The Story Of Old Abe, The Case Tractor Eagle

The majestic bald eagle was chosen in the early days of American independence as our national symbol.

During summers when I was a boy, you might have found me riding with my neighbor, the late Henry W. Dahlgren, on a tractor, as he worked the fields that once belonged to my grandfather.

His biggest, most useful tractors in those days were Case tractors. In his years on the farm, I believe he had four Case tractors altogether. Two of them were Case-o-Matic 600s, built in 1957 when Case’s technology and quality was on the rise. He must have gotten many thousands of hours out of them. He had many other tractors over the years, but from the 1960s to the late 1980s, those two Case tractors bore the brunt of the work. In my mind, I can still hear that 4-cylinder gas engine running. The model 600 tractors served him into the 1990s. One summer, he leased a 65hp Case 830 Comfort King. For over 30 years he had a Case tractor of some sort helping him farm that land.

As you can understand, I came to love Case tractors.

Something that fascinated me from way back was that on their steering wheels, instrument panels and front ends (between the headlights) was the emblem of a bald eagle sitting on top of the world.

It was the Case symbol. I thought it was the coolest insignia I’d ever seen. But it wasn’t until many years later that I learned the story of the “Case Eagle.”

J. I. Case (1819-1891) was from Oswego County, New York. He was a pioneer in threshing machines and moved to Rochester, Wisconsin (then a territory) in 1842. He had learned that the area was a wheat center of the midwest. Case’s company was founded there, and soon moved to Racine (where tractors are still being made today). After making farm equipment many years, he selected the bald eagle as company symbol. However, the Case eagle was a real bird in history, with a name: “Old Abe.” There’s much more meaning to it than I’d ever imagined.

In spring 1861, Chippewas on a hunting trip in northern Wisconsin saw two fledgling eaglets in a nest of mud and sticks, high in a great pine near the trail. One bird died when they cut the tree, but Chief Sky took the other as a pet. Weeks later he traded it — for a bushel of corn — to a settler named Daniel McCann.

Growing eagles aren’t ideal pets for even pioneer kids, so when it grew enough to attempt escape, McCann decided to sell it. It was August 1861, and men were being recruited in the early days of the Civil War. Soldiers love mascots, so McCann took the eagle to the nearest camp at Eau Claire. The volunteers of Company C, being organized there under Capt. John Perkins, admired the impressive-looking young bird. A civilian, S.M. Jeffers, actually bought it for them — with, ironically, a Quarter Eagle gold coin (worth about $20 at the time).

There is disagreement among the many historical accounts as to whether the eagle was male or female, but we know Company C named their new mascot “Old Abe” — after their Commander-in-Chief, President Abraham Lincoln.

“Old Abe” became famous after joining Company C. He was very intelligent and an inspiration to the men, almost a fellow-soldier. Company C joined the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment at Madison in Sept. 1861, and “Old Abe” was adopted by the entire regiment. Inducted into military service with a special ceremony, red, white and blue ribbons were put around his neck and a rosette of the same colors on the breast. Old Abe was carried on a perch in a place of honor, in the center of the front ranks by the flag. The bird’s magnificent wingspan was about 6 1/2 feet.

During our long, difficult Civil War, “Old Abe” went through 38 battles and skirmishes, including the important Vicksburg campaign. The 8th Wisconsin became known as the “Eagle Regiment” and was praised by Gen. Sherman for its performance. Old Abe and his piercing cry became familiar to soldiers on both sides. Confederate officers ordered many attempts to kill or capture the bird, without success.

Old Abe’s loyalty was well-known, but occasionally he would break his tethers and enjoy some brief freedom. But the bird always returned, and with its great wings spread, swoop quietly to its perch beside the flag.

Well-known generals like Grant, Sherman, McPherson, and Rosecrans would raise their hats when passing Old Abe, and the regiment would cheer.

Old Abe’s last battle was Aug. 1864; he then returned to Wisconsin. Following the war, Old Abe received the nation’s cheers in many parades and reviews. Still a magnificent figure, when the band struck up a march, the eagle answered with its renowned battle cry.

Kept at the State House in Madison, Old Abe had thousands of visitors each year. His last public appearance (1880) was at a great veterans’ reunion in Milwaukee, sharing the platform with former General and President Ulysses S. Grant.

Tragically, the next winter, smoke from a fire in the basement of the capitol nearly suffocated the eagle. Old Abe never recovered, and died March 26, 1881. Stuffed and mounted in a glass case, he continued to attract visitors. In Feb. 1904 another fire unfortunately destroyed the remains. Two oil paintings were put in Memorial Hall to remember the great fighting eagle; since 1915, a replica of Old Abe has stood over the Wisconsin State Assembly Chamber. Another is on display at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum (also in Madison), and a stone sculpture is on top of the Camp Randall Arch.

Old Abe was also the inspiration for the Screaming Eagle insignia of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division.

J.I. Case first saw the eagle in 1861, while at Eau Claire on business. Company C was on parade, and the eagle’s cry could be heard over the drums. Mr. Case asked a boy where the bird had come from, and he told him Old Abe’s story. Case immediately determined to make Old Abe his business trademark as soon as the war was over.

In 1865, Old Abe began his career as the most famous bird in agricultural history. For over 100 years, the “Case Eagle” identified Case machinery, parts, dealers and literature around the world. Case not only excelled at threshing machines, but by 1886 had become the world’s leading producer of steam engines. Tractors and other farm equipment soon followed. Along with John Deere and International, they must be considered one of the most successful agricultural companies in American history.

Case even called one of its longtime colors “Flambeau Red” (an orange-red) after the Flambeau River near where Old Abe was born; it was used on all Case tractors and equipment from the 1930s through 1984.

The American bald eagle represents freedom, prowess and strength; so the Case name has become synonymous with dependable, long-lasting farm and construction machines. The last model year featuring the great symbol was 1969, as Case “retired” Old Abe and adopted a new logo.

In 1984, after purchasing International Harvester’s agricultural division, the company became known as Case-International. Their modern red and black tractors are still being produced and seem to be everywhere. But occasionally, you’ll probably see a pre-1970 model, as many older Case tractors are still going. Just look for that bald eagle sitting on top of the globe.

And remember the story of “Old Abe.” A remarkable bird, named for our greatest President.

Randall Braley is a Jamestown resident.