Steve Henderson's Memories of His Dad's IH Dealership
Stephen C. Henderson
As to the history of our IH business, my Dad was an IH dealer, but owned his own his own business rather than being a manager for an IH-owned store. He did start as an IH employee though. He was originally what IH called a “blockman” who traveled from dealership to dealership. His territory was northern Illinois and northern Indiana, which is how he found out the Wabash dealership was for sale. The dealer had died and Dad began by renting the building and property from his widow, whose name was Violet Goodin, in about 1943. He bought the property from her three or four years later I think. Dad’s business was named Henderson Farm Equipment, and was located at 473 South Miami Street in Wabash, Indiana. The phone number was 723; in those days there were no area codes or zip codes!
The business also sold Packard automobiles as Henderson Sales Company from 1946 until 1952, when it became clear to Dad that the Packard company was not doing well. He also sold several other brands of farm equipment manufactured by smaller companies. Two that I remember were Fox and Papec forage harvesters.
I began working behind the parts counter the summer after my 5th grade year. I was 11 years old and just about tall enough to see over the counter. Most customers were patient with me, unless they were in a hurry, but I had to ask Vic the parts man about everything that first summer. Vic had most of the frequently-sold parts numbers on top of his head and would rattle them off as soon as the customer told him what he wanted. I thought he was amazing.
When I got to junior high, I was assigned to help Jack the setup man over at the warehouse, which was on the south side of Wabash County and many times into surrounding counties. We had an IH (what else?) R-132 truck with a flatbed implement trailer that tilted to load and unload. I was not allowed to load or unload tractors; it was too dangerous, and I was too young and inexperienced. But one fine afternoon Jack and I were assigned to come to the store to pick up an old F-20 and deliver it somewhere out in the county. Without asking Jack, I jumped on that F-20 (with hand brakes, no less) and backed it up onto the tilt trailer. When the tractor got over center, of course, the trailer would bang down and you had to hit the brakes right away to keep it from rolling off the front of the trailer. I grabbed both of those hand brake levers and pulled for all I was worth, and lo and behold, the tractor stopped rolling and stood still. It was loaded. Jack put chocks behind the tires until we could get chains and boomers on it, and I felt pretty good about it all—until I looked over at the store and saw Dad standing in the doorway. I thought I had survived the tractor loading only to be killed by my father. But he turned and went back into the store and never mentioned it. I loaded tractors from that day on.
In the years before the Army Corps of Engineers built dams and created the reservoirs, we used to experience flooding about every year. Dad’s business was in the Wabash River bottom, and if the flooding was bad enough our store would be flooded. Many times we spent a couple of days driving all the tractors to the warehouse on the south side of town, which was on high ground. We also moved parts and equipment from the lower parts bins up to higher bins. And if the water kept coming, higher still. I can remember, as a junior high kid, driving brand new tractors, wheels still turned on backward for shipping and set in as close as possible with a foot or more of axle sticking out, through a couple of feet of rising muddy water and across the bridge to the south side. When I was in high school, I can also remember a January when the river flooded and we got two to two-and-a-half feet of water inside the store. Then it froze. The furnace was flooded, so there was no heat in the building. A school buddy and I donned a couple of pairs of chest waders, took an axe and chopped our way into the store through ice about ½ inch thick. Why? To see if we could, of course. It went with the age, I guess. Another time we used 2x4’s to build an outrigger on the horse trough and paddled it up and down Miami Street. Even with the outrigger, that thing was not seaworthy. It’s a wonder we didn’t end up in the drink.
We did learn some lessons from the floods, though. We learned that when the river crested and the water began to recede, we could use garden hoses, shovels, and brooms to send the mud back with the river as it left. In the late 1950’s the Salamonie and Mississinewa Reservoirs were built, and the flooding ended.
When I got old enough to drive, I was frequently sent on errands to other dealerships or to pick up various pieces of equipment. It was always a treat to get paid for driving a truck. For a kid like me, that was about the same as getting paid to eat ice cream. I remember going to Baer Field, as Fort Wayne International was then called, where IH had a depot. There were red tractors as far as the eye could see, or it seemed so to me at the time. I went there many times to pick up new tractors, and I was always instructed to pick out good paint jobs. Sometimes, I few didn’t check carefully we would get stuck with paint jobs that looked like they had been put on with a fly sprayer—very rough and very dry-looking. There were actually a few times when we had to repaint brand new tractors because the customer objected to the quality of the paint job. Today, at tractor shows, I am frequently amused by the restored tractors I see. A lot of the paint jobs have a clearcoat gloss that no new tractor in the 1950’s and 1960’s ever had, and I am reminded of my Dad’s admonition, “Don’t let them stick you with bad paint jobs. Look ’em over.” I think the much-vaunted factory paint jobs varied with the skill of the person assigned to do the painting. And one time I was assigned to go with Dad and another employee to the Fort Wayne Driveaway to drive back one of three CO-190 semi tractors for Unger Trucking in Wabash. Driving that thing back to Wabash I felt like the king of the world.
Dad was known throughout the county for honest dealing, and his business thrived until the late 1950’s when business got tough for everybody. It was tough for us, too, but we survived and so did the business. It was still tough when I left for college in the Fall of 1961, and tougher still about seven months later when Dad was seriously injured in an automobile accident. He nearly died, and spent a year and a half in bed in a body cast. There was no one else to run the business. I had a working knowledge of the “nuts and bolts” stuff, but was far too green and inexperienced to actually run it. I knew it and Dad knew it. He told me to go back to college and I went. The doors closed for the last time in May of 1962. The property was bought some time later by Dorais Chevrolet and their dealership is still in that location. Many years later, a Case/IH dealership was opened in Wabash. It was owned by a man named Koenig who also owns the Case/IH dealership in Huntington. He closed the Wabash store a few years ago, held a huge auction (which I attended), and concentrated on his Huntington dealership. As of this writing there is no Case/IH dealership in Wabash.