Len Howe's lifetime collection showcases rare and unique lawn and garden tractors
Left to right: Two early Gibsons with tiller steering, Model SD, Super D and E.
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.
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.
In the last 30 years, that display evolved into a collection of every model Gibson built, as well as rare tractors and pieces of equipment produced by other manufacturers. Eventually Len had a collection of about 30 tractors and a warehouse full of equipment. An early member of the Early Day Gas Engine & Tractor Assn., Len has worked on just about every brand of engine ever made. The walls of his warehouse are lined with shelves holding dozens of restored engines, parts engines and candidates for restoration.
Since the sale of the mower service and his retirement in the 1980s, Len has concentrated on finding tractors to restore and restoring them. He prefers to do all of the work – mechanical and cosmetic – himself. Two Harvey tractors (one from Colorado and one from close to home in Moses Lake, Wash.) are the heart of his collection.
The successor to the Gibson tractor, the Harvey was built in Colorado by the same man who earlier developed the Gibson. As far as is known, 50 or fewer tractors were built before the company folded. Built with 1940s Ford car components mated to a Wisconsin single-cylinder engine, the Harvey is one of the few tractors of this type built with a column shift and individual rear wheel hydraulic brakes.
Almost no literature exists for these tractors and there is no parts source other than the wrecking yard, so missing parts had to be found or fabricated. Fortunately, the tractor from Colorado was mostly complete and had good sheet metal so the restoration was pretty straightforward. As with many of Len’s restorations, no decals exist so new ones were custom-made. Harvey Power Flex Model 10 decals were made by a friend based on what little was left of the original decal and paint scheme and an original sales brochure provided by another Harvey collector. With the restoration of the second Harvey, Len has a matched pair that he enjoys showing at garden tractor and engine shows along with other tractors from his collection.
Among the tractors in Len’s collection is a Panzer found at a Helena, Mont., auction. Manufactured in Pennsylvania, the turquoise-blue Panzer features a unique belt transmission. A high quality line, Panzer was one of the first to feature electric starting on a small tractor.
Three-wheel tractors were produced by many companies in the 1940s and ’50s, including the David Bradley Tri-Trac sold by Sears & Roebuck beginning in 1954. It had a tall operator’s seat above the 6 hp engine, a single drive wheel in the back and wide front end. Weighing in at 600 pounds without operator or attachments, the Tri-Trac had a tendency to tip on hillsides. Sears recalled the model after complaints of tip-overs and lack of power.
Tri-Tracs are very hard to find today. Len looked for years before finding one in Oregon that he was able to purchase after several visits with the owner. Eventually he located another one with good sheet metal and implements, and combined the two to make one stunning showpiece.
The Bolens Huski Ridemaster was a similar tractor with dual steering drive wheels in the front and a wide rear axle. Steering is by a cable wrapped around the steering shaft running to a large pulley above the front wheels. The engine sits out in front of the power unit and the operator sits above implements that fit between the front and rear axles. This Huski model is not easy to find but is a handsome unit when restored. Len’s collection includes two of these unique tractors.
A trip through Len’s collection is a step back in time to the days when a guy with an idea and a shop could build a product and put it on the market. The early machines featured every kind of drive mechanism imaginable: belts, gears, friction disks powering wheels or tracks, front drive, rear drive – every kind of engine that could be adapted and every kind of salvaged car part from Ford transmissions and cut-down differentials to Chevrolet gear boxes and Crosley steering gears; starter motors to run electric lifts and on and on.
A tour of Len’s collection covers details of how each tractor was built and what parts were used to build it. From a little “Sit and Cut” mower built in Wichita, Kan., from leftover Piper Cub airplane parts to the large Gibson tractors built at the end of production; from crawler tractors sold as kits by Struck to tracked walk-behinds by Windolph and others, Len knows and loves them all. The cute little Lincoln tractor, the Tiger waiting for its turn to come up in the shop, the home-built tractor based on Model A parts found in rural Montana, the Savage Arms lawn mower, the Country Squire, the Perrin, the Ground Hog, the Speedmaster, the Snapping Turtle, the La-Track with its unique cup-shaped tracks, the hundreds of engines lining the walls of the warehouse and shop – each has a story and Len knows them all.
The tractors in the collection are kept ready to run, ready to load on a trailer and take to a show. His comprehensive collection of Gibsons is always popular at shows. Brought out on special occasions such as the annual LeMay Car Show and Auction is his original, low-mileage King Midget with its ice-filled trailer behind and Kiwanis logo on the side, full of cold water and pop to sell as a fundraiser for his favorite organization.
If you get a chance to attend a tractor show in Oregon or Washington, look for the pair of orange Harvey tractors and there you’ll find Len, visiting with friends and talking tractors. If you ask, he’ll start one up and tell you all about it, pointing out what made it stand out from the competition and what features the developer added to make his product a success. If you have a question about a tractor you’re working on, just ask: He’s always ready to talk tractors and give a hand. FC
Stan Howe lives in Helena, Mont., where he is an auctioneer, musician, rancher, author, tractor collector and Model T Ford rebuilder. He has written articles on a variety of subjects from violin making to cowboy music and is the author of The Adventures of Herman & Freida and Their Model T Fords. His current tractor collection includes a Farmall Cub, a 1940 9N Ford, a Ford Jubilee and International 300 Utility. Contact him at (406) 949-3448; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.