Lawn and Garden Tractor Giant

Len Howe's lifetime collection showcases rare and unique lawn and garden tractors

| June 2011

Raised on a farm and ranch in eastern Montana on the tail end of the Depression, Len Howe learned early to fix whatever was wrong with the worn-out machinery his Dad farmed with and build equipment out of cast-off iron from the ranch junk yard. His dad, Seibert Howe, was known in the area as the man to take a tractor or piece of machinery to when it quit or wore out: He could fix it up to get more work out of it. After a four-year stint in the U.S. Air Force (serving in Korea) and a degree in education, Len began a 30-year career teaching junior high shop in Tacoma, Wash.  

Not long into his teaching career, Len launched Len’s Mower Service, a part-time and summer backyard-and-garage business of repairing and selling lawn and garden tractors, lawn mowers and related equipment. After a few years of hauling trade-in lawn and garden tractors to the scrap yard, Len developed a great appreciation for the ingenuity and ambition of the men who started those little garden tractor companies, especially after World War II, when dozens of garage mechanics put together a “truck patch tractor” out of used car parts and readily available small, 1- and 2-cylinder engines.

Small units for small farms

In western Washington and Oregon, where there were hundreds of small acreage farms, several companies began building garden tractors to satisfy the need for a small unit that would plow, cultivate and mow without the investment in a large tractor and equipment.

Most popular of those tractors, at least in that area, was the Seattle-built Gibson, with an 8 or 10 hp single-cylinder engine, a car transmission and a differential from a pre-war car. A bare-bones tractor, the affordable Gibson was built with tiller steering. Hundreds were sold and the company was successful in meeting competition from slightly larger tractors like the John Deere L and the Farmall Cub. Before long many companies were building truck farm tractors. As the business developed, dozens of companies began building riding lawn mowers.

By the 1970s those tractors were obsolete. Modern equipment offered electric start, hydraulics, three-point hitches and other technological advancements. Nearly all of the original companies were out of business. Meanwhile, Len’s Mower Service had moved to Pacific Avenue in Tacoma, selling Ariens and other lawn and garden tractors and taking the older tractors in trade.

Before long, Len was actively seeking obscure brands and models. The word was out that Len Howe would buy old worthless garden tractors or take them in trade. The yard behind the shop filled with tractors and related equipment. In his spare time, Len fixed up a few old Gibsons and put them on display at the shop.