Revisiting an Old Family Garden Tractor

Family takes care to preserve heirloom Plant Jr. garden tractor.

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courtesy by Marvin Becker
Allen Becker with his BP-1 tractor. The Model B-11 cultivator was issued with the tractor as standard equipment.

Sometime during the mid 1950s, Marvin Becker of rural Boerne, Texas, purchased a used Planet Jr. BP-1 two-wheel walk-behind garden tractor from Henry Agold, who lived near Waring, Texas. Marvin, who knew the value of a dollar, paid $25 or $30 for the machine. It came with a cultivator, two planters and a moldboard plow. These implements attached to a toolbar at the rear of the machine.

The Planet Jr. was used to plow and cultivate the Becker family’s garden plot. Marvin’s son Allen was the primary operator of the tractor. Allen built a sulky so he could ride behind the tractor; a hitch behind the sulky enabled him to pull a cart.

The walk-behind was used until the mid 1980s, when the Becker family no longer planted and maintained a garden. At that time, the tractor was retired to a shed where it has resided for several decades. Allen regards the tractor as a family heirloom and it is on his “bucket list” to restore to running condition.

Unique features set BP-1 apart

The Planet Jr. BP-1 was built during the 1940s. No serial number is visible on the chassis or the engine, so exact dating is difficult. The tractor is belt-driven, with a belt-tightener clutch; the final drive is by roller chain. Each wheel is attached to a tube that rotates on the permanently-affixed axle, with a grease zerk for lubrication. Inboard of the left wheel is a ratchet that serves as a differential. The two steel wheels can be spaced 14 inches or 24 inches apart to accommodate different row widths.

A lever to tighten the belt is mounted on the left wooden handle and the throttle is mounted on the right. A homemade concrete weight is attached to the front of the tractor below the engine to stabilize the tractor and provide additional traction. Remaining flakes of paint show that the tractor was painted green. A Model B-11 cultivator was included with the tractor as standard equipment. The weight of the tractor, without the added concrete weight but with the B-11 cultivator and rubber tires, was 251 pounds. In 1945, the price of a Planet Jr. BP-1 tractor was $165.35 (roughly $2,334 today).

The engine on the Planet Jr. BP-1 is a Briggs & Stratton Model N. It is an L-head (flat-head) design equipped with an adjustable pneumatic governor, an oil-bath air cleaner and a Type K (Flo-Jet) carburetor. The cast iron engine block is distinctive because of its seven cooling fins. The oil sump and head are made of cast aluminum and the piston and connecting rod of aluminum alloy. The crankshaft is drop forged and counter-weighted.

The cylinder displacement is 6.28 cubic inches, with a 2-inch bore and a 2-inch stroke. Ignition is by a high-tension magneto; the spark plug size is 14 mm. The engine has a remote throttle and it is rated 1.56hp at 2,200 rpm, 1.85hp at 3,100 rpm and 1.97hp at 3,600 rpm.

The V-belt pulley is attached to a gear-reduction unit, which is somewhat unique because its housing is part of the same casting as the crankcase. Another somewhat unique feature is that the rod for the gas tank shutoff valve goes straight down through the top of the tank. The oil sump capacity is 1 pint and the gas tank capacity is 2 quarts. Typical of small engines of this period, the engine is started with a rope wound around a metal cup mounted on the end of the crankshaft opposite the pulley.

More than 150,000 Briggs & Stratton Model N engines were produced from 1940 to 1954. The engine was adapted to many uses during its long career. Many were used by the military during World War II. The engine can be found with mechanical or pneumatic governors, float or suction carburetors, a variety of starters and many other modifications to meet specific needs. Model N serial numbers ranged from No. 105 in November 1940 to No. 155,335 in May 1954. The only numbers visible on either the chassis or the engine of the Becker family’s BP-1 tractor are some casting numbers.

Most famous for the Flexible Flyer

Samuel Leeds Allen was born May 5, 1841. His father, John Casdorp Allen, was a prominent druggist in Philadelphia. Later, the family moved to a farm in New Jersey.

Samuel was sent to a Quaker boarding school at age 11 and remained there until his graduation in 1859. Following that, he moved to the Allen family farm and worked for his father. In 1866 Samuel married Sarah Hooton Roberts.

Samuel had many interests, including astronomy and winter sports. He is credited with more than 300 patents. His most famous and long-lasting invention was the Flexible Flyer sled, noteworthy for flexible runners that enabled the sled to be steered. The Flexible Flyer was patented in 1889 and continues to be marketed today.

Samuel’s interest in farming led him to invent a variety of push-type implements such as a fertilizer drill, seed drill, potato digger, cultivator, furrower, pulverizer and grass edger. His first two patents were for the No. 1 and No. 2 Planet Jr. seed drills.

Name choice influenced by astronomy

In 1866, Samuel made a fertilizer drill by riveting together two washbasins rim-to-rim and adding handles and a wooden wheel. His interest in astronomy caused him to notice the resemblance of the tool to the planet Saturn and its rings, so he called it the Planet Drill. When he later invented a similar but smaller version for planting seeds, he called that the Planet Jr. and it became the basis for a whole line of agricultural tools.

The S.L. Allen Co. was established in 1868 to manufacture farm and garden equipment. The company remained in existence until 1968, when it was acquired by the Leisure Group of Los Angeles and then dissolved in 1971. Thanks to Samuel Allen’s astute business sense and marketing skills, the company rapidly became a leader in its field, producing Planet Jr. equipment for sale in the U.S. and more than 70 countries abroad. Allen is credited with having the first mail-order company in the U.S.

The Allen company introduced a two-wheeled universal tractor in 1920, but discontinued production after one year. The tractor was similar to the Moline Universal. It weighed 2,300 pounds, was driven from a sulky and sold for $1,000.

The company reintroduced two-wheeled tractors in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Comparable to modern walk-behind tractors, these were much smaller, lighter and cheaper. Initial models included the 1hp Model A-B and the 2hp A-T.

The highly regarded Planet Jr. line

The Planet Jr. line of tractors was introduced in 1930. These included the 1-1/2hp BP-1, the 3hp HB and the 4-1/2hp HT. An assortment of attachments assisted with cultivating, plowing, harrowing, hoeing, dragging, seeding, fertilizing, dusting, spraying, pulverizing, weeding, lawn mowing, field mowing and belt work. Early tractors were issued with steel wheels. A choice of treads was offered for different soil conditions and extension rims were available for soft or spongy soil. Rubber tires became standard in the 1930s and 1940s.

Although often ignored by private and government reviewing agencies, the Allen company’s innovative farm and garden implements were of great assistance to (and highly valued by) generations of farmers and gardeners. The company was renowned for its high standards and its consistent efforts to improve its products. FC

Glenn Thompson, professor emeritus from the Wisconsin University System, was born and raised on a farm in South Dakota. In addition to other pursuits at his home in Texas, Glenn rides herd over “an eclectic collection of dead and dying riding mowers and compact tractors.” Email him at

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