A 60-year-old county mower is getting its second wind, thanks to a Tennessee couple. But the mower's manufacturer remains a bit of a mystery.
Rose and Randolph Kelley, Hartsville, Tenn., are restoring a 1938 Model EH Topeka Hi Way Mower. The piece was made in Topeka, Kan., but the Kelleys have been unable to find information about the manufacturer. The mower's history, though, has been easier to come by.
The mower was purchased new in 1938 by the Trousdale (Tenn.) County Highway Department. It was used to mow roadsides until the early 1960s. Everything on it is original except the shock behind the driver's seat.
'When you step on the gas pedal, the seat springs backward, and when you let up, it springs forward,' Rose says. 'It was very touchy.'
After he purchased the mower, Randolph installed a shock on the seat for safety reasons.
The mowing system is mounted on a 1938 Ford 3/4 ton truck chassis. The wheel base was shortened, making the mower more compact. The mowing component is basically a cable-and-belt system, which lowers and raises the mower blade (for mowing vertically or horizontally). The original motor was a 1938 flat-head Ford. That motor was replaced in the early 1950s by a later model flat-head motor.
The Kelleys speculate that this is probably the first piece of equipment to utilize an independent PTO. The radiator was split down the middle to allow the drive shaft to come through to the front of the mower. A small wheel was attached to the end of the drive shaft, and a small tire was mounted on the wheel. When mowing, a lever is used to pull another metal wheel in contact with the small tire, thus setting the mower blade in motion.
Extra mower blades were always carried on the mower.
The gas tank is mounted on the rear of the mower, which was not in use when the Kelleys purchased it. The mower has since been cleaned, painted and restored to use. Underneath the left rear end is a large weight used to counter-balance the blade as it was raised and lowered. The battery is mounted in a carrier under the driver's feet, just below the floorboard.
Many Trousdale County residents in their late fifties remember the mower quite well. Members of the older generation remember how workers mowed along the roadside and, at lunch, 'would get another gear' and fly home or back to the garage for lunch. They also remember a wooden box just in front of the gas tank. In the summer, the box carried homegrown produce donated by residents along the route.
After the mower was retired, it was used for light duties around the road department. Eventually it was retired altogether, and parked out of the way where vines and shrubs grew up around it. In 1995, the mower was included in an auction of surplus county equipment. Randolph Kelley had his eye on the mower, but couldn't attend the auction. A friend, Tony Keisling, did, and bought the mower by accident.
'He said he really wasn't bidding ... he just made a wrong movement of hand, and the auctioneer knocked it off on him,' Rose relates.
Tony later sold the mower to the Kelleys, who've since taken it to shows in Tennessee and Kentucky. They're hoping to find more information about the manufacturer, but in the meantime, they're having fun with the relic.
'And it still cuts grass,' Rose says.
For more information: Rose and Randolph Kelley, 1555 Starlite Rd., Hartsville, TN 37074-4021; (615) 374-4427.