Restoring a Single-Horse Mower
Pandemic creates a new hobby for a Carolina man.
Sammy Epps never imagined he would take up the hobby of restoring and collecting vintage farm equipment. However, when knee surgery took him off the tennis court and the pandemic converted him into a homebody, Sammy decided it was time to take up a new hobby.
“I didn’t know anything about old farm equipment,” he says. “I just thought it would be rewarding to find and restore something that was 100 years old.” In April 2020, he found his first project: a John Deere 1-1/2hp stationary engine languishing in a nearby barn.
The seller said the engine was not in running condition. Undaunted by the engine’s condition, Sammy negotiated a purchase price and took the relic home. “After I cleaned it up and fixed it, the engine ran like a top,” he says. With that first victory, he was bit. “When I decided to build an antique cart for the engine,” he says, “I found vintage metal wheels I could use on a steel cart I designed and welded together.”
Next up: an old burr mill and a stationary post drill
Sammy’s next find was a burr mill produced by David Bradley Mfg. Co. in the 1920s. A burr mill (or burr grinder) ground grain and feed by using two revolving abrasive surfaces separated by a distance adjusted by the operator. Adjusting the burrs allowed for a coarser or finer grind. Burr mills were often powered by stationary gas engines.
David Bradley began designing and building farm equipment in 1832, when he created a plow that turned its own furrow. The success of that implement led to production of many farm products: wagons, rakes, binders, planters, burr mills and more. Sears, Roebuck & Co. bought the company in 1910.
Soon after restoring the burr mill, Sammy restored an antique stationery post drill. By then, he was hooked on his new hobby and looking for a horse-drawn mower to restore. “By October 2020, I’d looked at a few that were in pretty good shape,” he says, “but I was really concerned about how large they were and how much room it would take to store a mower after it was restored.”
Sammy hoped to find a mower in his home state of North Carolina. When his search proved fruitless, he expanded his quest to the nearby states of South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and Kentucky. When he finally located the mower that fit his vision, it was a John Deere model.
“I called the owner, a Delaware farmer, and was delighted to find that the mower was a small model that had been stored inside since the owner bought it at an auction more than 20 years ago,” Sammy says. “He had planned to restore it himself, but never got around to it.”
Restoring a mystery mower
What Sammy found was a single-horse John Deere mower. According to Lynn R. Miller’s The Horsedrawn Mower Book, production of sickle-bar mowers began in about 1845. Enclosed-gear units were first manufactured in the 1920s. Roughly 10 percent of all horse-drawn mowers produced were single-horse models.
Even with its small size, the John Deere mower weighs approximately 450 pounds. It has 30-inch wheels and a 3-1/2-foot sickle bar. On December 4, 2020, the day after he brought the mower home, Sammy started restoration.
“I left it on the trailer and sprayed it all over with organic degreaser, let it sit for a few hours and then pressure-washed it,” he says. After repeating the degreasing process, he used WD-40 to loosen nuts and bolts for disassembly. Finding mostly surface rust on the piece, he was able to clean it up with a hand grinder.
“The mower tongue was pine, which makes me think it probably wasn’t the original tongue,” Sammy says. “The pitman stick was cracked, so I made a new one from maple. If you were using the mower, sassafras wood might be used for the tongue and pitman because it’s a light but durable wood.”
He planned to take each mower piece down to bare, shiny metal before painting. Once grease was removed from each piece, he wiped every piece with alcohol and applied two coats of primer. Mower pieces sat on the shelf while he continued working on one piece at a time.
Most days in December found Sammy in his garage, working on the mower. As he disassembled the implement, he put nuts and bolts in a bucket and took photos of each piece from two or three angles. “I wanted to be sure I knew how to put it all back together,” he says. “I ended up with about 450 photos.”
Sammy salvaged all of the mower’s original square nuts and most of the bolts. He used anti-seizure lubrication on the nuts and bolts and the axle in an effort to prevent rust.
After restoration, the dogs in the mower’s wheels “click like they’ve never been touched,” and the wheel gears show no evidence of rounded edges, as they might if the mower had been heavily used.
“Once I started putting it back together, I ran into some instances when a nut or washer didn’t seem to be in the right place,” he says. “Whenever that happened, I went to my computer and enlarged the picture of that part. Usually, I found that I had reversed the part and once I put it on correctly, it worked like it was supposed to.”
High-lift, single-horse mower
As he worked on the mower, Sammy found the John Deere logo imprinted on the frame and toolbox lid. Despite a thorough search, the mower’s model identification remained a mystery.
“I started reaching out to people who knew more about these old implements than I did,” he says. His search led him to Iowa museum owner J.R. Pearson and South Dakota mower collector Lowell Grave.
“They were as puzzled as I was about the lack of a model number,” Sammy says. “My next contact was Deere & Company’s historical division. They requested pictures to help in their search. A few weeks after they received my photos, I received a call from them with a request for additional pictures showing the model numbers.”
Conducting his own research as he waited to hear from Deere & Co., Sammy began to suspect that his mower was most likely a high-lift, single-horse unit. In reviewing Sammy’s photos, Deere archivists came to the same decision. “There was no indication in the John Deere records about why this mower had no model number,” he says.
In a 1924 Farm Mechanics publication, John Deere’s high-lift mower was advertised as giving operators “real mower satisfaction,” with a 21-point clutch that “puts action into the knife.” The mower’s foot lift was designed to make it easy to pass over boulders and stumps and turn at corners.
Preserving an unusual piece
When Sammy completed the project in February 2021, he was well pleased with the outcome. “There were some days I looked like I had worked in a coal mine,” he says. “I was covered in black dust. My friends could hardly believe I put in such long days to work at it, not even stopping for lunch. I really got caught up in it.”
The company’s longstanding commitment to quality is evident in the sterling condition of his finished piece. “The gentleman I worked with at the John Deere archives told me that John Deere himself was best known for his state-of-the-art, advanced process for casting all metal parts,” Sammy says. “Every part of this mower is in great condition and now it probably looks like it did when it was first made.”
The mower’s sickle blade works perfectly when the clutch is engaged and the wheels turn, but Sammy doesn’t plan to use the mower. He believes the piece deserves to become a museum piece so it can be enjoyed by others. Even though he’s been approached by potential buyers, for the time being he has no plans to sell the mower.
“The farmer I bought it from said he bid against an Amish man who really wanted the mower,” Sammy says. “After I learned more about it, I can see why it’s a unique piece that might be in high demand. I invested the time to restore it correctly and I expect to have it in my collection for a long time to come.”
What is his next restoration project? “I haven’t decided on anything yet, but I have been looking for a horse-drawn carriage to restore,” Sammy says. “Whatever my next project is, I think this mower will be a hard act to follow.” FC
For more information: Sammy Epps Sr., 3717 Deerfield Dr., Burlington, NC 27215; (336) 260-4949.
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 email@example.com.