Who Was J.I. Case?

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J.I. Case as a young man of 23 years. The dotted line on the map in the background traces his boat journey from New York to Chicago, Illinois.
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A 1913 Case Model 20-40, a horizontally opposed 2-cylinder unit. Introduced in 1912, it was the second Case production tractor following a Model 30-60 of a similar configuration brought out in 1911.
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A Case steam engine and threshing crew circa 1907.
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A 1912 Case Model 30 automobile. Case built superb, if expensive, automobiles from 1910 to 1926.
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Known as the “Big Four,” these men comprised early Case leadership. Clockwise from the top: J.I. Case, Stephen Bull, Robert Baker and Massena Erskine.

Jerome Increase Case was born in Williamstown, New York, on Dec. 11, 1819.  He was an early American farm machinery manufacturer, founding J.I. Case Threshing Machine Co. and J.I. Case Plow Works. He was also known for his hobby of raising champion racehorses. Active in his community, he served as mayor of Racine, Wisconsin, and was elected to the Wisconsin state senate.

Case was the son of Caleb Case, a farmer, and Deborah Jackson Case, the latter said to be of the same lineage as President Andrew Jackson. Interestingly, Andrew Jackson would, in 1836, sign the bill creating the Wisconsin territory, which would years later become the home of Case Corp.

Case didn’t take to the drudgery of traditional manual farming practices. At age 16, according to an article in the Genesee Farmer, Case saw an article announcing the demonstration of a groundhog thresher. He badgered his father and the two went to see the demonstration. Caleb Case was so impressed by the implement’s performance that he bought one and became a dealer.

The groundhog was an improvement over the hand flail used for centuries to beat grain from the heads, but after the spiked cylinder of the groundhog had done the flail’s work, it still was necessary to toss the grain and chaff into the air so the wind could separate the two, a process called winnowing.

For the next five years, J.I. Case continued to work with his father and did custom threshing. In the process, he had ample opportunity to see the groundhog’s shortcomings and consider improvements. He also realized that most of the country’s grain production was in the Midwest, with vast homesteading plots available that were ideally suited for growing grains.

Striking Out On His Own

Having just completed a year at Rensselaer Academy, Case sensed opportunity. On credit, he bought six groundhog threshers and horsepowers (horse treadmills) from his father and started west for the frontier town of Chicago, Illinois. His final destination was Rochester, Wisconsin, a town named after his hometown of Rochester, New York, where acquaintances had already migrated.

In Chicago, Case bought a wagon and team, loaded his threshers and started for Wisconsin. As it was harvest season, Case stopped at prosperous-looking farms and demonstrated the groundhog thresher. Before he arrived at Rochester, he had sold five of his six rigs. He kept the sixth unit to use in custom threshing.

During the winter of 1842-43, Case lived in a rooming house. With the help of a carpenter, who also roomed there, he built a thresher along the lines of the groundhog, but with improvements. He tried it out in the harvest of 1843 and was pleased with its performance.

Case’s stay in Rochester was short-lived, however, as the city fathers would not grant him rights to the industrial water-power system. He regrouped, moving his fledgling manufacturing operation down river to Racine on the shores of Lake Michigan. There he continued to tinker with his thresher, first adding a fanning mill directly into the unit.

First the Eclipse; Then the Agitator

Ready for the 1844 harvest season, Case’s thresher deposited straw in one place and threshed grain in another. To say that his invention was a success would be an understatement. A new factory was erected in Racine, complete with its own steam power plant and foundry. Case, not yet 30 years old, became the largest employer in the newly formed state of Wisconsin.

In 1849, Case married Lydia Ann Bull of Yorkville, Wisconsin. She was introduced to her future husband by her brother, Stephen, who would go on to play an important part in Case’s company. Case and Lydia had seven children, although only four (three girls and one boy) survived to adulthood.

In 1869, Case switched from apron-type threshers that used a slatted endless belt to carry away the straw to a “raddle system” with straw racks. Named the Eclipse (one of countless products to bear that name following the total solar eclipse that year), the thresher set new standards for efficiency and production. It did, however, test the limits of animal motive power, a development that prompted Case to enter the steam engine business.

In 1881, J.I. Case & Co. replaced its partnership with a corporation called J.I. Case Threshing Machine Co., or simply Case T.M. Co. At the same time, a new type of thresher replaced the Eclipse: the Agitator, with shaking straw racks. The new mechanism was used in threshing machines from then on.

Rift Exposed Between Family-Owned Companies

Jerome Case died of acute diabetes in December 1892. Because of the structure of incorporation, his company continued on under the leadership of Stephen Bull, Case’s brother-in-law.

Under Bull’s guidance, the company expanded into new product lines. In 1904, Case introduced its first all-steel thresher. In 1910, the Case automobile was introduced. In 1912, large 2-cylinder gasoline tractors were added to the product line, and Case T.M. Co. entered the plow business, angering the unrelated J.I. Case Plow Works.

The plow works was established in 1876 by Ebenezer Whiting with financing supplied by J.I. Case. Initially known as Case, Whiting & Co., the company’s factory was located next door to Case T.M. Co. When mismanagement resulted in financial difficulties, Case bought out Whiting and renamed the firm J.I. Case Plow Works. The year before he died, Case made his son, Jackson, president of the plow works.

After Case’s death, Jackson borrowed against his stock in Case T.M. Co., leaving Bull as president and principal stockholder. Meanwhile, J.I. Case’s other son-in-law, H.M. Wallis, was in charge of the plow works. For the next several decades, the two entities functioned smoothly side by side.

But as Case T.M. expanded its production of steam engines, the company was inexorably drawn into providing plows for those engines – plows branded “Case.” After a series of bitter lawsuits, the Wisconsin Supreme Court finally issued a decision. J.I. Case Plow Works was given exclusive rights to brand plows with the name “Case,” while Case T.M. Co. was allowed to use the name on products other than plows.

Sad End for Plow Works

H.M. Wallis, president of the plow works, was a veteran of the early gasoline/kerosene-powered tractor business. In 1902, he produced a giant known as the Wallis Bear, one of the first machines anywhere with power steering. He brought the tractor business with him from Cleveland, Ohio, to Racine and folded it into the plow works.

In 1919, Wallis developed a lightweight tractor, the Wallis Cub, which used a unit (or integral) frame. While the Cub was an unqualified success as a tractor, its timing couldn’t have been worse, as auto magnate Henry Ford’s Fordson had just hit the market. With his overwhelming production capacity, Ford soon garnered 70 percent of the global tractor market.

In 1928, the declining J.I. Case Plow Works sold out to Massey-Harris of Canada for $4.4 million. Massey-Harris immediately sold its rights to the Case name to Case T.M. Co. for $700,000, ending decades of confusion and animosity.

Giants In Their Time

Jerome Increase Case was one of several inventive geniuses in agriculture in the early part of the 19th century to make a profound impact not only on farming, but on society in general. John Deere, Cyrus McCormick, Daniel Massey, Alanson Harris and James Oliver are the most well-known of that group. These pioneers revolutionized agriculture, prodded the Industrial Revolution into existence and changed the way people lived.

The founders of these companies, with only a modicum of formal education, had the rare combination of inventive genius, perseverance and business sense to start with nothing but an idea and build it into a successful manufacturing empire. 

Such advances would have been purposeless had society not been able to absorb the farm labor released by that technological leap. But fortunately, at the same time, opportunities for homesteaders opened up in the vast acreages of the Great Plains. The rest, as they say, is history. FC

After 36 years in the aircraft industry, Bob Pripps returned to his first love and began writing about tractors. He has authored some 30 books on the subject and several magazine articles. Pripps has a maple syrup farm near Park Falls, Wisconsin. In harvesting the maple sap, he relies on a Ford Jubilee and a Massey Ferguson 85.

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