Meet the Old Bolens Garden Tractor Man

Long-time fan keen on old Bolens garden tractors


| August 2002



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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.

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.

edna vickrey
6/16/2011 2:23:08 PM

I'm wondering what a running Gilson 1958 10 HP riding mower might be worth? Any information would be greatly appreciated.