Even Craig Seabrook, founder of the Gravely Tractor Club of America, admits that the club members' devotion to the garden tractors is, well, a little weird. 'They're neat things,' he says, 'but they're just garden tractors. People don't like to hear this, but you really can't have a lot of fun with them. When you do get to have fun, you find out you're working.'
If that is your idea of fun, though, there's a lot to be had.
Early in the second decade of the 20th century, Benjamin Franklin Gravely, a photographer by training and trade, decided that there had to be a better way to prepare his garden than with a simple push cultivator. Being something of a tinkerer - his name graced 65 patents at the time of his death - Gravely cobbled together a one-wheeled, motorized plow from an Indian motorcycle and a push plow in his Charleston, W.V., shop. It proved to be the prototype of what would become known as the Gravely Model D garden tractor, which he would patent in 1916.
Weird or not, the GTCA boasts a membership of more than 500 quite zealous members nationwide. One name on the roll is Rev. Phil Smith. Pastor of the Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church in Stouchsburg, Penn., Reverend Smith says that, after that first Model D, Gravely went to work on a model from scratch and hit the jackpot in design. 'Gravely's big achievement was an engine and a transmission in a very small space and in perfect balance. Making his tractor very compact made it, therefore, very maneuverable,' he says. 'But Eustis Rose, who also designed automotive transmissions for Chrysler, helped with designing the transmission for the Model D, too.'
What was unique about the transmission designed for the Gravely was that it was what was known as a 'planetary' transmission, having high and low settings, but requiring no clutching.
In 1922, with backing from local businessmen, Gravely opened a factory in nearby Dunbar, W.V., and began producing the Model D in earnest. The two-and-a-half horsepower tractor, Rev. Smith explains (with a passion that makes you believe that, if he were given half a chance, not only will we all someday own a Gravely, but we might all be Lutherans, as well), was a wonder, due as much to its versatility as its maneuverability. Soon after the company's inception, Gravely began producing attachments for the tractor, multiplying its uses tremendously. There was a lawn roller, a sickle mower, a reel mower, a sulky, a cultivator and more, all attached by only four bolts. Rev. Smith says this made the D a formidable piece of equipment. 'What the Model T was to automobiles,' he says, 'the Gravely was to homeowners.'
It needed to be good, because it wasn't cheap. In the 1920's when Model T Fords were selling for $280, Gravelys were only about a hundred dollars less. People gladly paid the money, though, because, as the reverend puts it, 'Gravely was building tractors for the ages.'
Competitors had begun to close in on Gravely's Model D by the early 30's, so Gravely and his engineers went back to the drawing board. 'I don't know how much Ben Gravely had to do with the two-wheeled tractor,' Craig Seabrook says. 'I don't know how much anybody really knows about that.'
What is known is that, in 1935, the Gravely company rose to the challenge and released its second model, the two-wheeled Model L. The tractor could pull five horsepower and boasted the same attachments that had been available for the D, seeming to boost Gravely back to the front of the garden tractor pack. Its additional stability and power allowed the L to operate two 25-inch gang mowers instead of just the 30-inch reel mower, making it the premier tractor for institutional use. Gravely also invented a steering sulky for the L. Considering the fact that, since the early to mid-1990s, most new garden tractors began to steer from the back, B.F. Gravely and his company were, as Rev. Smith says, 'only about two-thirds of a century ahead of everyone else.'
At the age of 54, B.F. Gravely sold his stock in Gravely Motor Plow. The company was bought by D. Ray Hall in 1953 - the year of Ben's death - who owned it until 1960, when it was purchased by Studebaker. Sometime between 1968 and 1970, the company split off from Studebaker, becoming Gravely International, Inc., until it was purchased by Ariens in 1988. During those those years, the company also moved from Dunbar to demons, N.C., to Brillion, Wis.
In the early 1960's the L's power was bumped first to 6.6 HP, and later, on the Model L 'Super Convertible,' to 7.6. The line now includes 16 HP four-wheeled tractors, first introduced in the 60's and new 'zero turning radius' lawnmowers.
While this might all be fascinating, it does little to explain the passion that collectors seem to have for these tractors. Craig Seabrook explains it this way: 'These things just don't wear out. Certain parts do, sure, but the main castings never do.' He should know. After starting the club, he started hearing about Gravelys all over the country and checked out a few leads, buying his oldest and favorite Model L from a dealer in Rochester, N.Y. Its serial number: 2. The second Model L ever made, he says, still runs like a top.
Greg Mips is the editor of the 'Gravely Gazette,' the GTCA newsletter, and says that, having left the east coast and settled in California, where Gravelys are virtually unknown, he is slowly making converts for the Gravely among his neighbors. 'Gravely's big popularity is on the east coast,' he says. 'In fact, I think a requirement of living in Pennsylvania is owning at least one Gravely. But, when the guy down the street notices that, while he needs to buy a new tractor every three years and I've had the same old one forever, he starts to take notice.'
Greg, who learned to work on machines from his father (who 'had a big heart for machinery and never wanted to see anything die,') is now working on the definitive book on Gravely tractors. It will be a daunting task, Craig Seabrook says, because so much of the history of the Gravely was never documented. That's one reason he wanted to start the GTCA (originally known as the 'Model D and L Gravely Network'), in order to pool the resources and knowledge of other collectors and preserve the tractor's history.
Part of the problem with piecing the information together, he says, is that companies rarely realize they are in the midst of history as it happens. 'Most companies don't give a damn about what they're doing when they're doing it,' he explains.
As an illustration, he talks about the club's first get-together - called then, as now, a 'Mow-In' - of the Model D and L Gravely Network, which met in Dunbar, near the first factory. Given a tour by the caretaker of the factory, Craig and the other nearly 100 attendees found offices left full of dusty paperwork, but had little chance to investigate its historic significance.
'We're trying to pin this stuff down,' Craig says.
It should be pointed out that the Gravely Tractor Club of America is not the first Gravely tractor club. It is now, though, the only one. Others would limp along for a little while and fail for lack of participation or drive. Craig says that this one has lasted because, like the tractors he celebrates, he worked 'just a little harder.' Given that little bit more effort, and the passion of the other club members, it might not be long before the GTCA has tracked down every last bit of information about the Gravelys.
Craig Seabrook and the Gravely Tractor Club of America can be contacted at 14444 Watt Road, Novelty, Ohio, 44072; (440) 338-5950; firstname.lastname@example.org.
To reach Rev. Phil Smith write to 33 Longs Church Lane, Womelsdorf, Venn., 19567;