Old Iron Collector Straddles Two Worlds

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by Loretta Sorensen
A 1918 20-40 Case with a Case 28x45 thresher. Bob’s grandfather was one of a group of 20 neighboring farmers who pooled their resources to purchase the steam engine and thresher in 1918.

When you visit Bob Grimm, it can be a challenge to know just what to look at first. His western South Dakota farm, just west of Rapid City, teems with farm equipment relics dating to the 1800s.

And even a brief visit with Bob and his family reveals another rich Grimm family treasure: Bob’s experiences, expertise, and memories.

Farmers pool funds for tractor and separator

The roots of his vast, intriguing collection can be traced back to Bob’s grandfather, Martin Grimm, who serviced and maintained a 1918 Case 20-40 gas/kerosene tractor and Case 28×45 separator that are part of Bob’s collection today. Black Hawk Threshing Co. (a group of about 20 neighboring farmers in the Black Hawk, South Dakota, area) purchased the equipment new in 1918.

The group shared the machines for years, working together to accomplish yearly threshing runs, harvesting members’ crops and sharing noontime meals. One of Martin’s eight children, Bill Grimm (Bob’s uncle), accompanied his dad and helped with the work.

“Case started making these tractors and separators around 1915, 1916,” Bob says. “From what I understand, my grandfather and this threshing group paid about $5,000 (the rough equivalent of $83,000 a century later) for the two. That was a lot of money in 1918.”

Annual gathering celebrates tradition

The tractor and thresher were shipped to Rapid City by rail from the J.I. Case factory in Racine, Wisconsin. As far as Bob knows, arrangements were made to make payments for the equipment based on total bushels of grain threshed each year. The point at which the threshing group dissolved and moved on to more modern equipment is lost to history.

“Since my grandfather knew all about operating and maintaining the equipment, he inherited it once the group dissolved,” Bob says. “My Uncle Bill continued using the thresher and tractor until about 1951. As a kid, I helped him with grain harvest and other farm work. That’s how I learned how to use and maintain this old equipment.”

When Bill passed away in 1980, Bob took over the tractor and threshing machine. Since then, he and his family have used the tractor and threshing machine every year to thresh a few acres of oats or wheat, part of their effort to maintain the family tradition. As Bob’s kids and grandkids help with the annual threshing, three generations learn to work side by side.

Currently, Bob and his four children (Linda Carpenter, Connie Hilpert, Gloria Grimm, and Mike Grimm) and granddaughters (Kirston Hilpert and Lori Hilpert) handle planting and harvesting.

“I always enjoyed threshing. Our family has been doing it for 100 years, but I wanted to see the tradition continue,” Bob says. “Now Connie and her kids are learning how to operate and maintain the machines.”

Plans derailed by antique farm equipment

It’s easy to see how his family’s deep appreciation of agricultural innovation has influenced Bob throughout his life. His deep understanding of mechanical processes led him to develop his own business, Grimm’s Pump Service (currently Grimm’s Pump & Industrial Supply), in 1958. He sold his company in 1985 when he was 55 years old.

“I burned out on it,” Bob says. “My intention was to start another company, but before I could do that I was caught up in my desire to restore antique machinery full time. I was sharing my father’s interest in antiques and soon started collecting tractors and other kinds of antique machinery no one else wanted. I got a real thrill out of taking something someone threw away and getting it working again.”

Bob’s interest in vintage equipment began in 1966 when an antique show in Flandreau, South Dakota, caught his attention. He decided to take his parents, Lewis and Cora Grimm, to see it. One show participant’s hit-and-miss engine collection fascinated Bob, setting him on a path of collecting and restoring vintage items.

“The guy at this show had restored six engines,” Bob says. “I thought, ‘if he can do that, I can, too.'”

On the prowl for old iron treasures

Soon Bob got wind of a man wanting to sell a collection of 60 engines. Bob and his father negotiated a deal to buy them all. “Dad restored quite a few of those engines before he died,” Bob says. “I still have 50 or so little engines I need to restore.”

Bob’s father was 85 when the pair started attending auctions around the region, immersed in scaring up and restoring vintage farm items. No matter where he traveled, Bob kept an eye out at auctions, salvage yards, and private collectors for any gems. Lew was 94 when he gave up farming; he died three years later.

“One tractor that was given to me, a 1947 John Deere G, was missing a lot of parts,” Bob says. “I planned to sell it for iron. Before I got that done, I discovered people were buying old tractors like this for tractor pulls. Instead of selling it, I decided to make a tractor out of it. Now I use it to farm in my field.”

Looking for an engine, but …

Bob’s collection and knowledge of the mechanics of vintage farm equipment hardly stops with the Case 20-40 and Case thresher, hit-and-miss engines and restored tractors. The Grimms also have a rare combine they’ve used to harvest wheat.

“In the 1970s I heard about Arch Daugherty in Alliance, Nebraska. He had a hit-and-miss engine collection for sale,” Bob says. “When I got to his farm, he also had the remnants of a 1919 Holt combine for sale. I recognized it was a very unusual piece.”

The combine, made in California by Benjamin Holt (whose company was the forerunner of today’s Caterpillar company) was all wood, except for the traction framework. Daugherty was the second owner. The original owner, Olie Olson, a leading Banner County, Nebraska, farmer, had the combine shipped by rail from Stockton, California, to Bushnell, Nebraska. From Bushnell, he drove it 19 miles to his farm.

“This combine had a custom-made 28-foot cutter bar, so Olson could harvest a lot of grain in a short time,” Bob says. “Arch left the combine outside all the time, so the wooden parts pretty well rotted away. He had taken many metal parts and sold them for scrap iron. The only things Arch hadn’t sold were the cutter bar and wheel that carried the platform.”

Restoration of a rare combine

Bob’s first interest in the combine was its 4-cylinder Holt engine. After completing research on the machine, confirming its rarity (Bob knows of only three others in existence), he negotiated the sale of what was left, brought the combine home, and completely restored it.

Bob and his son traveled to Bird City, Kansas, in July 1994 to meet Norm Dorsch, who also had a Holt combine. “We took a lot of pictures and measurements, which gave me original specs and an idea of how the header was made,” Bob says. “Over the next five to seven years, I made all the necessary parts to restore it in my shop.”

Stockton Wheel Co., established by Benjamin Holt in the mid-1880s, later became known as Holt Mfg. Co. This innovative entrepreneur designed a combine that reduced the cost of harvesting wheat from around $3 per acre to $1.75. Link-belt chains in Holt’s design, which replaced costly gears found on other harvesters of the era, reduced both initial purchase costs and harvester maintenance.

By 1900, Holt was the leading U.S. combine manufacturer. But when their monstrous tractors bogged down in muddy fields, change was needed, and Holt countered with tracks. Holt’s “Original Caterpillar tractor” helped Caterpillar become a global leader.

Still going strong at 90

Other unusual pieces in Bob’s collection include two massive upright single-cylinder 60hp diesel engines, each weighing 10 tons. The engines were once used in gold mines in Lead, South Dakota. A restored 1919 Erie steam shovel, previously used at a local rock quarry and one of only two known to exist, is also a prized piece in Bob’s collection. It is owned, restored and operated by Bob’s son, Mike.

Over the course of the past 35 years, many pieces in Bob’s collection have been displayed at the Black Hills Central State Fair. His reward for the time and effort required to set it all up is the opportunity to share his knowledge and personal experiences with a wide range of fair-goers.

While he sometimes feels the weight of his 90 years, Bob isn’t planning to liquidate his collection or kick back in a rocking chair any time soon. As soon as the remaining pieces for the 65hp Case steam tractor currently resting quietly on the grass at his son’s place are fabricated or repaired, Bob will get to work at reviving that relic, then move on to the next piece needing his attention.

“I’ve worked at two things in my lifetime,” Bob says. “Operating a pump service business and collecting old equipment. My timing for both those ventures has been pretty good.” FC

Born and raised on steam, Mike Grimm’s life revolves around early technology

With just one look, Mike Grimm was spellbound by steam engines.

He was 5 years old when his father, Bob, took him to visit his great-uncle’s farm. It remains his earliest steam engine memory. “My uncle was threshing with that first engine I saw. I remember it was just sitting there, sizzling. At the time, I couldn’t imagine what it was.”

As a youngster, Mike accompanied his father to threshing events held in Sturgis, South Dakota. “Guys at the Sturgis events taught me a lot about steam engines,” Mike says. “By the time I was 12, Dad could see how interested I was in steam and decided it would be good for us to work together to build a scale-model steam engine – from scratch.”

Hobby becomes a career

Once the piece was complete, Mike and his father used the engine in several parades and operated it at special events. At the same time, Mike was pursuing another steam engine passion.

“Dad and I rode the 1880 Train that ran between Hill City and Keystone, South Dakota, every chance we got,” Mike says. “Dad knew the train engineer then, and sometimes we just went and watched the train.”

It never occurred to Mike that he would one day be employed as part of the 1880 Train operation. Hired in 1987, he now oversees all mechanical maintenance of the engines, cars and train track. His dad’s tutelage, he says, gave him a leg up.

“My dad is a mechanical genius, and I’ve inherited some of that,” Mike says. “Every day I use mechanical skills I learned from him.”

No alternative but to figure it out

Mike’s skills are being put to the test as he and his crew work to rebuild a large steam engine found in Washington state. It will become the 1880 Train’s fourth engine.

As aging steam engine enthusiasts pass on, Mike says, a lot of knowledge and skill is being lost. At times, he says, he and his crew “just have to figure things out for ourselves.”

“With all today’s tools and technology, we sometimes find a better way to do things than the way were done in the past,” Mike adds. “These engines bring many challenges each day, and also a lot of fun.”

— Loretta Sorensen

For more information: Call Connie Hilpert (Bob’s daughter) at (336) 207-6832; email: hilpertf@bellsouth.net.

Videos of Bob Grimm’s Holt combine — including one of it in action in the field — can be viewed online at www.bobgrimm.hmfridell.com. The site also includes photos and information about some of Bob’s collection.

Loretta Sorensen is a lifelong resident of southeast South Dakota. She and her husband farm with Belgian draft horses and collect vintage farm equipment. Email her at sorensenlms@gmail.com.

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