A Very Early Case 20-40 Tractor

A restored 1912 Case 20-40 tractor owned by a Minnesota family goes back almost to the beginning of the line.

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by Nikki Rajala
The Case 20-40 is undeniably big. “When I’m hauling it, it’s right at the limit of what I can put on my trailer size-wise,” Andrew Ebling says, “and the high cab is within a foot of power lines.”

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.”

Gary Ebling began collecting tractors in the late 1970s. Andrew grew up in the middle of it, tagging along when his dad competed in tractor pulls. “The Allis-Chalmers A that my father pulled with
during the early ’80s was delivered to his farm the night before my mother went into labor with me,” Andrew says. “That tractor has been around the entirety of my 35 years of going to shows and we
haven’t been separated since then.”

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.”

The tractor was in rough shape. The back wheels were solidly encased in hardened asphalt, doubtless a product of the tractor’s use in road-building, and the cab was missing. Justin hauled the tractor to his home in Hobart, Indiana, and found an extra set of wheels, and replaced the bad ones.
The 20-40 has a Davis engine. Through extensive research, Andrew learned that when the 20-40 was in production, Case purchased Davis Motor Co., Milwaukee, and used engines produced by that company in their early tractors. “Later, they produced their own opposed twin engine in their own foundry and manufacturing facilities,” he says.
Only a handful of 1912 Case 20-40 tractors are known to exist, Andrew says. “There are perhaps fewer than 10 with the Davis engine, but I think they’re pretty rare,” he says. “I’ve never seen another one, though I’ve seen quite a few of the later ones, most of which have a full-length canopy over the cab and engine to the front exhaust.”



Early tractor sports unique features

In addition to the Davis engine, Andrew’s 20-40 has several other unusual features. The cab, reconstructed from original measurements, sits considerably higher than the platform on later Case 20-40 tractors. “In the later ones, the cab is above the frame rail,” he says, “so it sat down a foot or two lower.”
That extra height presents a challenge when Andrew hauls the Case. When it is loaded on his trailer, the cab’s top is only 1 foot beneath high-line wires as he travels, an unnerving experience, he says. Though the 20-40 had no cab when he bought it, Justin later found an original cab. Using measurements from that piece, he built an entirely new cab. As part of the tractor’s overall mechanical restoration, he replaced two copper tubes in the radiator, put in NOS main bearings, reworked the cam followers and added new rings, valve guides and rocker arms. He also removed an oil-feed lubricator.
A kit had been used instead of the Madison-Kipp-type oil regulator, but the tractor smoked badly when it was running. Justin solved the problem by removing the kit and replacing it with an original oil regulator.
Justin also rebuilt the carburetor and replaced a missing tooth in the pinion gear. “Now the tractor has the original look and is as mechanically sound as any tractor,” Andrew says. “His aim was to bring it back cosmetically to look as original as possible, mechanically restored inside and out.”
Andrew says the Ebling tractor has the early-style sheet metal radiator with copper tubes and fins. The later 20-40 tractors came equipped with a more traditional cast ironclad finned radiator, he says.



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.”

For Andrew, old tractors are time machines, pure and simple. “I think the only way to get a glimpse of the early farmer’s life is to try to experience what they did,” he says. “I’ve grown up in an agricultural community as the descendant of farmers. Having these early pieces gives you the ability to stand in the cab and steer, turn that thing around, without air conditioning and power steering like today.

“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

For more information: Andy Ebling, 2218 Millersburg Blvd. East, Dundas, MN 55019; (507) 301-9053; email: aebling@rds-mn.com.
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email: bvossler@juno.com.
  • Updated on May 4, 2022
  • Originally Published on Jul 9, 2019
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