the key is learning the idiosyncrasies of each.”
Andrew has done restoration work, but for now, he’s busy with the family business. “As a kid, I worked four summers in an auto body shop, working on old cars,” he says, “so I know the cosmetic work, and just enough of the mechanical work to make me slightly dangerous.”
His sons, August, 7, and Henry, 5, have been exposed to the hobby since they were born. “I’ve been taking them to tractor shows since they were only weeks old,” Andrew says. “It was a way to give my wife, Katie, a day off, and the boys could have a lot of fun. They’ve had a great time with it from the beginning, and I can tell they’re in it for the long haul. Katie encourages it. I’m very fortunate that she enjoys going to shows and has a good time looking at old stuff like I do.”
A trio of early tractors
The Case, which the Eblings bought about a year ago, fits in well with some of their earlier tractors, like the 1929 Keck-Gonnerman 30-60 and the 1927 Baker 25-50. The two unrelated early tractors have the same LeRoi engine. The Keck-Gonnerman was built in Mount Vernon, Indiana; the Baker was built in Swanton, Ohio.
“Keck-Gonnerman and Baker, independently of each other, manufactured tractors of similar size and horsepower,” Andrew says. “The companies were small and didn’t have the foundry size and engineering in-house, so they bought a set of French & Hecht wheels, Foote Bros. transmissions and other parts, and both bought LeRoi engines with a 5-1/2-inch bore and 7-inch stroke.”
The Keck-Gonnerman and Baker tractors competed against tractors produced by Deere & Co. and International Harvester, companies big enough that they produced their own components. But the LeRoi engine – rated at 43hp on the drawbar and 67-70 on the belt – held its own. “The LeRoi is extremely healthy, has a nice snappy governor and can saw through a pile of wood easily,” Andrew says.
Early tractor, or time machine?
When Andrew takes the early tractors to a show, they get a workout. He drives them in parades and does a little threshing, and he loves the chance to run them on a sawmill.
He also likes to provide a bit of context for the Case. “When I tell people that the tractor was built the same year the Titanic went down, and this one was building roads in California at the same time, they think it’s kind of cool,” he says. “There is the excitement and wonder that, after 107 years, this tractor is still plodding along. I usually get a lot of questions, and kids enjoy the sheer size of old stuff like this.”
“What brings my heart level up is being on the 1912 Case and feeling the heat coming off that engine,” he says. “For a few seconds, you can feel some of the effort that it once took to farm. It’s the closest thing I’ve found yet to time travel.” FC