Museum-quality horse-drawn mower collection trains the spotlight on a bygone era.
Lowell Graves’ collection of more than 100 horse-drawn mowers creates a dazzling rainbow of colors. Built over the course of 20 years, and housed at his farm near Hartford, South Dakota, the collection is a carefully researched and handsomely restored display of American agricultural history.
Lowell’s collecting journey started on an August afternoon at the nearby Humboldt Threshing Show, where he displayed the 1-horse McCormick mower his father had used on the family farm. “As I was loading it to bring it home, I got to wondering just how many different mower brands there were,” Lowell says. “Since then, I’ve found out there are quite a few.”
The brands represented in his collection include Adriance, David Bradley, Dain, Deering Harvester, Milwaukee and many more. Some pieces bear multiple company trademarks, a testament to the feverish consolidation of implement manufacturers in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
While many of the mower designs are very similar, slight differences in size, weight, color and wheel design set various brands apart. Common features include closed gears and open gears, rubber-tire and cast-iron wheels, vertical and non-vertical lifts. Cutting knives and knife guards, grass boards, lifting springs, cutter bars and pitmans were fairly standard in each design.
Most companies cast their name or trademark into the mower’s steel frame, making identification easier decades later, after paint has faded or is gone altogether. Serial number plates installed on the underside of International Harvester mowers even show the build number and production date.
Some of Lowell’s mowers are local pieces; others come from a distance. An aging farmer near Rock Rapids, Iowa, proved to be a good source for some of his most unique pieces, including an Adriance and a Milwaukee chain-drive mower. “I didn’t buy all his mowers at one time,” Lowell says. “I visited him over a period of years before I was able to obtain the ones I wanted.”
Early on, Lowell’s family wasn’t sure how to respond to this new passion. After he brought home the first six and made travel arrangements to see more, his wife, Joyce, decided there was no use trying to divert him from his goal. “Now the whole family is pretty thrilled at how this has all turned out,” Lowell says.
One of the oldest pieces in Lowell’s collection was built by Walter A. Wood Mowing & Reaping Machine Co., Hoosick Falls, New York. Based on information in a Wood catalog, Lowell believes his mower was built between 1875 and 1886.
In partnership with his brother-in-law, James Russell Parsons, Wood operated a foundry where he built cast iron plows and repaired farm machinery. In 1852, Wood and Parsons bought the rights to manufacture a mower/reaper designed by John H. Manny in Rockford, Illinois.
By 1856, Wood had developed an improved mower. His design was the first to use enclosed gearing, creating “a distinct advantage in prolonging the life of the machine,” writes C.H. Wendel in Encyclopedia of American Farm Implements & Antiques.
Lowell had his Wood mower restored as much as possible to its original colors. “I have a friend, who will turn 88 this summer, who loves to paint these mowers,” he says. “He’s done just about every one I’ve restored and he does a beautiful job.”
An Adriance no. 8 mower manufactured by Adriance, Platt & Co., Poughkeepsie, New York, is another rare piece in Lowell’s collection. Following completion of his education, John P. Adriance managed Walsh & Mallory Hardware in Manchester, New Hampshire. A few years later, Adriance went into business with Samuel P. Platt and Samuel W. Sears, operating Sears, Adriance & Platt, a wholesale hardware company. The partners purchased rights to manufacture the Manny mower in 1854, and began building mowers under the Adriance name. Adriance, Platt & Co. was formed in 1882. The company was bought out by Moline (Illinois) Plow Co. in 1913.
The Milwaukee Chain Power Mower, manufactured by Milwaukee (Wisconsin) Harvester Co. is also a unique piece. The mower’s chain drive was a deviation from the gearboxes of prior models. The Milwaukee Harvester name was first used in 1884, but the company’s roots can be traced to 1850. The company was part of the 1902 merger forming International Harvester Co., says Wendel in American Farm Implements & Antiques, and the mower was phased out at that time.
In an 1893 ad, Milwaukee Harvester claimed that, “The Milwaukee Chain Power Mower possesses all the necessary requirements of a perfect mower, and stands first in the list of grass-cutting machines. The weight of the cutting apparatus is carried upon the axle between the drive-wheels, thus increasing the traction power of the machine and making it a stronger cutter.” The company also boasted of the Milwaukee’s “speed of the sickle,” steel cutter bar and shoes made of malleable iron.
Lowell’s Dain mower was manufactured by Dain Mfg. Co., Ottumwa, Iowa. In an effort to expand the local business community, Ottumwa business owners helped finance the Dain company’s relocation to Ottumwa from Carrollton, Missouri, in about 1901. Producing exceptionally well-designed hay machinery, Joseph Dain soon attracted the attention of Deere & Co., Moline, Illinois. The company was sold to Deere in 1911.
Deere went on to manufacture its own line of mowers, modeling them on Dain designs. Lowell’s collection includes two Deere mowers with open gears dating to 1915, and two with dust-proof, oil-filled-case gears. Manufactured from 1915 to 1921, the model with dust-proof gears sounded like a good idea, he says, but proved unpopular.
“After those mowers didn’t sell very well, John Deere ads said farmers would rather see their gears at work, but I’m guessing it was price that slowed sales,” Lowell says. “That dust-proof gear model probably sold for about $10 more than an open gear mower.”
Lowell’s no. 9 McCormick-Deering mower was in poor shape when he found it, especially the wide steel wheels. The lugs were shot and the wheels were mismatched. “I gave $50 for it,” he says. “It was one of those deals where I had to buy several mowers to get the one I really wanted. I knew I had to do something about those wheels or it would just be a parts mower.”
He ended up taking it to an Amish man in Wisconsin who restored every part of the mower, returning the piece to working condition. The craftsman put a center rod in each wheel and welded lugs to that rod to restore the wheels. He also modified the wheels, making them 8 inches wide, so they were both the same size.
McCormick Harvesting Machine Co., Chicago, began manufacturing mowers in the 1860s. Perhaps because of the company’s track record with reapers, McCormick mowers gained a reputation for being practical and dependable. The no. 9 was manufactured into the 1940s.
One mower in Lowell’s collection is wrapped in family ties. A no. 4 John Deere mower on rubber tires entered the collection as a Christmas surprise from his grandchildren. The previous owner was reluctant to part with the mower, but Lowell’s grandkids mounted an intensive campaign of persuasion.
Among other rare pieces in Lowell’s shop are manure spreaders, corn shellers and plows. Some pieces carried a hefty price tag; others cost as little as $5 each. “I never imagined I would gather this many pieces,” he says. “I’ve spent a lot of time finding them, getting them home and then restoring them. But it’s become a unique and interesting collection of history. I’m glad I did it.” FC
Lowell will display his John Deere mowers at the Humboldt (South Dakota) Threshing Show Aug. 8-9, 2015. For more information on the Humboldt show or to arrange a tour of Lowell’s collection, call him at (605) 360-1143.
Loretta Sorensen is a lifelong resident of southeast South Dakota. She and her husband farm with Belgian draft horses and collect vintage farm equipment. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.