Case Farming Part II: Steam Engines and Threshers

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J.I. Case Company
Part II: Steam Engines & Threshers


Brian Wayne Wells

(As Published in the March/April 2006 issue of

Belt Pulley Magazine)

John Hiniker standing on his restored 80 hp. Case steam engine
John Hiniker standing on his restored 80 hp. Case steam engine

At the age of 23 years, Jerome Increase Case set out from his birthplace and home in Oswego County, New York in the summer of 1842. He had purchased six (6) groundhog threshing machines on credit. He traveled to Wisconsin with the intent of selling the groundhog threshers along the way. Arriving in Racine, Wisconsin, Jerome began to work on his own design for a thresher. In 1844, he rented a small shop on the bank of the river in Racine and began making threshers. This was the beginning of what would become the J.I Case Threshing Machine Company. The Company became one of the leading manufacturers of threshing machines. To power these threshing machines, the company began the manufacture of a sweep-style horsepower in the early 1860’s. (See the article on the Case sweep-style horse-power in the January/February 2006 issue of Belt Pulley magazine.) The company soon realized the limitations of the sweep as a power source. This was particularly true as Case began to add innovative improvements to the basic design of their threshers. In 1880 Case introduced the Agitator thresher with the vibrating or agitating separator tables. In 1882, Case installed their patented tubular-style elevator on their threshers. Case developed their own straw stacker for the rear of the thresher which could lift stack the straw from the threshing operation into a tall stack behind the thresher. In 1888, a mechanical grain weigher was added to the top of the grain elevator. By 1893, self feeders were becoming a common part of nearly all Case threshers. These new improvements made the J.I. Case Threshing Machine Company, the leading producer of threshers. However, nearly all of these improvements imposed additional power requirements on the power source powering the thresher. At this time, Case offered threshers in a variety of sizes—one model with a 28 inch cylinder and a 46 inch separating unit, a model with a 32 inch cylinder and a 54 inch separator , a 36 inch x 58 inch thresher and a 40 x 62 model. The largest of the Case sweep-style horsepower—the seven team sweep—could produce up to about 28 horsepower. However, even the smallest of the new Case threshers—the 28 x 46 model—when fully outfitted with the new improvements, required 34 hp. to run at top efficiency. Obviously the sweep style horsepower was hopelessly outdated as a power source for these new threshers. Consequently, the Case Company began to look to a new source of power for their new threshers. The Company began to manufacture of steam engines in 1869. In 1876, the Company introduced its first “traction” steam engine, a steam engine that could move under its own power. From this time forward, the Case Company also became a leading manufacturer of steam engines and particularly traction steam engines. Until the 1890s, the J.I. Case Threshing Machine Company operated out of a singe factory located on Bridge Street in Racine, Wisconsin. Then during the 1890s, this building was torn down and replaced with the “Eagle” Building which became part of a new factory complex of buildings known as the “Main Works.” From the Main Works, the Case Company became a leading manufacturer of both a wide range of steam engines and a wide range of wood-frame grain threshers/separators.

A Wooden Case Thresher Fitted with optional Dakota Elevator
A Wooden Frame Case Thresher Fitted with optional Dakota Elevator

In 1904, Case continued its technological innovations in thresher technology. One of the major shortcomings of wood frame threshers was the threat of fire posed by a wood frame machine working in association with a steam engine sitting next to a highly flammable stack of dry straw. Consequently, the Case Company, in 1904, introduced the first “all-steel” thresher. These threshers were sold side by side with the wood-frame threshers until 1906 when production of the wooden threshers was discontinued.

At the beginning of the 20th century, threshers were very much in demand because settlement of certain areas of the arable land of the Midwest was still ongoing. New farming operations were still being formed. One such area was western Blue Earth County Minnesota. The townships of Lake Crystal, Judson, Garden City, Lincoln and Butternut Valley Townships were organized in western Blue Earth County as settlement came to the area. Right in the middle of these townships was the village of Lake Crystal, Minnesota (1900 pop. 1,215). Located on the boundary between Judson and Garden City Townships the village of Lake Crystal is actually divided between these two townships. The settlement that became the town of Lake Crystal was built around a junction of the east/west Chicago Northwestern Railroad line with another Chicago Northwestern line coming up from Iowa in the south.

The farms in the townships around Lake Crystal all tended to be 160 acre farms. Although the farms tended to be diversified farming operations, a large amount of wheat was grown on these farms as a cash crop. (Enough wheat was grown in the Lake Crystal area to support a flour mill, Lake Crystal Roller Mill, which employed 15 people and had enough to produce 300 barrels of flour per day and, in addition to selling flour locally, the mill sold flour to buyers in Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, to buyers on the east coast of the United States and to buyers as far away as Glasgow, Scotland.) In addition to the wheat, every farm used horses as the primary source of power for the farming operation and, as a result, each farm had to raise a great deal of oats to feed the horses all year long. These two crops by themselves created a huge market for threshers. Rather than trying to purchase a thresher and a steam engine for exclusive use on their own individual farm, farmers around Lake Crystal tended to hire a custom thresher for threshing the small grain on their farm—usually at a cost of a nickel per bushel. As to custom threshing operations, the farmers in the Lake Crystal area had a choice.   Small as the town was, Lake Crystal was the home of three noteworthy custom threshing operations. Living within the city limits of Lake Crystal was the William R. and Katherine (Ebenoh) Graif family and the David J. and Margaret (Roberts) Davis family, both of whom were, at various times engaged in the business of custom threshing. Additionally, just to the west of the village of Lake Crystal in Lincoln Township lived the Andrew and Margaret Johnson family, who were also engaged in custom threshing.

William Graif was born on December 2, 1858 in Somerset Township in Steele County Minnesota. Katherine Ebenoh was born in LaCrosse, Wisconsin on December 18, 1858. While she was still an infant her family moved to Owatonna, Minnesota where her family became acquainted with the Graif family and she met William Graif. On November 6, 1883, she and William Graif were married. Together they would have a family that included a daughter, Edna M. born in June of 1886, a son John W., born in June of 1891 and another son Matt J. born on March 23, 1895. In 1895, while Matt was an infant the Graif family moved to a home in the town of Lake Crystal. Although he called himself a “farmer” in the 1900 census records, William was a custom threshers. William and Katherine had invested in a steam engine and began threshing small grain on the farms around Lake Crystal. They continued to live in Lake Crystal and William continued to do custom threshing until 1909 when the family moved to Mankato, where William took up other work. In Mankato, young Matt J. Graif started to work for the Kruse Brothers clothing store in 1911 at the tender age of 15 years. Following, military service in World War I, Matt returned to Mankato and in 1926, founded the men’s clothing business in Mankato that still bears his name.

Another family involved in custom threshing in the Lake Crystal was the Andrew and Rena Johnson family. Andrew and Rena had emigrated from Sweden in 1881 with their two sons, six year old August A. and 3 year old Swen Bennett Johnson. The family eventually purchased a farm and settled in section 24 on the eastern boundary of Lincoln Township in Blue Earth County about 1½ miles west and 3½ miles south of Lake Crystal. The family eventually was composed of 13 children, born in the United States, ten (10) of who lived past childhood, including daughters Bernna E. born in May of 1882, Anna N. born in August 1883, Laurie E. born in September 1885, and Olga B. born in 1889. Also born to the family in the United States were sons, John born in May of 1888, Andrew born in January 1891, Henry born in October of 1893 and Alton I. born in July 1898.   In 1900 all the ten (10) children were still living at home. August and Swen (called Bennett) were helping their father with the farm and in the summer they helped with their father’s custom threshing operation. Andrew had a customer list that included farmers in Lincoln Township and the surrounding areas. Each summer they would hit the road with the steam engine and the thresher and thresh the winter wheat and the oats on the farms of their neighbors.

In the early spring of 1911, Andrew Johnson had his son Bennett drive him into Lake Crystal in the buggy. At the depot in Lake Crystal he boarded the train for the ten (10) mile ride to Mankato, Minnesota (1910 pop. 10,365). In Mankato, he disembarked from the train at the Chicago Northwestern passenger depot located on the corner of Front Street and Main Street. Walking out of the train depot he walked across Main Street and up Front Street 1 ½ blocks to the J.I. Case Company dealership/warehouse located at 202 North Front Street. This was a “company-owned” dealership and not an independent franchise owned dealership. The Mankato dealership also served as a warehouse in support of other local Case dealerships across southern Minnesota. At the dealership Andrew talked with Oscar Velander, who was the manager of the company-owned dealership. Andrew wanted to purchase a new thresher for his custom threshing operation. He was interested in a large model thresher. However, he wanted some special optional equipment attached to the thresher. Oscar showed Andrew a 36 x 58 model Case thresher that the dealership was preparing (“prepping”) for delivery to another customer. Oscar also showed Andrew some literature about the optional special equipment that was available for the 36 x 58 model. The suggested retail price of the 36 x 58 model thresher was $1,035.00 with the band cutter and the new gearless belt-driven designed “Farmer’s Friend Windstacker” straw stacker. However, this was not the price that was eventually worked out between Andrew and the dealership because Andrew wanted two other specific pieces of optional equipment installed on his thresher.

The Andrew Johnson 36' x 58' Case all-steel thresher fitted with a double wing feeder threshing stacked wheat.
The Andrew Johnson 36′ x 58′ Case all-steel thresher fitted with a double wing feeder threshing stacked wheat.

Later that spring a Case 36 x 58 inch all-steel thresher rolled off the assembly line at the Case Main Works factory site in Racine, Wisconsin. This particular all-steel thresher was one of the first to be fitted with the new gearless belt-driven designed “Farmer’s Friend Windstacker” straw stacker. Originally, Case had used a straw elevator for stacking the straw behind the thresher. However, in 1891, the Indiana Manufacturing Company of Indianapolis, Indiana had introduced the “Uncle Tom’s Farmer’s Friend Windstacker.” The Windstacker used a blower fan and a large telescoping tube to blow the straw out of the rear of the thresher and up into a stack. The Indiana Manufacturing Company owned, or soon purchased, all patents to any and all similar blower-style straw stacking systems. Indiana Manufacturing did not really mass produce the windstacker itself. Instead, the Company preferred to license the manufacture of the windstacker to other companies. Since about 1895, the Case Company had been making the Windstacker for installation on Case threshers pursuant to a license from the Indiana Manufacturing. Case Company promotional literature from that period of time shows the geared-style windstacker being offered to the public as an option. The design of the gear-driven Windstacker located the blower in, basically, a horizontal position at the rear of the thresher. With the blower in this position, a gear box and a long shaft attached to a pulley on the left side of the thresher was required was required to power the blower. The design of the new “gearless” Windstacker moved the blower to a vertical position on the left side of the rear of the thresher, where the blower could be powered directly by the pulley on the left side of the threshing machine. This new design eliminated the need for a “power wasting” gear box to drive a horizontally positioned blower.

As noted above this particular 36 x 56 model thresher, now being pulled out of the factory and onto the loading dock was one of the first to be fitted with the new gearless Windstacker. Of course, pursuant to the licensing agreement with the Indiana Manufacturing Company, this particular thresher had the round Farmer’s Friend insignia complete with the face of the fictional “Uncle Tom” affixed to the side of the thresher.

This particular 36” x 58” was the thresher was being shipped to Oscar Velander in Mankato, Minnesota to fill an order for a thresher he had submitted some time before. Pursuant to that order the thresher had been fitted with Case’s optional tall Model No. 2 “Dakota” grain elevator. This tall grain elevator allowed the thresher to be positioned nest to a granary building. The spout from the tall Dakota grain elevator was high enough to be placed in a window of the average granary building. Depositing the grain in bulk directly into the granary saved all the work involved in loading the grain into wagons and then unloading the wagons into a farm elevator to be loaded into the granary. For convenience in storage and transport of the thresher, the optional tall grain elevator could be easily bent over and secured against the side of the thresher to give the thresher a lower profile.

Thus, the basic thresher, with the optional tall Dakota No. 2 grain elevator secured in the transport position, was loaded onto a Chicago and Northwestern Railroad flat car and attached to a train headed north out of Racine toward Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In Milwaukee, the flat car bearing the thresher was switched to another Chicago Northwestern train headed west toward Minnesota and to the freight depot located in Mankato. This freight depot was located on the edge of Mankato, about a mile from Front Street and Main Street where the Chicago Northwestern passenger depot, mentioned above, was located. Once at the freight depot in Mankato, the depot staff unloaded the thresher and obtained the signature on the bill of lading of the workers that Oscar Velander had sent to the depot to retrieve the thresher. The 6,295 pound thresher was then brought back to the Case Company dealership/warehouse located at 202 North Front Street in Mankato. The thresher needed to be “prepped,” or prepared, for delivery to the buyer. Threshers were usually shipped with the self feeder of the thresher unattached to save space on the railroad flat car. However, in this case, the basic thresher was shipped without a self feeder at all. Pursuant to the purchase agreement signed by Andrew Johnson, this particular thresher was to be fitted with a double wing feeder manufactured by the Garden City Company of Pella, Iowa. A double wing feeder has two elevators that lead up to the band cutter and the cylinder of the thresher. The wings are designed to be swung out to the sides of the self feeder. The double wing self feeder is meant for use where bundles of grain are threshed from a stack. Generally, two stacks of bundles would be constructed as close together as possible with just enough space to allow the front of the thresher to be slipped between the stacks. Each wing of the double wing self feeder would then be swung out as a perpendicular angle to the thresher to the center of each stack where the bundles from the each stack could be easily loaded onto elevator wing.

The Dakota No. 2 grain elevator mounted to a Case thresher.
The Dakota No. 2 grain elevator mounted to a Case thresher.

Once all this double wing self feeder was attached to the thresher and the prep work was completed, the thresher was again taken to the Chicago Northwestern Railroad freight depot and loaded onto a freight train headed west out of Mankato for the 10 or 11 mile trip to Lake Crystal. Arriving in Lake Crystal the large thresher created some excitement at the depot. This was the first all-steel thresher that had ever been delivered to Lake Crystal. Andrew and his son, Bennett, came to town to pick up the new thresher and tow it home to their farm in Lincoln Township.

Later that summer of 1911, one particular farmer living in Butternut Valley Township was making another round with his 7-foot Milwaukee grain binder around his field of winter wheat. This was one of the newer Milwaukee binders. It was manufactured after the merger of the Milwaukee Harvester Company with the Deering Harvester Company and the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company in 1902 to form the International Harvester Company. Thus, although this particular binder was still sold under the “Milwaukee” name (International Harvester would continue to manufacture the binder under the “Milwaukee” name until 1920), the binder did not look like the Milwaukee binders of the past. Immediately, after the merger, changes were made in the design of the Milwaukee binder. As the years passed, the Milwaukee binder, gradually, took on the appearance of a McCormick-Deering binder.

Our Butternut Valley Township farmer was in a hurry as he stepped on the pedal to release the bundle carriage and allow the three bundles in the carriage to be laid out on the ground. Buck and Maudie, his team of Belgian work horses moved ahead in the wheat field completely unaware of the bundles that were being left behind at strategic spots throughout the field. Our Butternut Valley Township farmer tried to dump the bundles in location near bundles dumped on the previous round. This would lead to less walking when the family returned to the field to “shock” all the bundles. He hoped to bind as much of the wheat as he could until mid-afternoon. June had really been a wet month with frequent rains and three or four rains in which an inch of rain or more had fallen. One rain storm in the third week of June has resulted in 2 ¼ inches of rain overnight. So far in July, the rains had been even more frequent. However, few of the rains had resulted in any more than 1/10th of an inch of rain each time. Now, in the latter half of July, the rains grew worse and became more frequent. The rains were interfering with the field work and worse, the excess moisture was starting to damage the crops. When it was not raining during June and July, the sun came out blazing and the days became very hot—approaching 100°F. Come the hottest part of the afternoon he would take Buck and Maudie up to the barn and get them rubbed down, fed and out of the heat. He was worried about the horses getting sun stroke.  He and his wife sometimes shared a laugh at this concern for the horses because the same concern did not stretch in include themselves. With the horses put away in the barn he would return to the field with his wife and young son. Together they would work under the scorching sun during the hottest part of the day to shock the grain bundles. His wife used to joke that the horses received better care than the people on the farm.

The family formed little stacks, or “shocks” of five to nine bundles all over the field. Four, six or eight bundles would be leaned up against each other with only the butt ends of the bundles resting on the ground. In this way, the heads of the grain were kept up off the wet ground. With the bundles leaning up against each other, the shock was finished by placing one or two “cap” bundles across the top of the shock. These cap bundles acted as an umbrella and shed any rainfall that might fall on the shocks. When properly made the shock was a very good storage system for small grains over the short term. Depending on the weather and the kind of progress the thresher was making on the other farms, this short term could stretch to a month in duration. Usually, the winter wheat, which was always planted in mid-September of the previous year, would ripen in July. Oats which were usually planted in April of the same year would ripen in August. As the thresher made the rounds of the neighborhood threshing the wheat, the season would generally stretch into August and the thresher would start threshing both the winter wheat which had been waiting patiently in shocks in the field since the previous month before the thresher would begin threshing the oats on the same farm. Only when done with the entire list would the thresher and steam engine return to those farms at the top of the customer list to thresh the oats on those farms where the wheat had previously been threshed at the beginning of the season.

Our Butternut Valley Township farmer was in a hurry to get the binding done. The grain was ripe but not totally dried out yet. If the binding and shocking were delayed the grain would begin to “thresh itself in the field” and a large portion of the crop would be lost. Ideally, the wheat or oats should be cut and bound and shocked before the grain was completely dry. The bundles of grain would then be allowed to “sweat,” or completely dry, in the shock.

Additionally, our Butternut Valley Township farmer was feeling guilty about taking even these couple of days away from the threshing crew to bind and shock his own wheat. He had signed up to have Andrew Johnson, from down in Lincoln Township, do his threshing. Like the other farmers in the neighborhood that had hired Andrew Johnson to do their wheat, our Butternut Valley Township farmer owed his own labor as well as a wagon and a team of horses to the threshing crew as part of his obligation to the other farmers working on the threshing crew. In exchange for his labor, these other farmers would all be coming to his farm to form the threshing crew. The crew was always hard pressed without the assistance of all the members of the crew. Thus, our Butternut Valley Township farmer wanted to get back to the crew as soon as possible. Now in August, the weather was delaying the thresher from making the rounds in the neighborhood. The oats on our Butternut Valley Township farmer’s farm were now ripe. Thus, our Butternut Valley Township farmer was required to take another couple of days off from the threshing crew to bind and shock his oat crop. When the thresher finally did arrive on his farm, our Butternut Valley Township he would thresh both crops at the same time.

Threshing season involved the whole family. Our Butternut Valley Township farmer’s wife was busy every day in harnessing up Lady, the Palomino riding horse, and hitching her to the buckboard. She loaded the back of the buckboard with all manner of pies and other food that she had prepared for the thresher men’s dinner. Just as the men were obliged to work on the threshing crew on their neighbors farms in order to obtain a crew when the thresher showed up at their own place, so too, were the women required to provide food and work on the thresher’s dinner in order to receive help when the crew showed up for dinner at their house.

Everybody was hard at work. However, being only seven years of age, the son of our Butternut Valley Township farmer, threshing season was a time of great excitement and fun. He would accompany his mother in the buckboard at noon to the farm where the threshing was going on before dinner and immediately after dinner he had fun playing with the boys of his neighborhood. It was great fun. Then there was the thresher and the steam engine. The men kept them at a distance when the thresher was in operation. However, when all the men went up to the house for dinner, the boys could sneak in for a closer look. However, the boys did not have too mush time to play. Soon the men were done eating and it was the children’s turn to sit down with their mothers to the largest, most diverse meals then had known. Memories of threshing season and the meals they had during threshing season remain with the boys the rest of their lives.

The year of 1911 would remain in the mind of our Butternut Valley Township farmer not only the year that he first hired Andrew Johnson to do his threshing, but he also remembered it with regret as a very wet year in which the crops did not do well. As much rain as Blue Earth County had in the summer, the fall brought no relief. Indeed the rains were actually worse in the fall season. Normally, fall was much dryer than the summer season. Nationwide, in a normal year, the yield of wheat was about 15 bushels per acre. The rich land of Blue Earth County usually yielded more bushels per acre than the national average. However, this year the wet weather saw the national average drop to 12.4 bushel per acre and the yield on the farm of our Butternut Valley Township farmer was even less than the national average. Even though there were more acres of wheat harvested than any year since 1901, the actual number of bushes produced, nationwide, from those acres was only 617 million bushels, down by 7 million bushels, or 1.1% from the previous year (1910) and down 9.6% from the last “normal” year of 1909. The oat crop suffered even more. Even the corn crop, which can usually withstand more rain than other crops, was also disappointing.

Our Butternut Valley Township farmer had sacked the wheat in burlap bags as it came out of the thresher. He intended to store the wheat and sell the wheat if the price rose, as it usually did in the winter and spring of the following year. Before selling the wheat he would need to handle the wheat one more time. He would need to pour each bag of wheat into the hopper on top of his fanning mill. The fanning mill, powered by the old Model L McCormick-Deering stationary single cylinder “hit and miss” engine, would shake the wheat and blow air gently through the wheat as it passed through the sieves of the fanning mill. The cleaned wheat was collected in the bin in the bottom of the fanning mill. This processing of the wheat would remove any remaining chaff and bits of straw that remained in the wheat. The grain would then be re-sacked in the same burlap sack and would be ready to sell. Usually, our Butternut Valley Township farmer could stretch out the task of fanning the wheat over the entire winter. The best prices for wheat usually occurred in the spring of the new year. This fall however, everyone expected the price of wheat to rise soon after harvest because the recent harvest had been so poor. However, despite expectations that the price of wheat may peak earlier this year than in past years because of the limited amount of production, the price of wheat did not rise to above $1.00 per bushel as a monthly average until March 1912. Only in the month of April did the price of wheat reach $1.08 as a monthly average. This was not the best price but our Butternut Valley Township farmer had to sell because the crush of field work would soon be on him and he would not have the time to make a special trip to Lake Crystal to sell the wheat.

Unlike the wheat, the oats were threshed and poured directly into the new grainer that he had built on his farm only a couple of years previous in 1909. This was a convenient way to handle the oats. Once in the granary the oats did not need to be run through the fan mill. Our Butternut Valley Township farmer intended to feed all the oats to horses and to the chickens. Thus, the little bit chaff that the oats might contain would only be additional fiber for the horses and the chickens would simply pick around the chaff eating only the oats and leaving the chaff.

The years that followed the wet year of 1911, treated the farmers of Butternut Valley Township and the nation better. The years of 1912 and 1913 were “normal” years with regard to the weather. In both years, there was a near record amount of wheat harvested. Because of this glut of wheat, the price of wheat sagged and rarely rose above $.90 per bushel for the whole period of time. The following year, 1914, looked as though it would be another big production year. Indeed the wheat harvested in 1914 set a new record with 897,000,000 bushels of wheat harvested nationwide. Locally, our Butternut Valley Township farmer was very fortunate to have all his wheat threshed and safely stored away in sacks in the grainer when in mid-August two separate, back to back, rain storms each dumped 3 ½ inches of rain on the ground. Our Butternut Valley Township farmer felt fortunate to have a bumper crop of wheat stored in doors, but he expected that he would have to wait a long time for any kind of decent price for this wheat crop. However, in August of 1914, war broke out in Europe. The destruction and economic dislocation cause by the war caused the countries of Europe to buy wheat from abroad—mainly the United States. Almost immediately in September of 1914 the price of wheat rose to $1.12 per bushel as a monthly average. Our Butternut Valley Township farmer immediately set to work trying to find time when he could clean the wheat, one sack at a time, with his fanning mill. As usual the hand shucking of his ear corn required a full month of work. Luckily, September and October 1914 were dry and warmer than usual. Although November was cold, the month remained free of snow. A warm spell at Thanksgiving time melted any accumulations of snow that had occurred. Thus, he was able to finish the corn harvest and get the corn in under cover in the corn crib. Finally he was able to get back to the task of cleaning the wheat. He heard from neighbors that the price of wheat at the grain elevator in Lake Crystal was still on the rise—reaching $1.21 per bushel as a monthly average for the month of December. In January 1915, the price shot up to $1.42 per bushel as a monthly average. Both December 1914 and January, 1915 were colder than normal. However, during a relative warm spell in mid January our Butternut Valley Township farmer was able to load all the sacks of wheat up on his wagon-converted- into-a-sleigh with the sacks of wheat and head off for the Lake Crystal elevator. This was one of the few times that a farmer could bring a bumper crop to the market and obtain a near record price for that crop and the price of wheat continued to rise—reaching 1.58 per bushel as a monthly average for the month of April, 1915.             United States wheat production reached above 1 billion bushels for the first time in history in 1915. However, the continuing war in Europe again caused a great deal of buying in the wheat market that kept United States inventories of wheat down and wheat prices relatively high–$1.26 and $1.25 for the months of January and February 1916 respectively. Thus, the outlook for wheat farmers in the new year, 1916, was positive.

One of the people looking forward to the new growing season was David J. Davis. David and his wife, Margaret (Roberts) Davis and their children, three (3) year old James H., and two (2) year old Blodwen A., (later in 1916 another daughter, Grace M. would be born to the family), lived in a house in Lake Crystal. Indeed they lived in the southern part of Lake Crystal which was actually located in Garden City Township. Sometime before Christmas in 1915, David Davis was making plans to purchase a new steam engine to power his thresher with its 32 inch cylinder. He rode the train to Mankato to talk with Oscar Velander at the Case dealership. In the end David Davis signed a purchase agreement for new Case 50 horsepower model traction steam engine. He was aware that farmers in the Lake Crystal area had planted more winter wheat last September (1915) and that if the crop came through as in the past two years, this coming summer there would be more custom threshing than ever before. The new steam engine would be a big improvement to his custom threshing business.

Thus, the order for a new model 50 hp. traction steam engine was sent to the Case headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin. Sometime after New Years day in 1916, a 50 hp. steam engine was completed, an optional canopy was attached and the steam engine was assigned the serial number of #33154. Steam engines were no longer the big sales item for Case that they had been in the past. In the steam engines best sales year, 1911, Case built and sold 2,322 steam engines of all models and sizes. Since, that time sales of Case steam engines had been in decline. This year, in 1916, Case built a total of only 774 steam engines.   Being a 50 hp. model, No. 33154 was one of the new intermediate size model steam engines that Case had introduced in 1913. In 1916, Case was offering traction steam engines to the farming public in four different sizes—the 40 hp. model, the 50 hp. model , the 65 hp. model and the large 80 hp. model. Case would continue to make the 50 hp. Model until it was phased out in 1923. In all, 1,639 50 hp. model steam engines were built by the J. I. Case Threshing Machine Company.

No. 33154, the David Davis 50 hp. Case steam engine .
No. 33154, the David Davis 50 hp. Case steam engine .

After it was completely assembled, No. 33154 was loaded onto one of the railroad flat cars that was sitting on the railroad spur that ran along side the Case factory. No. 33154 was just one of the steam engines that were being shipped to the Mankato dealership. Shortly after arriving in Mankato, No. 33154 was prepped by the staff at the J.I. Company warehouse/dealership. Then the steam engine was re-loaded onto a railroad cart on a train headed west out of Mankato on the ten (10) mile trip to Lake Crystal. Once in Lake Crystal, No. 33154 was picked up at the train depot by David Davis and driven to his home in Lake Crystal where he and Margaret Davis lived with their growing family of a son, James, Blodwen and Grace. (In later years, two more daughters, Ruth and Gladys, would be added to the Davis family.

The suggested retail price of a 50 hp. traction steam engine was $1,670.00 f.o.b. (freight on board) Racine, Wisconsin. David Davis had negotiated a price with Oscar Velander that was better than this suggested retail price. Nonetheless, it was a sizeable investment for the Davis family. The steam engine was to be used primarily in the summer time as David Davis pulled the engine and his thresher around the rural Lake Crystal area threshing the wheat and oats of farmers he had retained as customers for his custom threshing business. However, to be able to use the steam engine more days of the year, David Davis purchased a sawmill which he set up in his backyard. Logs were delivered to his backyard and stored there until time could be found to do the sawing. The logs in the backyard formed an attractive playground for the children. To this day Blodwen remembers playing as a child on the logs that her father had stored in the backyard. The saw mill also supplied David a useful by-product. “Slab lumber,” is the first unusable pieces of wood that is cut off of the log being sawn. Removing the slab lumber turns the round log into a square timber which can then be cut into a series of long flat boards. Meanwhile the slab wood is “crosscut” into smaller pieces that can be used as firewood, either in the wood stove in the house or in the firebox under the boiler on the steam engine.

Living in town, David and Margaret raised no crops or animals from which to derive income. Although the Davis family had a saw mill in their back yard which they powered with their steam engine during the winter months to obtain some extra income sawing logs into lumber, the main occupation of all three families was custom threshing of the small grains mainly oats and wheat on the numerous small farms that surrounded Lake Crystal. Indeed, the Davis family eventually, was successful enough that David was able to put two steam engines, two threshers and two crews on the road threshing small grains and they were kept busy throughout the summer.

Spring time came to the Midwest in 1916. It proved to be a fairly typical spring in terms of weather.   The winter wheat fields showed good promise. It looked like another great start to another big year for wheat. The glut of winter wheat from the previous year’s harvest had more than met the needs of the European counties at war. The prospects of another abundant harvest of wheat cause the price of wheat to decline from the highs of 1915. Wheat price stood at $1.02 per bushel for the month of June. However, nationwide, June was a month of very little rain. Then July came and went by without any real amounts of rain. By August it was clear that the wheat harvest was being severely restricted by the dry growing season. The yield of wheat nationwide fell to 11.9 bushels per acre—a 28.8% decline from the previous year. Overall production of wheat fell to 635,000,000 bushels nationwide, down 37.1% from the spectacular billion bushel harvest of the previous year. As a result the price of wheat suddenly shot up to $1.42 per bushel for the month of August and the price kept on climbing—$1.50 per bushel in September, $1.67 in October and $1.83 in November.

Luckily, two localized rains in the last part of June, one amounting to ¾ of an inch and the other amounting to 1 ¾ inches, blunted the effect of the drought for southern Minnesota. Accordingly, mid July saw a fairly healthy crop of winter wheat ripening in the fields around Lake Crystal as David Davis set out with No. 33154 and his thresher to thresh the wheat on all of his customer’s farms. He set the engine speed for its standard operating speed of 250 rpm. (revolutions per minute) and engaged the transmission of the traction wheels in the rear and headed off to the first customers farm. At 2.3 mph. it would take some time to arrive at the farm. He had plenty of time to think. He found that all of his customers were watching the price of wheat and were anxious have their wheat threshed so that it could be sold before the high price started to decline. This was another of those rare times that farmers were being paid a high price for their product and at the same time, they had sufficient product to sell. All of the customers on David Davis’ list were taking time out in the middle of the busy summer to run as much wheat as they could through their fanning mills and then getting the wheat uptown to the elevator in Lake Crystal. Selling of wheat kept the inventories of wheat over the entire United States at a pretty stable level. However, in the first three months of 1917 the inventories dropped. The nation’s farmers had finally sold all of the wheat they had on their farms. In March 1917 the price of wheat rose to $1.87 per bushels and then in the next month, April of 1917, the United States entered the First World War. The price of wheat rose to the unheard of level of $2.39 per bushel in April and $3.01 per bushel in May. Nationwide the drought in the farmlands had continued throughout the spring of 1917. Only after mid summer did the rains return to end the long drought of 1916-1917.

In 1917, no fortunate localized rain storms saved southern Minnesota farmers from suffering the full impact of the drought. Yield nationwide in 1917, was up only to about 13.2 bushels per acre. Actual production of wheat in 1917 actually fell to only 620,000,000 bushels—down from even from the lows of the previous year. The decreased yields of his customers also had an effect on the income of David Davis. He collected five (5) cents on every bushel he harvested, but when his customer’s yield fell off so dramatically, there were less bushels going through his thresher. Now the sawmill in the backyard and any other tasks in which he could employ the steam engine to make income would have to be relied upon to make up for the sag in the family income from the reduced harvest of 1917.

In the years that followed the summer of 1917, the weather cooperated with the farmer. Furthermore, even though the Great War ended with the armistice of November 11, 1918, the war-torn countries of Europe still needed to purchase wheat from the United States. This intense buying, kept the price of wheat high until the agricultural depression that began in 1921. With two threshing crews working in the neighborhood, David J. Davis was further removed from the day to day operation of each thresher and steam engine. Rather he drove his car from farm to farm where his thresher was operating to keep the threshers in good repair and good working order.

The coming of the new decade of the 1920’s brought a revolution in North American farming. This was a revolution of “smallness.” In 1917, Henry Ford introduced his 2,710 pound “Fordson” tractor. Henry Ford promoted the Fordson by selling the tractors at the incredibly low price of $295.00. The Fordson soon swept the market. Other farm tractor manufacturers in the United States were sent reeling. They struggled to keep their market share of the farm tractor market by introducing their own small tractors—to compete with the Fordson. The resultant battle for market share between all the tractor manufacturers became known as the “tractor wars.” Small tractors were mechanical power sources that could be afforded by even small family farming operations. These small tractors could replace horses on these small farms for all heavy field operations like plowing. Additionally, the small tractors could replace small stationary (usually “hit and miss”) gasoline engines which were currently being used for powering small feed grinders, corn shellers and burr mills around the farm. In the 1920s, the leading thresher manufactures also began to design and build smaller threshers that were matched to the horsepower output of the smaller tractors.

Although the smaller threshers were cheaper than the old style large threshers, the new threshers still could not be operated efficiently on a single farm. However, the small thresher could be effectively and efficiently operated on a small number of farms. A small group, or ring, of neighbors found that they could consolidate their funds and purchase a small thresher together. They could then cooperate to use this small thresher on each of their farms each summer. The number of neighbors participating in the average ring was less than the number of customers on the average customer list of the average custom thresher operator. The small ring had advantages over hiring a custom thresher for the average farmer. The wheat harvest on his own farm could be done sooner and more quickly than if the farmer hired a custom operator. The farmer could also spend less time serving on the threshing crew on other farms. He could spend more time during the summer working on his own farm rather than serving so much of the summer on the threshing crew on the farms of his neighbors. Many farmers formed these smaller rings and ceased hiring customer threshers. The custom threshing operations no longer were as profitable as in the past. The custom operators could not make a living without their long lists of customers. They were gradually replaced by the smaller rings of neighborhood farmers.

In the late 1920’s, the Case steam engine bearing the serial number 33154, was traded by David Davis to the local Allis Chalmers dealership—Swanson Implement of Lake Crystal for some newer farm equipment. No. 33154 sat in the used machinery lot of Swanson Implement for about a year. Nobody was interested, it seemed, in purchasing the old steam engine. It seemed symbolic of the passing of the steam engine from the American agricultural scene. However, there were two brothers that were interested in the old steam engine. These brothers were Henry and Otto Baumgard of Vernon Center, Minnesota. Henry and Otto had just recently both taken over the 500 acre farming operation of their parents Fred and Amelia (Schied) Baumgard located on the line between Ceresco and Vernon Center Townships about nine (9) miles south of Lake Crystal. One day in the spring, Henry and Otto came in to town to talk with the sales staff at Swanson Implement about No. 33154. In the end, they purchased No. 33154 for $150.00. Bringing some wood and coal to town the brothers started a fire in the fire box of No. 33154 and got the steam up in the boiler. They then headed out with the steam engine for their home. At 2.3 mph the journey took all day. They hoped to use the steam engine to power the Minneapolis-Moline Company Model B-2 corn sheller that they had just purchased. Also they had recently purchased the Andrew Johnson family 36” x 58” thresher. They hoped to use the steam engine to power the thresher to harvest the grain on their own farm. The only other farm where the brothers intended to use the Johnson thresher was over on their brother-in-law’s farm. Henry and Otto’s sister, Emma, had married Harvey Schickling, a neighboring farmer. Together they had four daughters—Ellen, Georgine, Gladys and Sylvia—and three (3) sons—Duane, Willard and Bob. When No. 33154 and the Johnson thresher was coming down the road the Schickling children all lined up in their yard to wait the arrival. Moving along at a rate of speed slower than a person can walk the steam engine and the thresher took a long time to arrive at the Schickling farm. The children were impatient for the thresher to arrive. Threshing day was always an exciting day for the children. It was something they would remember all their lives.

The Johnson thresher was used to thresh the small grains on the Baumgard and Schickling farms. To keep the thresher in good repair the Baumgard brothers sometimes had to make a trip in their car to the J.I. Case dealership in Mankato to obtain parts. In the years since Oscar Velander left, the dealership had been managed by John Rosenfield. The Baumgard brothers found the John Rosenfield and the staff at the dealership to be friendly and helpful, but in order to avoid paying a high price for new parts, they bought another old 36” x 58” Case thresher which was parked in the grove on the Baumgard farm. This thresher was used as a “donor machine” from which to salvage cheap parts to keep the Johnson thresher functioning in good repair.

The Johnson thresher continued to be used on the Baumgard farm until it was replaced in 1939 by an engine powered pull-type Allis Chalmers All Crop Harvester and a Massey-Harris pull-type Clipper combine. The Baumgard brothers raised flax which required the combine to be pulled at a very slow speed. They found that the only tractor that they had that was slow enough in first gear to pull the All Crop harvester in flax was a D-9 Caterpillar. No. 33154 and the Johnson family thresher could well have been consigned to the scrap heap except for the fact Henry and Otto Baumgard were interested collectors of old machinery. More important than just collecting the machinery they kept it indoors out of the rain and weathering elements. Furthermore, a second generation of Baumgard brothers carried on the preservation of the old farm machinery that had become part of the family farm.

Although Otto never married and remained a bachelor all his life, Henry married Mabel Thomas and had two sons, Fred and Raymond. Together they grew up and took over the farming operations from their father and uncle in the 1960s. Fred and Raymond also had an interest in the preservation of old farm machinery. They continued to preserve the old machines of a prior era. In the 1970s and 1980s, restoration of old farm machinery became popular. Most importantly, for the central southern Minnesota area, the LeSueur County Pioneer Power Association was formed in 1977. The Association conducted annual threshing shows for the public. In 1980, the Association purchased some land of their own in rural LeSueur County. This is now the current site of the annual show of the Pioneer Power Association. Fred and Raymond Baumgard became members of the Association.

At the November 15, 1990 membership meeting of the LeSueur Pioneer Power Association it was noted that a 50 hp. Case steam engine had been donated by the Baumgard brothers and the steam engine was being restored by John Hiniker and Nick Klaseus. This was No. 33154 which was finally making its appearance outside the machine shed on the Baumgard farm. At the February 28, 1991 meeting of the LeSueur Pioneer Power Association it was noted that Nick Klaseus was also being appointed chairman of all the steam engines (either traction or stationary) in preparation for the 1991 annual show. On August 13, 1991, John Hiniker announced that the restoration of No. 33154 was completed and that the steam engine was to be delivered to the Showgrounds on August 15, 1991 in time for the annual show which was to be held on August 23-25, 1991.

At the June 24, 1991 monthly membership meeting, John Hiniker requested some assistance from the club membership to “move a big separator…from Garden City to the Showgrounds.”   This was the Baumgard/Johnson 36” x 58” Case thresher which was being donated to the Association by the Baumgard brothers. The Johnson/Baumgard thresher was transported from the Baumgard farm to the LeSueur Showgrounds. The thresher was operated at the 1991 Show as a part of the field demonstrations. On March 19, 1992, Doug Hager and Dwight Yaeger proposed to the Association at the monthly membership meeting that they wanted to completely restore the Johnson/Baumgard thresher. The membership voted to allow them to proceed with the restoration. A board meeting held on July 6, 1993 voted to have the Association purchase a new set of belts for the Johnson/Baumgard thresher. The complete restoration of the Johnson/Baumgard was accomplished at the Doug Hager farm in rural Good Thunder, Minnesota, by Doug, Dwight Yaeger of Mankato, Minnesota and Ron Lund of Franklin, Minnesota. The job of restoration took most of 1992 and part of 1993. Finally, the beautifully restored Johnson/Baumgard 36” x 58” Case thresher was returned to the LeSueur Showgrounds in time for the 1993 annual show. As part of the continuing process of restoration, Doug Hager and Ron Lund have taken parts from the 36 x 58 Case “donor machine” that still sits in the grove of the Baumgard brothers farm. Most recently, the cylinder of the donor machine, which was found to be in very good condition, is being removed for installation into the Johnson/Baumgard thresher.

Both the Johnson/Baumgard thresher and the Davis/Baumgard 50 hp. Case steam engine—No. 33154—have become permanent exhibits at the LeSueur Pioneer Power Show. Both are prominently featured on the beautiful LeSueur County Pioneer Power website. With the return of the J.I. Case Collectors to the LeSueur County Pioneer Power Showgrounds as the site of their 2006 summer convention, the Johnson/Baumgard 36 x 58 all-steel Case thresher and No. 33154 was definitely be in the spotlight throughout the annual show. Fitted with the Garden City Company double wing self feeder, the Johnson/Baumgard thresher did it share of the “stack” threshing at the Show this year. Case steam engine, No. 33154, was among the power sources that took turns powering the Johnson/Baumgard thresher at the Show. The sight of these two machines belted together reconstructed of a typical threshing day on the Baumgard brothers farm dating from the late 1920s and 1930s. Additionally, the knowledgeable observer was taken back to a much earlier scene—prior to World War I—when both of these machines were owned and operated by competing custom thresher operators in the same rural community around Lake Crystal, Minnesota—the David J. Davis family and the Andrew Johnson family. This scene is brought to the public thanks to the LeSueur County Pioneer Power Association and to the restoration effort of John Hiniker and Nick Klaseus, Doug Hager, Ron Lund and Dwight Yaeger. Furthermore, special notice must be made of Raymond and Fred Baumgard and to their father, Henry, and their uncle, Otto, who for many years stored the old machines indoors on their farm and kept them from being discarded long ago. It is only because of them that we are able to enjoy seeing these old machines at the Pioneer Power Association show held every August

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