The idea for a one-wheeled tractor called the Choremaster sprang from the inventive mind of an Indiana car salesman in the 1940s. By the early 1950s, the machine had become one of the most popular garden tractors in the United States, but by 1960, it had disappeared completely from the marketplace. Here's the story:
The tractor's inventor was Carl Van Ausdall of Union County, Ind., who started out selling Chevrolets at his father's Liberty, Ind., dealership, according to Choremaster historian Hugh Morgan of Liberty.
When Van Ausdall wasn't making car deals, he spent his time at a drawing board set up in the back of the showroom, designing the one-wheeled tractor. He then engineered the project in the dealership's garage, and soon after moved his enterprise to a building just north of the Liberty Post Office.
Van Ausdall's first employee was Hershel Grimme, a welder who also now lives in Liberty. Working together in early 1946, Grimme says, they built and tested the Choremaster prototype, powered by a 1 hp Clinton engine. In July of that year, Van Ausdall applied for a patent, which was granted in December 1950.
According to Morgan, Van Ausdall was struggling financially, so he struck a deal with Lodge and Shipley Co.'s Special Products Division of Cincinnati to manufacture his tractor, beginning with the 1947 models.
Today, many people think Lodge and Shipley invented the Choremaster. Actually, Van Ausdall retained the ownership, design and licensing rights while Lodge and Shipley assumed responsibility for the manufacture and marketing, and for the costs of future patents. Van Ausdall was to be paid a pre-determined fee for each unit that was produced. His invention became the first product of Lodge and Shipley's Special Products Division to bear the Choremaster name. Choremaster tractor manufacturing moved to Cincinnati, but the implement factory remained in Liberty, where another welder, Frank Mann, was hired to work with Grimme (although Grimme eventually went to work in Cincinnati as a Choremaster salesman and service technician).
In Liberty, the two men developed and built the first ground-engaging tools and the first three styles of snow blades: a 21-inch snowplow, a 30-foot snow dozer and a V-type snow dozer.
The plow proved to be the only effective blade of the three. Designed to engage the snow, it forced weight onto the drive wheel, thus providing more traction, which made it capable of pushing disproportionately large amounts of snow for the tractor's size.
Also produced in Liberty, the spring tooth cultivator — called the 'scratcher attachment' — was made of 1095 spring steel. The tine ends were formed with a trip hammer and then bent with a Hosfield bender to the desired shape. Afterward, they were shipped by truck to Cincinnati for heat treatment and then returned to Liberty for assembly.
According to Morgan, Van Ausdall took his inventions to various yards in Liberty to test their operation and to make notes. He then took the machines back to his shop, evaluated their performance and made adjustments. Van Ausdall was reported to have personally tested each new tractor model and implement before it was put into production. His shop, Van's Service, at 8 N. Fairgrounds St., was the regional Choremaster distributor.
In 1947, only the 1-1/2 hp model Choremaster was offered for retail sale. The pre-season 1947 catalog lists such attachments as a snow blade, a universal mower that converted push mowers to a front-mounted attachment, a breaking plow, a leveling plow for soil and snow, and a rear main bracket for mounting a variety of cultivating tools, sweeps and hoes. An 18-inch reel mower, supplied by Mow-Ez of Cincinnati, was advertised as 'self adjusting,' Grimme recalled with a chuckle.
Also offered was a mercury clutch of Van Ausdall's design that allowed the engine to be started and run at less than 1,600 rpm with out the sheave turning; both Briggs & Stratton and Clinton engines were used.
In 1948, few visible changes were made. One model was offered - the same 1-1/2 hp - along with all the 1947 implements plus an expanded line of cultivator shovels, hoes and hillers. A sickle bar mower also was listed in the 1948 preseason catalog but no price was given; it may have been available later that year.
Meanwhile, a number of Choremaster dealerships opened as the popularity of the tractor grew, and in 1949, increased customer demand prompted many changes. To keep up, Choremaster asked other companies to supply attachments for the tractor. Parker Co. of Springfield, Ohio, supplied the sulky and the leaf cart; Empire Plow Co., also in Ohio, supplied the disc attachment and Campbell Hausfield of Harmon, Ohio, supplied the air compressor. Lawn mowers came from Great American Lawn Mower Co. of Liberty, Ind., Coldwell Lawn Mower Co., of Newburgh, N.Y., and Pincor Gen-E Motor Co., of Chicago, in addition to Mow-Ez.
In 1949, Choremaster offered three models and increased horsepower to handle the power-driven attachments, including sickle bar and power rotary mowers. The model A, a 1 hp unit weighing 104 pounds, sold for $132; model B, a 2 hp unit weighing 108 pounds, sold for $138, and model C, a 3 hp unit weighing 117 pounds, sold for $165. Adding a centrifugal clutch cost an additional $10. All tractors offered a choice of ground grip or traction tread tires, and according to Grimme, knobby tires were available for a short time, too.
Clinton engines outnumbered Briggs & Stratton on these early units except for the model B, which could only be bought in 1949 with a Briggs & Stratton model N engine.
The power rotary mower offered in 1949 measured 24 inches and was built by Pinecor. It weighed 100 pounds — only 2 pounds more than the model B tractor to which it was attached — and sold for $77.
Van Ausdall also experimented with a double-action sickle bar, which used two cutter blades moving in opposite directions to eliminate vibration. At least one was produced and tested, but it is not clear whether it was ever produced in quantity.
The 1950 product line was virtually unchanged from the previous year, and pricing and implements also remained the same. In 1951, three tractor models again were offered, all slightly different from the 1949 versions. They were a 2 hp B, a 2-1/2 hp BC and a 3 hp C. A disc harrow was the only addition in 1951 to the 1949 implement line-up.
In 1952, Lodge and Shipley's Special Products Division was incorporated into Weber Engineered Products, headed by Lewis L. Weber. The new company remained at the Evans street factory, and in 1953 offered a full line of Choremaster equipment, including three tractor models, rotary mowers, roto-tillers, a power post hole digger and a chainsaw, which was built by the Clinton Engine Co.
The 1953 tractor models had various engines: the 1-1/2 and 2-1/2 hps had either a Briggs & Stratton or Clinton engine; the 3 hp had a Clinton engine. By 1954, the Clinton 700 series engines and Briggs & Stratton model 6 engines were being used on the 1-1/2 hp models, which sold for $149.75, regardless of engine manufacturer. The 2-1/2 hp units used either a model 900 Clinton or a B&S model 8 engine, and the 3 hp used the Clinton 1100 series. A centrifugal clutch for any of these tractors, as in the past, added $10 to the price.
But by 1954, there were signs Choremaster was on its way out. Many of the attachments offered earlier were no longer available, and those still being sold were priced either only slightly higher or actually lower compared to previous years. For example, the rotary mower attachment, priced at $82 in 1949, sold for $67.50 in 1954, and the 6-inch turning plow, priced at $9.90 in 1951, sold for $3.75.
Sears & Roebuck then contracted with the Weber firm for the manufacture of 'Roto-Spader' tillers. According to a March 1981 letter from Van Ausdall to Morgan, the deal would eliminate Weber's sales staff, advertising costs and manufacture of other products. Weber signed, pulling his salesmen off the road and replacing them with service technicians, one of whom was Grimme.
According to Grimme, the contract called for Weber to produce a specified number of the tillers for Sears to stock. Additionally, he was to keep a sufficient quantity of tillers and tiller parts in his own warehouse for shipment as needed to Sears
At year's end, Sears returned all leftover tillers and parts to Weber. By the close of 1956, Weber had more than $200,000 in returned parts and machines, and no way to sell them.
Attempting to regain financial stability in 1957, Weber offered 17 models of walk-behind lawn mowers and tillers, but the effort failed and the company folded.
According to Van Ausdall's correspondence with Morgan, when his licensing agreement came up for renewal, also in 1957, he chose not to renew. He continued working on different inventions, including a riding mower that mulched weeds while it cut, but only a prototype and possibly one other was ever built.
Early in 1958, Van Ausdall sold all manufacturing rights and patents for the one-wheeled tractor to Richard Wyman of Framingham, Mass. Wyman redesigned the Choremaster and continued selling it under the name Wyman's Little Brute Power Hoe. Choremaster one-wheel tractors were made through 1957, but after that, the name was used on lawn mowers and tillers produced by subsequent owners of the Weber firm. By 1964, it was completely gone from the marketplace. Today, many of the original Choremasters have been converted into home made 'vehicles' for carrying folks here and there at tractor shows.
- Jim Cunzenheim is president of the Vintage Garden Tractor Club of America and writes frequently about garden tractors for hobbyist publications. Contact him at (608) 429-4520, or by e-mail at towr-powr27@yahoo. com.