Certainly, the lawn had to be mowed to give the house or property that “well-kept” look. It showed that the owner cared about his property. To some degree, it was an indication of prosperity. You had to be able to afford either the time to mow, or the money to pay someone else to keep the yard looking nice.
But it wasn’t all about appearances. A century ago, it was very important to mow the lawn and keep the grass short in order to minimize the fire hazard posed by long, dry grass and the leaves it trapped. Fire was a very real threat to wood-frame houses, particularly in the era before fire departments as we know them today existed. Most households maintained stove fires for heat and cooking; one stray spark could cause disaster. Fast-moving grass fires could ignite a house before the fire wagon, if there was one nearby, could arrive. Mowing the yard was more than a cosmetic chore: It was a necessity.
A new alternative
By the late 1800s, two types of lawn mowing machines were available: the sickle-bar mower and the reel mower. The sickle-bar types, like the Clipper, could cut tall, thick grass, but did not leave an attractive finish. The reel mower worked well on shorter grass and left the lawn looking manicured. By the early 1900s, the reel mower was the device of choice for a neat-looking lawn. A larger version of the sickle-bar mower, pulled by horses, was used on the farm to cut hay.
Then, in about 1923, a new entrant joined the market. A disc mower, the MontaMower had a series of nine pairs of disc blades, with nine cutting teeth on each disc. Each pair of discs was on top of the other. As they rotated toward each other, they cut the grass. The pairs of blades were attached in a line across the front of the mower. This was a new concept in cutting grass. To my knowledge, the MontaMower was the only mower of any kind to use it.
The discs, being small, were low to the ground when working, thus cutting the grass short. The discs were arrayed across the entire face of the mower, cutting edge to edge, which meant that as you cut, you also trimmed. The MontaMower was advertised as being “two tools in one,” a mower and a trimmer.
It cut a 16-inch swath, and because it was very low to the ground, just 2-1/2 inches high, it could cut the grass under most bushes. The blades were ground-driven, as the mower was pushed, by wheels designed almost like gears. They were thin, small-diameter and had teeth. As the wheels rotated while traveling, they turned the blades to cut the grass.
Sold direct to the customer
A division of Montague Mfg. Co., Traverse City, Michigan, MontaMower operated out of a factory in that city. The company’s sales office was located in Grand Rapids, Michigan. MontaMowers were marketed directly to the consumer. They were not sold through dealers or retailers, meaning a lower price for customers.
When the MontaMower was first marketed in 1923, it came with a wooden handle very similar to that of a reel- type mower of the time. It weighed just 7-1/2 pounds, left no wheel tracks, cut long grass or short and skipped over small stones and twigs. The blades could be sharpened as needed or replaced. And it was easy to use. “A woman or 10-year-old child would have no trouble operating the mower,” company literature said. The MontaMower cost $15 (about $208 today) when introduced.
In the late 1920s or early 1930s, the mower’s head was redesigned for added strength. This modification is apparent in the company’s promotional pieces of that era.
Production was halted in 1942 for the duration of World War II, when most raw materials were diverted to the war effort. After the war ended, MontaMower production resumed. At that point, the mower’s wooden handle was replaced with a crossed, one-piece, metal rod handle with black rubber handgrips. At the same time, the part holding the blades was slightly redesigned, and the entire mower was painted a dark blue with gold lettering and trim.
The MontaMower’s design was admittedly unorthodox, but it evidently worked, as the mower remained in production for nearly 40 years until 1962. The MontaMower outlasted its original competition – the reel mower – but it could not meet the challenge of the increasingly popular mechanized rotary lawn mower. FC
George Wanamaker is a past president of the Mid-West Tool Collectors Assn. He started collecting carpenter’s tools in the mid-1970s. Since then he’s also become a collector of farm and kitchen tools and anything old and unusual. Contact him via email.