Jerome Increase (J.I.) Case would have walked tall among the record crowd celebrating the 175th anniversary of the Case company, Aug. 10-13, 2017. The Case festivities were held in conjunction with the 47th annual Albert City (Iowa) Threshermen & Collectors Show.
A total of nearly 18,800 people attended the four-day event, breaking Albert City’s previous record of 16,100 in 2016. It was believed to be the largest-ever gathering of Case equipment, with more than 500 Case exhibits.
“There were nine rare Case automobiles, with two coming from as far away as Washington, and seven Case steam engines, including one from Pennsylvania,” says Connie Reinert, a member of the Threshermen & Collectors board of directors. “There were also many other unique and very rare pieces of equipment on display.”
When planning for the event began some five years earlier, several Case organizations (including the J.I. Case Collectors’ Assn., J.I. Case Heritage Foundation and five regional Case clubs) requested expanded activities, resulting in the addition of a full day of events at the Albert City show. The one-day Threshermen Experience included demonstrations and presentations on early farming practices, blacksmithing, spinning, one-room schools, threshing and broom making.
Show highlights included display of a groundhog-style thresher built by J.I. Case. Born in 1819, J.I. Case was fascinated by groundhog threshers at an early age. The device separated grain from the stalk, but still required winnowing to remove chaff.
A small, drum-style thresher, the first groundhog (so named for its spiked cylinder) was invented in 1786 by Scotsman Andrew Meikle. The groundhog-style thresher is widely recognized today as the first threshing machine – and possibly the inspiration for what would become a global manufacturing powerhouse.
“In the 1830s, young Case induced his father, Caleb, to purchase a groundhog thresher,” writes C.H. Wendel in 150 Years of J.I. Case. “Caleb Case became a selling agent for this machine, and for several seasons young Jerome traveled the countryside of Oswego County, New York, doing custom threshing.”
An avid reader, the young Case learned of impressive wheat crops grown near Rochester, Wisconsin. The appealing accounts enticed the young man to move to Rochester. As he left New York in 1842, he bought six groundhog threshers to take with him.
Depending on the source you favor, five of the six threshers may have been sold along the way. But there is general agreement that Case kept the sixth as a means of generating income. And when it wasn’t in use, it served as inspiration for the improved thresher he would soon build.
According to Case IH, which provided the historic groundhog as a display at the anniversary event, Case spent months experimenting with various designs. Once he had a machine that would separate wheat kernels from straw, he rented a small shop in Racine, Wisconsin, where he began to build threshers.
Jerred Ruble, Hanlontown, Iowa, owns two of about 35 110 hp Case steam engines known to exist in the U.S. At the Albert City show, he displayed a 1910 engine and a 1913 engine.
The 1910 engine was originally used in Manitoba, Canada. Jerred purchased it at a 2008 auction. “I was going to buy it for a friend,” he says. “At the last minute, he decided he didn’t want it, so I was the bidder. I had the winning bid and didn’t have to bid against my friend.”
When the engine left Manitoba, it was in pieces. A new owner planned to re-assemble it, but those plans were never realized. After the engine was added to a collection in Georgia, yet another new owner put together a team to restore the engine.
“When I bought it, the engine needed very little repair, just some new bearings and minor maintenance,” Jerred says. “I usually display both my engines at the Forest City (Iowa) threshing show. Since Albert City is just over 100 miles from me, I wanted to take part in this show, too. Hauling two is just as easy as hauling one.”
Jerred bought his other 110 hp engine at the Forest City show, where its owner had offered it for sale. “I really wanted to keep that steam engine at Forest City,” he says. “So I negotiated a deal with the owner.”
Designed to pull massive 10- and 12-bottom gang plows, the Case 110 was often used to break prairie sod in western states. Once the prairies were converted to cropland, demand for the colossal machines rapidly declined. Jerred believes the 110 – the largest steam engine in regular production from Case – remains the company’s proudest legacy.
“Over the years, Case had the opportunity to perfect a lot of little things in the design,” Ruble says. “Once the need for plowing the prairie faded, the 110s were still important for use in large sawmills, where they provided sawing power.”
The 19-ton machine, which typically carries about a ton of water, literally shakes the ground as it moves. “Once you start working with a steam engine and feel that sense of power,” Jerred says, “it’s pretty addictive.”
Dennis Powers of Ogden, Iowa, displayed his 1912 kerosene-powered 30-60 Case tractor. The tractor is one of five known to exist (493 were built from 1912 through 1916). The 30-60 was used for construction, freighting crops, threshing and the heaviest of fieldwork. The 2017 show marked the first time Dennis’ tractor had been out of storage in six years.
Dennis bought the tractor in Calgary, Alberta, in 1993. It was originally used for threshing and plowing in Saskatchewan and Alberta. When Dennis bought the tractor, it was complete but in pieces, many of which were broken and required repair. Restoration proceeded over a period of several years.
Dennis admits that his collection includes several Case tractors, but he’s basically colorblind. “I don’t have any brand preference,” he says. “I just like the behemoth tractors. As a hobby, I’ve worked on and restored a number of them. I’m most interested in the era of 1905 to 1925, when America transitioned from use of animals to steam engines or kerosene-powered tractors.”
Dennis believes that because tractors as big as his 30-60 were beyond the reach of the average farmer, few were manufactured.
“People are usually impressed with the size of this tractor,” he says. “When you consider the ability of people to manufacture something like this more than 100 years ago, it is impressive. That was in the day before welders and modern manufacturing equipment. I’m impressed that the tractor still runs after all these years.”
Case introduced the Model L tractor in 1929. Undergoing rigorous testing for four years before it was introduced to the market, elements of the tractor’s design were used in Case tractors for the next 20 years.
Jaren Steenhoek of Pella, Iowa, displayed the 1929 Model L he’s owned since 1978. “The day I bought the tractor, the seller was using it to grind feed for his hogs,” he says. “He’d been using the tractor for a while and decided to sell it after he was seriously injured while he cranked it to get it started.”
When Jaren bought it, the tractor had been painted orange and its original steel wheels had been replaced by rubber tires. “I’m guessing that was done sometime in the 1940s,” he says. “I don’t have information on the original owner, but I believe I’m the tractor’s third owner.”
Jaren conducted careful research to identify the tractor’s original color scheme and pin-striping. “The paint scheme on the 1929 Model L is different than on later Model Ls,” he says. “The width of the pinstripe and the red and white colors are only found on the 1929 model. The decals, especially on the rear fender, are also shaded differently from those found on later models.”
The tractor’s original fan and the belt drive for the water pump had been modified, and a variable speed governor – though not original to the model – was added at some point. The tractor’s tires are original, dating to the 1940s. “They haven’t made tires like that for many years,” Jaren says.
Because it was in running condition when he purchased it, Jaren found little to repair on his Model L. He painted the tractor and did minor mechanical work.
Billed as a once-in-a-lifetime demonstration, “Experience the Evolution” was a show-stopping, jaw-dropping demonstration at Albert City. Organized by Threshermen volunteers Duane Madson and Lynn Wenell, the event put Case steam engines and early tractors to work in the field, alongside modern Case tractors like the Case IH Steiger 620 QuadTrac.
On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, registered participants simultaneously plowed, disced, seeded, planted, cultivated, combined and chopped. Each demonstration progressed from walking implements to horse-drawn implements, mechanized equipment to today’s state-of-the-art giants (segments of the demonstration were filmed for later broadcast on RFD-TV).
A static display also showcased the Case legacy. A fascinating progression of Case engines, tractors and implements traced the evolution of the line over 175 years. FC
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
The roots of what is known today as Case IH are traced back to Racine County, Wisconsin, where Jerome Increase Case settled into his life’s work of designing agricultural equipment intended to reduce the manual labor that had been the hallmark of agriculture for centuries.
In the company’s early years, Case was mostly known for development of steam traction engines, steam and gas tractors and threshing machines. Eventually Case was recognized as the world’s first agricultural steam engine builder and largest steam engine manufacturer.
Portable steam engines, first built in 1869, weren’t readily accepted by change-resistant farmers. High purchase prices put them off, and frequent boiler explosions did little to change their minds.
“Hearing of these tragedies worried farmers who feared that an exploding boiler could be their end,” writes C.H. Wendel in 150 Years of J.I. Case. “Fire (from flying sparks and cinders) was always a danger, and in most cases, if a building caught fire, there was little to do but watch it burn.”
Case offered its first self-propelled steam engine in 1877. As late as 1920, Case still offered 18 hp, 50 hp and 65 hp portable steam engines. But by 1924, Case had discontinued production of the once impressive machines.
“… the Case mystique and the great popularity of the Case engines cannot be attributed solely to the notion that Case built a better engine than anyone else,” Wendel writes. “Yet, Case built far more engines than anyone else. In fact, Case built nearly as many engines as the combined output of Huber, Aultman & Taylor, Geiser, Minneapolis, Port Huron and Harrison.”
Although the company’s first effort (the Paterson, in 1892) was a failure, J.I. Case distinguished itself in the tractor industry by early entry into tractor design. “The fact that Case went so far as to build a gas tractor in the early 1890s indicates their willingness to adapt to new technologies,” Wendel notes.
Sobered by that early misstep, Case waited 20 years to make another pass at tractor design and manufacture. “In 1912, the 20-40 became an overnight sensation,” Wendel writes. “Its attractive design and its great simplicity were two major factors in the success of the 20-40.”
Heavy-duty Case 20-40 and 30-60 tractors, with the engine mounted at a right angle, provided the muscle necessary for heavy fieldwork. The cross-mount design underwent subsequent improvements, including a three-bearing crankshaft, force-feed lubrication and removable cylinder sleeves.
In addition to tractors and steam engines, J.I. Case manufactured 58 categories of farming equipment – including mowers, grain drills, cultivators, plows, corn binders and stalk cutters – as well as construction machinery.
Over the years, Case acquired multiple companies and eventually merged with International Harvester Co. in 1985. Today, Case IH remains a global leader in the agricultural equipment industry. – Loretta Sorensen