Lessons Learned

Collector says Kinkade collection is about more than machinery


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For some, history is something contained in library books. For Mark Bookout, though, history is found in old iron and primitive machines. Mark, who collects Kinkade garden tractors, is intrigued by machinery and the tales it tells.

"Most collectors focus on the machine," he admits. "For me, though, the historical environment becomes much more important than the machine itself. For instance, I never learned about the Agricultural Depression (1920-21) in my education."

In the course of researching the Kinkade line, which was manufactured from 1921 to 1952 in Minneapolis, Minn., by American Farm Machinery Co., Mark came to realize the lowly garden tractor's historical significance in the 1920s. "These garden tractors fed us," he says. "They made the industrial revolution possible. The guy working in the city couldn't have been there unless there was food for him. After World War I, because of the migration of young people to the city, there was a great reduction of affordable manpower on the farm."

Developed within this context, the Kinkade was a simple, clever machine. All Kinkade garden tractors were one-wheeled, one-cylinder, air-cooled cultivating tractors. What put them in a class apart was the engine's location: It was mounted inside a hollow steel wheel. Patented in 1921, that unique design made Kinkade a market leader for years.

"Putting the motor inside the wheel puts the center of gravity real low," Mark explains, "right over where you're trying to get a grip." The downside? "It put the engine right in the middle of the dirt, and the wheel's action on the soil would have caused a lot of dirt to fly around," he notes. "And the first engine was not well sealed."

As an agricultural implement used by often non-mechanical people, Mark says, the Kinkade-which needed frequent maintenance-was "a total disaster." And in comparison to today's garden tractors, the early models from the 1920s seem quite primitive. But in its prime, Kinkade was a player.

"They were produced in real small volumes, but in terms of garden tractors produced at the time, Kinkade was competitive," Mark says. "The garden tractor industry of the twenties mirrored the tractor industry in the teens. Many manufacturers each made a small amount of product." Kinkades were sold primarily in truck-farming areas such as Long Island, New Jersey, Maryland's eastern shore, and near Minneapolis, where the line was built. "You don't see these very much out West," Mark says.

Kinkade offered five design variations between 1921 and 1955. The first model (Kinkade models received no formal designations until the Model K in 1928) was produced from 1921 to about 1923. It featured a twist-grip throttle, dog clutch, and choice of either gear-driven magneto or battery-box ignition. It used overhead valves, a unique feature in garden tractors of that era. It had external oil pipelines and a separate oil tank mounted behind the cylinder, inside the wheel.

Mark suspects that every one of the first model produced was hand-built. The first model was primitive, he notes, but it was a huge step up from using a hoe. "It basically replaced manual labor," he says. "People who had to hire labor to cultivate their truck gardens snapped it up for $150-$180."

The next model, produced from 1923 to 1927, likely had more out-sourced parts and was greatly improved. It had fewer moving parts than the first model, and featured improvements in the carburetor, cooling system and oiling system. "The second one is sealed better, runs faster, is more powerful and nimble," he says. "It's actually pretty surprising how easy it is to run along. It idles at 800 to 1,200 rpm. It's not loud or obnoxious at all." Like the first model, this tractor was also available with either gear-driven magneto or battery ignition.

The third model (and the first Kinkade to have formal designation) was the Model K, produced from 1928 to 1935. "It was an engineering marvel compared to its predecessors," Mark says. It used a one-piece crankcase casting, flywheel blower for cooling, a smaller F head cylinder, and had an improved oil pump, clutch system, drawbar attachment system, implement attaching system, air cleaner and crankcase vent, and a Tillotson carburetor and coupling-driven magneto.

The Kinkade Model L was produced from 1936 to 1952. Tagged by Mark as "the big daddy of them all," at nearly 300 pounds, the Model L utilized advanced design features (such as valve lifters and easy crankcase access) for air-cooled engines of 1936. All engine parts were enclosed, and an improved blower and housing were adopted. The clutch was more robust. It was the first of the line to use metal handles, and the first to depart from the grip-controlled throttle and clutch system. Some Model L's even had a hard rubber tire instead of pyramid lugs. The Model L was also built under license in the U.K. during World War II.

Closing out the line with something less than triumph was the Kinkade Suburbanite, produced from 1950 to 1952. Also sold as the "Viking Suburbanite," this model was a cost-cutting exercise that reflected poorly on Kinkade's reputation. A small, two-cycle tractor featuring a lightweight, rubber-lugged wheel, the Suburbanite sold for $99. "It was poorly designed," Mark says. "Company records indicate that many of these tractors required frequent rebuilds of the cylinder, piston and rod components. And it sounded like a chainsaw at full throttle when operating." The Suburbanite was the "homeowner's model," in contrast to the others, which were intended for many years of use in commercial applications.

"The design of the five models ranged from quite primitive to very sophisticated," Mark explains. Still, he says, "if you were using a wheel hoe in 1925 to keep the weeds in your market garden under control, and you had the option of using one of these machines, you would take it in a second." He recalls reading a testimonial from a grower who raised 100 acres of onions in 1926 with only a second generation Kinkade to help. "Even with the tractor," Mark muses, "that would be quite a chore."

For more information: Mark Bookout, 15090 State Route BB, St. James, MO 65559; online at http://web.umr.edu/╦ťmarkb/farming/gardentractors.htm