On the Cutting Edge

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A trio of Olivers

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For most people, lawn tractors are little more than a tool used to cut grass. For Lowell Brusse, Spring Valley, Minn., they represent a unique (and still accessible) category of collectibles. Lowell has quietly built a fleet of more than 200 lawn tractors, and there's no end in sight.

'I have a fault like a disease or something,' he explains. 'When I go into something, I go into it too wildly. I didn't expect it to end up this big.'

The collection began innocently enough. During a time when Lowell was a scratch toy builder, a customer at a toy show made him an unusual offer. 'We had made some F-30 Farmalls, and were selling them for about $55,' he recalls. 'This customer wanted to trade a 1966 Minneapolis-Moline lawn tractor for one of those F-30s.' Lowell accepted the trade. 'That got me investigating old lawnmowers,' he recalls. 'I did some research, and found out they were hard to find. That's how I started.'

Lowell eased into the hobby, partly because he had a small yard, and partly because he was still selling toys, an activity that claimed increasing amounts of space in his basement. 'Quite a few years went by before I got another lawnmower,' he says. 'I can't remember which one I got next - probably an older John Deere. I mainly collect the implement brands like Ford, John Deere, Case, Oliver and Moline. I don't get into the aftermarket Dyna-marts and Murrays, although there is a vintage lawnmower club that collects anything from the 1950s and older, which has all kinds of names ... old names you've never even heard of.'

Today, the hobby is gaining popularity. Clubs and collector publications are springing up all over the country. 'It's really fairly new yet,' he says, 'but it's getting bigger all the time. More and more people are getting interested in this.' Many collectors have found what Lowell discovered years ago: The engines are not complicated, and the units are easier than full-size tractors to store and transport. 'I like mechanics, and this is something that's about the right size. You can still handle everything. With cars, the technology is so advanced that you can hardly keep up. And if you collect full-size tractors, you need pickups and trailers to haul them around.'

Because the lawn tractors are still comparatively affordable (and sometimes even free), Lowell is actively building his collection, with the help of his brother and youngest grandson. 'I have so many nice, rare ones I could fix up, and I'd like to spend more time working on them than I do,' he says. 'But right now I spend a lot of time looking for them, because if I don't do it now, it's going to get harder and they're going to get more spendy. That's why I'm going at it more aggressively now.'

Storage is fast becoming an issue for Lowell, so he hopes to wind down the hunt phase of his hobby soon. He's constructing a 60-by-96-foot building that will house his collection of lawn tractors and toys. The 'museum,' as he refers to it, should be complete by early summer.

Many of Lowell's finds could more accurately be termed 'rescues.' Lawn tractors are often abandoned in fields or sheds where they deteriorate to the point that restoration is not possible. Others seem the target of owner frustration. 'Some of the mowers I've fixed up have been left in the middle of the yard and were used for target practice,' Lowell says. 'You've got to do a lot of work to get the hood and everything else back in shape.' Often the tractors have been modified or damaged, and that impacts values.

But it's the true basket case that gets Lowell's undivided attention. 'I like them in the worst shape,' he says. 'The worse the shape, the better I like them. I'm kind of a mechanic by trade. It's fun to bring one in that's in bad shape and bring it back to life.'

The first step Lowell takes in restoration is assessing how the process will impact the tractor's value. In some cases, a piece has more value when left in its original condition. 'Even if it's not in the best shape, sometimes it seems like you're better off to leave it original,' he says.

As in all restorations of vintage equipment, obtaining replacement parts is a particular challenge, although Lowell's sizeable collection is in itself a parts source. Decals, too, can pose a problem. 'Decals are very hard to find,' he says, 'but with more and more people getting interested in garden tractors, more decals are becoming available for the older lawn tractors.' Even determining the correct paint color can be a trick. 'It's hard, sometimes, to find the right color of paint,' he says, 'because a lot of the companies have been bought out by other companies or gone out of business, and in the shuffle, part numbers and paint codes are no longer available. I usually have to match my paint by finding a place under the gas tank or someplace where it's still original.

As he builds his collection, Lowell is as enthusiastic about duplicates as he is about rare models. 'When you're going into a hobby, collecting things, you like to find the rarest thing there is to find,' he says. In the case of lawn tractors, for instance, some Oliver models are considered especially desirable, largely because of low production numbers.

Another factor that affects value is options. Fairly few lawn tractors were equipped with optional equipment, and because of that, those units are highly prized. 'These tractors had accessories on them,' Lowell says. 'It was like ordering a car. When you bought a lawn tractor, you had the option of headlights, a cigarette lighter and different types of transmissions. They had lots of accessories ... loaders, blades, sickle mowers, tillers and snow blowers.

'In fact, one of John Deere's first lawn tractors had a little air compressor. It had an air tank and compressor to pump air with the hose wrapped up to it, and the compressor was mounted on the front of the tractor. The object was that you could drive out to your flat in the field, pump it back up and drive back home. I've seen it in literature, but I've never actually seen one.'

Lawn tractor sales literature also has value. 'If you find the sales literature and brochures advertising lawn tractors,' Lowell says, 'that's another thing that's collectible.' Because people typically held on to the owner's manual that came with their tractor, those pieces are less valuable. The manuals do, however, have practical appeal to the collector, because they often contain useful technical drawings and parts numbers. 'They're important, but they're not as valuable as the sales literature,' Lowell says. 'Sales literature has nice, colorful pictures that are more attractive. It's just harder to find; I think it's something that just wasn't kept around.'

The hunt for literature, parts, attachments and new additions to his collection takes many forms. Lowell and his wife, JoAnn, regularly attend antique tractor and steam engine shows, where they're finding a lot of interest in vintage lawn tractors. 'I've put up 'Wanted to Buy' signs, and it's surprising what people will come up and talk to you about. I hand out business cards at different places, and go by word-of-mouth. Sometimes I'll find an advertisement in the newspaper. One thing leads to another; people are calling here all the time when they have a tractor, or they're looking for one.

People also stop by to admire, or perhaps marvel, at the collection. 'We live on a highway, and it's surprising the number of people who stop,' Lowell says. 'I bet there's 20 to 25 people a week who stop and talk about the tractors. Some people admire them, and some say they just didn't know people did things like this.'

- For more information: Lowell Brusse, 912 S. Section, Spring Valley, MN 55975; (507) 346-2594.

Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy is a freelance writer in Spring Valley, Minn.