Garden Variety

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Bolens models

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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.'

Bob's favorite garden tractors are Bolens tractors produced 1947-1962, although his collection does include an early Bolens walk-behind model. 'But I'm not crazy about walk-behinds,' he says. 'I like seats. I lost interest after Ride-a-matic production ended in 1962, when they started making what I call the 'tube frame series'.'

That doesn't mean Bob limits himself to one line of garden tractor. 'I probably have 40 to 50 total,' he says. About 20 of those are Bolens models ('I've got so many somebody probably ought to slap me,' he says cheerfully).

'Quantity, yes, it's nice to have a bunch of (garden tractors), but I take a little pride in the quality, too,' he says. 'I like mine to look like they've just come out of the box, and I want them to start and run. I want people to see what they should look like. There are guys that don't restore them, and that's fine, too. It takes all of us to have a show.'

Others in his collection include: Allis, Springfield, Garden-All, Bush Hogs, Wards, Shaw, Jacobsen, Case, IH Cub Cadet and Wheelhorse. The latter, in particular, reminds Bob of youthful experiences with a garden tractor.

'When I was a kid growing up, we had a real early Wheelhorse,' Bob recalls. 'I'd guess it was a '57 or '58. Dad bought it to use in the garden, and I soon learned that the engine sat way back, right between your legs. It was a wheelie-poppin' dude! I just loved it.'

Roughly half the garden tractors in Bob's collection are in running condition. Those in the worst shape get the most attention. 'When I buy one, if it's pretty decent, I don't do much with it,' Bob says. But once he takes on a restoration project, look out. As plant manager and general foreman at a steel-fabricating plant in Springfield, Mo., Bob has access to 'pretty heavy-duty industrial equipment.'

I do all my restoration myself,' Bob says. 'You take it apart, sandblast and then see what you've got left. After doing a lot of these, you learn a way to attack them. I like to take care of those things that I lose control of first, like the fuel tank: I'm going to send it to the radiator shop, have it de-rusted and sealed, so I'll take care of that first. I take all the bolts out, sand them and get them plated. A lot of these old tractors, they used calcium chloride in the tires, and sometimes the wheels are a mess. That's another one of the first thing I try to take care of, the wheels.'

Bob researches decals and design features, he scours online auctions for original literature, and he makes his own parts., as well. Bob has a complete set of manuals for his Bolens tractors, some for the Bolens implements and a few vintage brochures. Literature, he says, helps him research design changes and production dates. Bob also uses literature (enlarged and laminated) in his show display. 'A picture is worth a thousand words to the person looking at this stuff,' he adds.

Bob also counts his time at shows as research. 'I like to go to shows, particularly those up north near Port Washington, Wis., (home of the Bolens operation). 'You never know when you're going to run into somebody who helped build these, or worked on them in the factory,' he says.

Shows also generate the occasional lead for an addition to his collection. 'I've found them in ads in publications and online, but also at shows,' Bob says. 'People will come up and tell you about one they know about.'

Naturally, Bob appreciates those leads because his favorite Bolens models are increasingly hard to find. 'You don't see that many of them,' he says. 'I've only been to one show this season where I saw any other than my own. There's still a few out there to be found. About the time I think I've found the last one, another one shows up. I know of 200 Ridemasters, but I'm sure there are two times that many I don't know about.'

Part of the research challenge is the fact that no production records are available for the Ridemaster. 'We don't know how many were made,' Bob says, 'although I saw serial number 10,000 on one, so I know they made that many. The Ridemaster was pretty susceptible to turning over. That tricycle was real front-heavy, real tipsy. The people who lived to tell about it probably just ran them over the hill.'

Garden tractors remain an attractive entry-level collectible, both in terms of cost and convenience. Bob says he's paid between $150 and $700 for pieces in his collection.

'But it's gotten to the point now that if you find a good, solid tractor that runs, $800 to $1,000 is probably not an unreasonable price. I've seen people ask up to $3,800. That's ridiculous. But I'm a collector. I'm not interested in selling any of mine.'

Bob's a collector, no doubt, and a full-blooded old-iron enthusiast to boot. 'I like just about anything anybody drags up,' Bob says. 'I enjoy it all; the models, the restorations ... I like visiting with the people, and the network of collectors all over the country. Actually, when I get to thinking about it, the tractors are almost secondary to the people I've met.' FC

- To learn more about Bob's collection, contact him at 602 Craig Road, Walnut Shade, MO 65771; (417) 561-4451; e-mail: craig@tri-lakes.net

Further Bolens research

To learn more about Bolens-made garden tractors or garden tractor collecting, try these resources:

'Garden Tractors' section of The Antique Tractor Resource Page, www.antiquetractors.com

The Vintage Garden Tractor Club of America, 10th anniversary show, Franklin County Fairgrounds, Brookville, Ind., Sept. 23-26; www.VGTCOA.com

Jim Cunzenheim Sr., president, Vintage Garden Tractor Club of America, 412 W. Chestnut, Pardeeville, WI 53954; (608) 429-4520; towrpowr27@vgtcoa.com

Bolens Ridemaster Club on Yahoo: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ride masterclub/

Bolens Tractor Club on Yahoo: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/bolens tractorsclub/

Bolens Ride-a-matic Club on Yahoo: http://groups.yahoo.com/groups/ride-a-maticclub

Wisconsin manufacturer builds garden tractor tradition

The Bolens Corp. traces its roots to Port Washington, Wis., in the late 1890s. Theodore Gilson was engaged in the manufacture of farm implements there when his son, John E. Gilson, invented the adjustable chair iron (a device that allows an office chair to tilt and revolve). Father and son then organized the Gilson Mfg. Co. to produce chair irons. H.W. Bolens, a local merchant, was a stockholder. The company was later known as the Gilson-Bolens Co.

After the Gilsons sold out to Bolens some time around 1915, Bolens became president and principal owner of the Bolens Mfg. Co. At the time of H.W. Bolens' death in 1944, the company was a leading producer of office chair irons, and the oldest and largest manufacturer of garden tractors in the world. In 1919, the company introduced the first power-drive garden tractor, a walk-behind model. As gifted in design as he was in business administration, H.W.

Bolens was granted nearly 200 patents on chair and furniture fixtures, and power garden tractors and lawn mowers.

In the mid-1940s, the Bolens Co. was purchased by Food, Machine and Chemical Corp. of San Jose, Calif. FMC produced the Bean Cutler garden tractor, which evolved into the Bolens Ridemaster in 1947 (the FMC logo still appeared on the 1947 model). Production of that model continued until 1958. Production of the Bolens Ride-a-matic began in 1956 and ended in 1962.

Bolens is credited with production of the first self-contained four-wheel riding garden tractor, the first mulching mower design (which remains in use) and one of the first hydrostatic transmissions used on a garden tractor. Bolens remains in business today, operating under the Garden Way Troy-Bilt name.