Meet the Old Bolens Garden Tractor Man

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Hank Watkins demonstrates the Ridemaster's abilities at one of the Vintage Garden Tractor Club of America's annual plowing contests in Redgranite, Wis. Hank is using his restored 1955 Ridemaster.
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Hank's 1957 Bolens Ride-A-Matic, which he also restored, is model 21HSD-01.

Hank Watkins bought his first home in 1963 along the Fox River in Piano, III., and soon discovered he didn’t want to spend his week ends walking behind his old push mower after having worked all week. To remedy the situation, he went in search of something that would get the job done faster and easier. A friend had a 1958 Bolens 6 1/2-hp Ride-A-Matic lawn tractor for sale, so Hank offered a Kawasaki motorcycle in trade.

A deal was struck, launching a hobby for Hank that has last ed nearly 35 years. The sturdy construction of the Bolens and the quietness and power of its Kohler engine both impressed Hank, who now lives in Coioma, Wis. The machine came with a mower deck, but at the time, Hank had no idea other attachments were avail able.

The history of Bolens garden tractors dates to the early 1920s in Wisconsin. The first tractor to bear the Bolens name was the Power Hoe, built about 1922 by Gilson Manufacturing Co., in Port Washington, Wis. This firm later became the Gilson-Bolens Co., which had several owners over the course of its existence, most notably Food Machinery and Chemical Corp., better known as FMC Corp.

FMC bought the firm in 1946 and owned it during the period that the Ride-A-Matics and Ridemasters were manufactured. In 1982, Garden Way Corp. of Troy, N.Y., bought the company from FMC and eventually phased out the Bolens in favor of tractors bearing the Troy Built name. Recently, MTD of Ohio bought Garden Way, and the Bolens name, but currently, Bolens tractors are not being built.

Hank’s first Ride-A-Matic was in continual use until 1979, by which time, he says, ‘It had been worked to death.’ He parked it in the corner of the garage and replaced it with a John Deere 400, equipped with a snow blower, push blade and a 5-foot mower deck.

A year or so later, though, Hank decided he’d fix up his old Bolens. ‘The engine was professionally over hauled because at the time I didn’t have the tools or the place to do it,’ he says, but he did the painting.

Hank contact ed the Bolens factory in Port Washington to find out about official colors and was told to use ‘John Deere Green’ for the tractor and ‘Sunset Yellow’ for the wheels -but the green just did not look right to him. He began experimenting, trying different shades from different paint manufacturers until he came across Rustoleum’s ‘Deep Green,’ which proved a nearly perfect match.

In the summer of 1982, a friend who belonged to the Sandwich Early Day Engine Club in Sandwich, III., suggested Hank bring his restored Bolens to the club’s annual show, so Hank built a hauling cart and put in an appearance. ‘The children really liked to ride in the cart,’ he says, and other Bolens tractor owners came by and introduced them selves.

Some of the Bolens fans he met at the show asked Hank if he was interested in buying more garden tractors; usually, he would go look at what they had to sell, and more often than not, he’d bring the tractors home.

In just a short time, he accumulated nearly 50 garden tractors, most of which were Bolens.

To house them all, he rented space in an old barn, but in 1984, the barn’s owner died and the property was sold, leaving Hank to make some hard choices. He decided to keep a few of his favorite machines and sell the rest.

Today, he occasionally still buys a tractor to restore ‘just for the fun of it,’ but unless it’s something really special, he does not keep it. In his collection currently, he has two Ridemasters, one Handi-Hoe and seven Ride-A-Matics, all made by Bolens. He has an example of each model of Ride-A-Matic – his favorite Bolens – from when they were first produced in 1956 until production ended in 1962.

Among Hank’s favorites are a 1957 Ride-A-Matic and a 1955 Ridemaster. He bought the Ride-A-Matic two years ago from Dan Moss of Watertown, Wis., a fellow Vintage Garden Tractor Club of America member.

Hank rebuilt the rear end, but other wise, the tractor was in good shape. It came with four original attachments: a belly mower, moldboard plow, out-front mower and cultivator.

The Ridemaster he found about 10 years ago near Peoria, III. Used extensively in a truck farming operation, it was pretty well worn out but all there. He has the original disc plow, mold-board plow, cultivator and grader blade, and notes the grader blade is scarce. He knows of only one other.

No major work was required to restore the Ridemaster; Hank only had to replace the bearings, bushings, belts and tires, and give it a new paint job.

For the past 18 years, Hank has exhibited his collection throughout the upper Midwest. He’s made a lot of friends along the way and earned the title among collectors as ‘The Old Bolens Man’ – although his personal assessment is more modest: ‘I don’t know it all, and most likely never will.’

He continues to learn as much as he can about the Ride-A-Matic and Ridemaster models. He has started a registry for the Ride master and has more than 150 machines listed to date.

He’s also reproduced decals for the 1956-through-1962 Ride-A-Matics, and the Ridemaster, and has other Bolens decals in the works. FC

For more information about Hank’s collection or his other Bolens interests, contact him at 11260 Cumberland Ave., Coloma, WJ 54930.
Jim Cunzenheim is president of the Vintage Garden Tractor Club of America and writes frequently about garden tractors for hobbyist publications. Contact him at 412 W. Chestnut, Pardeeville, WI 53954; (608) 429-4520;

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