Rainbow of Antique Mowers

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Dennis Merlau astride his GEMCO Reelrider. “Anybody can afford an old mower,” he says. “You can get one for anywhere from $25 to $200. But they do seem to reproduce. Sometimes they just plain follow you home.”
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This mower kit was produced in the late 1940s by Sensation Mower Co., Ralston, Neb. The kit contained a wooden deck, rotary mower, spindle, handle and wheels; the buyer provided his own engine. “I put a first year Kohler K7 (about 2 hp) on it,” Dennis says. “Kohler only made that model in 1949-’50 and then stopped.”
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You won’t see a Jacobsen as complete as this very often: Hoods for this 1949 mower are scarce as hen’s teeth. Designed for use on golf course greens or upscale residential lawns, the 2-cycle mower has a Jacobsen engine. “I just love this mower,” Dennis says. “The cast iron is so ornate and heavy, and it’s a very quiet running mower.”
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With a 9-inch swath, this Jacobsen mower was used for trimming. It dates to 1947-’49.
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This 1957 Model 75 Farm-Ette was built by Tom Moore Tractor Co., Mantua, Ohio. Equipped with a Kohler 4 hp engine, the mower’s transmission is positioned sideways. “It’s a good transmission, especially compared to a Wheel Horse or Bolens,” Dennis says. “But as clean as it looks, this mower was not user friendly. The controls are impossible to reach. It has go-kart steering and the lift mechanism is atrocious. It was one crude dude; it’s not a fun little rider. It was just ‘hurry up and get something on the market; we can refine it later.’”
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This 1958 GEMCO General was built from a kit that the buyer attached to a self-propelled reel mower (in this case, a Montgomery Ward Master Quality), converting it to a rider. This one (equipped with a Lauson engine) has a centrifugal clutch like a go-kart. When Dennis got the mower, its frame was in bad shape but the sheet metal was good. The seat — a unique design crafted from heavy metal screen — was shot, but Dennis was fortunate to find a NOS replacement. In the early days of riding mowers, kits like this made riders affordable for the working class.
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This three-wheel GEMCO Reelrider, built by General Mower Corp., was sold in the late 1950s as a kit. “Everything I’ve painted reddish-brown was part of the kit,” Dennis says. “Frame, wheel, seat and clutch control. You mount it to the deck of a self-propelled reel mower. This one is on a Delux Pincor mower. The mower has a transmission with forward and reverse gears and a very intricate multi-disc clutch.”
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When Dennis got this 1956 Fairbanks-Morse Model 24 riding mower, it was not running. He also had to build new fenders for the unit. Built by Root Mfg. Co. for Fairbanks-Morse, the Model 24 has a Clinton 1100 engine (about 2-1/2 hp). “The piece has three wheels (one in back) and was hand built,” he says. “It was all stick welded. It was a tremendous amount of handwork by today’s standards.”
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The original fiberglass seat on this 1957 Garden Mark (built by Moto Mower Co. and sold by Montgomery Ward & Co.) flips up, providing access to a Clinton engine. The rear wheel functions as a wheel but in effect is a roller. “To my knowledge, this was the only company to develop a mower like this that allowed you to roll the lawn while mowing,” Dennis says. “The step-through design was great for older users, and it had a very stable design for mowing or rolling.” The three-wheel mower has an all-aluminum body and a lightweight engine (with forward and reverse but no brake).

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: merlauj@aol.com.

— 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.

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