Confessions of a Tiller Tinker

FC_V5_I9_Apr_2003_10-1.jpg

1947 Graham-Paige Model B1-6

Content Tools

Its enormous size and large, two-stroke engine surprised me when I set eyes on the machine. The price was right and it ran well, so I bought my first Rototiller: a 1947 Graham-Paige Model B1-6, better known as a Frazer Rototiller.

After a few minor repairs - including new tines - I tilled my garden. The machine's sound, especially when tilling deeply with a wide-open throttle, is unique. The engine doesn't have a governor, so the operator must be careful not to give it too much gas. Yet, after that summer, I decided it needed maintenance if I wanted to keep the tiller in service.

They are the forerunners to the present-day Troy-Bilt Rototiller. Rototiller Inc. started manufacturing the Roto-Ette Model T in 1949 after an engineer convinced the company's founder, C.W. Kelsey, that his one-wheel Home Gardener was too expensive for the average gardener. On the other hand, built in 1952, the Model 2 was slightly more affordable. I salvaged the best parts from both tillers and reassembled the Model 2. It didn't have its original Briggs & Stratton engine, so I purchased one and will eventually install it in the Model 2. Still, the tiller is easy to operate and especially useful to till flowerbeds.

I didn't consider myself a collector, even after tinkering with those three tillers. I just liked old, worn-out equipment that I could fix and actually use. That changed after I attended the 1999 Grease, Steam and Rust Show in McConnellsburg, Pa. As I walked through the gate, I saw something unbelievable. There before me sat an entire display of Rototillers!

Five handsome Rototillers sat on a trailer, each with detailed information about the garden machines. I'd never seen anyone display the large, yellow tillers anywhere, and I was so excited that I searched for the owner. The unique display belonged to Bob Antram from Somerset, Pa. We talked for more than an hour about Rototiller history, and in the process he shared a wealth of information and renewed my interest in restoring my first Rototiller.

I decided to narrow my 'old iron' hobby to Rototiller equipment from that moment on. I sold my other old garden tractors within a few months and made room for more Rototillers.

I was enthusiastic about my newfound Rototiller passion, but I didn't know how expensive those collectibles could be. I paid $100 for my fourth acquisition, a 1944 Model B1-3 Rototiller, the last model made by Kelsey's Rototiller Inc. That was the most money I'd ever spent for something basically useless. The tiller was completely rusted from starter pulley to handlebars, but I was convinced that a paint job would allow me to show the tiller at the very least.

Running or not, the Bl-3 was still a piece of history. As a rookie collector, I didn't understand that an old collectible tiller's worth isn't found in its ability to till the soil. It's a snapshot in time. I soon learned not to use the same logic when I buy collectible farm equipment as when I purchase a new truck. Old iron - even garden tillers -rarely serves a practical or logical purpose. After all, why would someone need 10 old tillers like I currently own? Some things aren't easily explained, and collecting old iron is no different.

Shortly after my first 'worthless' purchase, I bought a one-wheeled Roto-Ette Home Gardener. I didn't spend the money because I needed another tiller, but because I had the overwhelming desire to add the machine to my collection. My original intention was to buy spare tines for my Model 2, but my next project sat there when I arrived.

It was a basket case from the start, like many pieces of old iron. The tiller was unique and came with a 25-inch reel-type lawn mower. The owner did an excellent job taking it apart, and all the pieces were labeled in small plastic bags. He'd already restored another Home Gardener, so I took several pictures of it to help me reassemble my newest addition.

The engine wasn't entirely disassembled, and I discovered the crankshaft was badly worn when I removed the piston and connecting rod. Undaunted, I decided to reassemble the tiller and show it without restoration. It is a wonderful piece of equipment, and the only missing part is the hood over the tines. Those parts are often missing because they're so easy to remove. Years later, I bought another Home Gardener with a hood, in running condition, but my collecting fever never subsided. It sure didn't take long to fill the void left when I sold most of my non-Rototiller garden tractors.

The most recent addition to my collection is also the most unusual: a Rototiller Model 133A. It looks like a Roto-Ette Model 2 with Troy-Bilt handlebars and tine holders. It came with a 4-hp Clinton engine and chopper blade tines. It's unique because the tiller was built when the Porter-Cable Machine

Co. owned Rototiller Inc. Rototiller changed ownership several times before eventually becoming Troy-Bilt. Porter-Cable acquired Rototiller in 1959 and sold it the next year to Rockwell Manufacturing Co., but not before it produced the Model 133A.

The latest Rototiller model I own is a 1979 Troy-Bilt Horse. My parents bought it new with a dozer-snowblade and hiller-furrower attachment. Since Rototiller eventually evolved into Troy-Bilt, it was both fitting and necessary to add one to my collection. Even though the tiller was built 50 years after Kelsey produced his first garden machine, later tillers were manufactured in the same building in Troy, N.Y. where Rototiller started. In essence, the company came full circle.

I enjoy collecting Rototillers as much as others love to collect tractors or cars, so I was sad to see Troy-Bilt declare bankruptcy in 2001 and eventually sell to MTD. Still, I have as much fun as those who collect the bigger equipment, except my old iron doesn't take up as much space, it's easier to carry to shows and far cheaper to collect. In fact, I've only spent about $1,000 on my entire collection. That's partly because I don't restore most of my tillers to like-new condition, which definitely keeps the overall cost low. I'm a 'clean-it-up-and-get-it-running' collector, not a 'make-it-like-new' collector.

The hobby is still relatively inexpensive because most people don't consider the garden machines collectible. Naturally, I disagree. Many Rototillers sell between $100-200, but I once saw one go for $400 on eBay, an Internet auction site. In other words, the time is ripe to snatch up Rototillers wherever they're found.

Like those who love tractors and engines, I enjoy hearing Rototiller stories from fellow collectors. Visit my Web site at www.paonline.com/chzuck and take a look at a tiller tinker's best.

- Charlie Zuck was born and raised on a dairy farm and has worked as an industrial maintenance mechanic for 35 years. Check out his Web site at www.paonline.com/chzuck, or contact him at 478 Prospect Road, Elizabethtown, PA 17022-9690; e-mail:earth_grinder@hotmail.com.

Rototiller through the years

In 1930, automotive pioneer Cadwallader Washburn Kelsey started the Rototiller Co. after more than 30 years in the automotive industry. He later registered Rototiller as a trademark and incorporated his business as Rototiller Inc. The famous phrase 'There is only one Rototiller' was used in advertisements for his tillers.

Before producing his own Model AA in 1934, he imported the SIMAR tiller from Switzerland and the Siemens tiller from Germany. Washburn's Rototiller trademark eventually expired, and other companies used the name for their tilling machines.

In 1944, C.W. Kelsey licensed Graham-Paige to build large machines so he could concentrate on a smaller, less expensive garden tiller for the home-owner. At that time, Kelsey's latest design was the B1-3, which the Graham-Paige company redesigned and called the B1-6 Rototiller.