"Necessity is the mother of invention." That was obviously the case for the designers of the seldom seen, one-wheel garden tractor.
For Fred Brown, who lives in the rolling Piedmont foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Albemarle County, Va., necessity proved to be the mother of discovery. "I always raised a big garden and I had a little push plow," Fred recalls. "Not one of these high-wheeled cultivators, but a low-wheeled cultivator. I had figured how I could either put a gasoline or an electric engine on that thing. One day I went to a sale and I saw exactly what I wanted - a one-wheeled garden tractor."
For the princely sum of $14, the piece was his. "By the time I finished restoring it, I was just as proud of that thing as a new Cadillac," he says. "I put it in the garden and went right off using it." He soon found the one-wheel garden tractor was perfect for garden use. "You can go through there with one of these one-wheeled garden tractors to the point where the vines have laid down and you can't even see the ground, and you cultivate it and it doesn't hurt a thing," he marvels. "It's just got the cultivators on it. It doesn't have any rotating members."
The one-wheel garden tractor and the rototiller seem to have been designed to perform different functions. However, the decline of the one-wheel garden tractor coincided with the increasing popularity of rototillers. "People would buy a rototiller to work up the ground," Fred says. "These one-wheeled cultivators wouldn't work up the ground, but once the garden was in, the one-wheeler would maintain it. The rototiller compromised the garden when it came time to cultivate."
As all who have lived on a farm could testify, necessity teaches a person to be analytical at the onset of a farming challenge, and highly creative in overcoming obstacles that might arise in day-to-day operations. Fred learned those lessons early on: He grew up on a family farm run jointly by his grandfather and father near Buffalo Gap in Augusta County, Va. When Fred was a seventh grader, his father moved the family onto a 360-acre farm near Brownsburg in neighboring Rockbridge County. Fred's grandparents stayed on the original home place. "My grandfather never retired," Fred says. "He worked until the day he died."
Fred's father raised small grains, corn, sheep and cattle - and as the only boy in the family, Fred played an active role. "During haying time and putting up wheat and barley, we'd get some help," Fred recalls. "Most of the time it was just the two of us. When time came to cut corn, I'd cut school. When time came to cut barley, I'd cut school."
The Brown family used a horse-drawn, three-shovel plow to cultivate the family garden. Eventually, Fred's father got a two-wheel garden tractor from Montgomery Ward & Co. "I just loved that thing," Fred says. "I'd get up in the morning and run out there and plow a couple of rows before I had to go to school. Later, Dad got rid of it and got a rototiller. I never did think much of the rototiller, but I liked that two-wheeled garden tractor. It had a cultivator, and a sickle bar mower we used to mow the yard."
During Fred's senior year in high school, he built a travel trailer in shop class, using an old frame supplied by his teacher. He constructed the camper's body from wood and corrugated metal. On the day following graduation, he departed Virginia's Shenandoah Valley on a cross-country trip. "I had a cot in there and one of those single-burner G.I. stoves and a few dishes," he says. "That was it."
His great solo adventure took him across the northern U.S. and onto a piece of the Alaska Highway in Canada. He then headed down the West Coast and into Mexico before pointing his 1940 Pontiac Club Coupe home for Christmas. Along the way he stopped long enough to get work to pay his expenses. He iced refrigerated boxcars in Spokane, Wash., worked in a sawmill until cold weather forced him south, and then found work inspecting rivet joints for Convair, a San Diego aircraft manufacturer.
Immediately after spending the holidays with his family, he joined the U.S. Air Force, where he was trained as a radio mechanic. His four years of military service included a one-year stint in Korea. Upon his return to the states, Fred began work as a radar technician at Sperry Marine in Charlottesville, Va., where he worked for 31 years.
Fred purchased his first one-wheel garden tractor, a Jr. Chief, around 1988, shortly before his retirement. "I found it at an auction," he recalled. "Parts of it were scattered all over the place because the auctioneer didn't know what he had. So I gathered up all the pieces and put 'em together. When I bought it, I bought the whole thing. I'd stay up all hours of the evening restoring that first one. I just went hog wild! There wasn't any stopping me then."
Over the years, Fred rescued and restored at least 20 one-wheelers and as many as a dozen engines. His second find was a Hollar one-wheeler, manufactured by F.H. Hollar, Singers Glen, Va. "The Jr. Chief and the Hollar were the first two machines I got, and they could not be beat for cultivating a garden," he says. "When I brought the Hollar home, I put it on the bench to tear it apart. It had been sitting so long you couldn't even smell gas in the tank. It didn't have a muffler on it. I put some gas in it and it started on the first pull. That shocked me!"
Only two pieces in his collection came from outside of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley; the Unitractor and the Endless Tread. "The Unitractor is interesting in that it has the engine inside the wheel," Fred recounts. His 1955 Endless Tread may be related to a line still being produced in Pennsylvania, Fred says. "I understand they retail for about $685," he says. "I paid five bucks for this one. 'Course you can tell the shape it was in. Five bucks … probably got gypped at five bucks."
Several manufacturers produced one-wheeled units, and some were better than others. "I'll bet there were more Choremasters sold than any of the others, but they were the least good of all the others," Fred maintains. "They had a centrifugal clutch, and when you revved the engine up to where the clutch would pick up, it just wanted to spin. The others, when you were working with them, you just had the engine running at an idle, and they'd very seldom ever spin."
Fred built up his collection by attending estate auctions, where he'd often find bargains. "Usually they're of such an age that they're a pile of junk and nobody wants them, so I used to get them fairly cheap," he says. "Now I think there's more people collecting them, so prices have gone up." Putting pieces of the puzzle together was much of the appeal for him. "I've bought them where they've been completely disassembled basket cases," he says. "I'd put them together and have to figure what pieces they're minus, and build something to replace the missing pieces."
But he also relished life on the show circuit, where he was a regular exhibitor of rarely seen items. "I had a half-ton Chevrolet four-wheel drive and I rigged it up so I could haul eight one-wheeled units at a time," he explains. Fred displayed his collection at steam and gas shows on both sides of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. "I've displayed at Bridgewater, Weyer's Cave, Somerset, Concord, the Rockingham County Fair and at West Augusta," he says proudly.
He even blended one era with another: With assistance from his son, he's maintained a popular website on relics from the past and inspired other collectors by sharing his knowledge, proving once again that necessity remains the mother of invention. FC
Phil James is a newspaper columnist and freelance writer currently writing a history of the mountain people and villages along Albemarle County, Virginia's western mountain border, which adjoins Shenandoah National Park. Contact him at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987; www.WhiteHallMedia.com