Missourian Bob Craig has been interested in vintage farm equipment for more than 30 years. But his real passion - garden tractors, especially Bolens models - caught fire just six years ago.
'I never did look at a garden tractor as a collectible,' Bob recalls. 'But when I saw my first Ride-a-matic, in 1998, that's when I started getting interested in them.'
Bob spotted his first Bolens garden tractor at a relative's estate sale. 'I didn't know what year it was,' he says. 'I just thought it was cute.' It turned out to be a 1958 model, and it hooked Bob from the start. 'The Bolens are kind of unique,' he says. 'They seem to draw a crowd at shows. Once I got one, I could see what attracted other people to them.'
Early models, Bob explains, had no transmission and no gears. Instead, they featured a variable-speed belt system, a drive system first developed for the walk-behind model, and then used on Ride-a-matics. Later Ridemaster models, on the other hand, were built with forward, neutral and reverse gears. 'You just dropped down on the belt to go,' Bob says.
In the last year the Ridemaster was produced, he adds, a two-speed transmission was offered on the Model 38AB. The earliest Ridemaster, made by Food, Machine and Chemical Corp. (FMC) in San Jose, Calif., used a cable for steering.
'In 1947, they went to a bike-style chain,' Bob says. 'That was a lot better than the cable.'
The Ridemaster initially featured a 5-hp Wisconsin engine. Near the end of that model's production, Bob says 8-hp Briggs & Stratton engines were used. Ride-a-matics, though, used Kohler engines, ranging from about 3.6 hp to 7 hp in the final year of production. All of the Ridemasters and Ride-a-matics carried the name 'Huski' on their decals. Initially, those decals featured images of a working man, and later in the 1960s, they showed a Husky-style dog.
Bob marvels at the Bolens' utility. 'You could use them with a plow, or a mower or a grader blade. They had everything from 4-foot sickle bars to reel-type gang mowers that would cut a swath 8 feet wide.' The company offered a variety of implements with the Ridemaster and Ride-a-matic. Bob's collection includes many of those pieces, and he displays them with his tractors at shows to help people understand the Bolens' range of function.
For his Bean Cutler model (the FMC-made forerunner of the Bolens Ridemaster), Bob has a complete set of attachments: a grader blade, cultivator, disc plow and moldboard plow. Among the implements he has for his Bolens models is a dump box. 'That's a pretty rare piece,' he says. 'I know of only one other one.'
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