When it comes to antique mowers and garden tractors, Dennis Merlau knows what he likes. Red ones. Green ones. White ones. Orange. Blue. You get the picture.
“We like color,” he says, describing one aspect of the hobby he and his wife, Deb, share. “We would not want a line-up of just one color. We very much appreciate those who do that, as they are the ones to go to if you need answers on their line of equipment.”
The couple’s rainbow philosophy supports the other hallmark of their collection. “I love color and I love stuff that’s different,” Dennis says. “If it looks old and mechanical, I’m interested. I like funky.”
An early enthusiast
Collector interest in lawn and garden tractors is at an all-time high today. Small units are easy to store and haul, they’re affordable and they’re family friendly. “Little kids love this stuff,” Dennis says. “Going to a show with Grandpa is not something to be dreaded.”
Dennis got an early start in the hobby. While mowing his grandmother’s lawn when he was about 10, he decided her mower needed some work. “I remember her coming out of the house after it got quiet, when there should have been mower noise, to find me with her mower all apart, ‘fixing it.’ I’m sure as she walked back in the house, in her mind she knew she would have to get it repaired or buy a new one,” he says. “But in a short matter of time I was back to mowing with it. She was surprised and pleased, and I was just pleased.”
After that there was no looking back. Dennis took a job right out of high school working on lawn and garden equipment at a John Deere dealership. “I learned about the large tractors and equipment as well,” he says, “but my favorite equipment was and is the small things.”
Today he and Deb head the Michigan chapter of the Vintage Garden Tractor Club of America. They enjoy the friendships made through the club as well as the connections that help them in their hobby. “To me, it’s just history and it’s fun. Some of our older collectors have sold their big tractors but stay in the hobby with garden tractors,” he says. “They can continue to be part of the hobby and they can use their garden tractors to get around shows. And it’s fun to watch the little ones walk up and jump right up on a riding piece as though they owned it, like it was just made for them.”
A riding mower in every garage
Dennis’ collection reflects a unique era. “After World War II, a lot of people wanted to have their own small businesses,” he says. “At that point everybody had a self-propelled lawn mower. Then in the late 1950s they came out with the rider. General Mower Corp. (GEMCO) comes out with a kit that you can put on a self-propelled mower. And it’s cheap: All of a sudden, the average guy could afford a rider.”
Manufacturers big and small scrambled to get a rider on the market. It didn’t necessarily matter if it was well-designed: The important thing was to get a piece of the action. The big players even came out with implement lines. “And if everything was lined up just perfect,” Dennis says wryly, “they might even work.”
But technology continued to advance. Machines that were only a few years old were quickly pushed aside by advanced engineering. “A lot of this stuff quickly became junk,” he says. “It was thrown out or destroyed.” Decades later, collectors turned to the Internet. Suddenly everyone could find an old mower. Today, Dennis says, the supply is drying up.
A balanced approach
Dennis and Deb prefer complete units. “But if they’re not — and that is usually the case — I very much enjoy the challenges of building parts and painting,” Dennis says. “My life’s work has been mechanical work and metal fabrication and that helps me in this hobby.”
The Merlaus do their own restoration work and they try to make it as authentic as possible. “We do try to research and find the correct colors to stay as close as we can to what they should look like,” Dennis says. When it comes to parts, they do their best to find replacements but they aren’t obsessive. “Some parts just plain will never be found,” he says, “so we get it as close as possible and get it to the shows for people to see and appreciate. Why leave it in the shop for years, waiting for that special little piece, when it can be made and we can enjoy it? Get out there and have fun: You might be dead tomorrow!”
After years in the hobby, Dennis finds his tastes shifting a bit. “We used to redo everything but in the last few years the trend has been to leave it as original as possible,” he says. “The ‘it’s only original once’ idea is good, I like it, but sometimes the things we find are in real need of help, so we rebuild them. As an example, we have a couple old seeders from the early 1900s. They’re good solid pieces, but there’s no paint on them and no one even looked at them. So we painted them and now they’re a big hit. It goes both ways.”
Mowers that find their way into Dennis’ collection rarely leave. “We don’t sell very often, usually only if we find a duplicate,” he says. “Deb always warns me, ‘Be careful! You may want one like that someday and not be able to find it again.’ Believe me, those words have came back to haunt me more than once.”
For the Merlaus, the hobby is more than machines. “Our goal is to open people’s eyes to history and let them see and touch it,” he says. “We encourage young people to try a hobby that really gives back to others. It is a real joy for us when people come along and see a mower or little tractor that spurs memories. Maybe no words will be spoken, but that’s OK; just a smile is good.” FC
For more information:
— Dennis and Deb Merlau, 5850 Otis Lake Rd., Delton, MI 49046; phone (269) 623-8545; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Vintage Garden Tractor Club of America, celebrating its 20th year in 2014.
Leslie McManus is the editor of Farm Collector; contact her at LMcManus@ogdenpubs.com.