May 1992

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Mower Power


John Rezelman

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I would not rate the rotary power lawn mower as quite the equal of the prehistoric glacier or the later lumberman's axe at changing the appearance of rural America—but I would be careful in any comparison not to under-rate it. Few developments in recent history have changed the countryside as much.

In the years before these machines appeared on the scene the state of lawn mowing in general was mostly limited to the effects of the reel mower—so called because it consists of four or five blades mounted spirally around a reel and shearing against a bed knife at ground level. Nearly all of these were hand-pushed, ground-driven by gearing set in motion by the machine's two wheels. There were here and there larger machines of this design pulled by a horse, and as early as the nineteen-twenties one occasionally saw one whose wheels and reel were both driven by a small air-cooled gasoline engine.

City lots, except for as-yet undeveloped land, were mostly kept mowed by the typical hand mower. About every household that had its own yard also had a reel lawn mower with which family members kept the grass cut short on a regular basis. Some farm homes had a modest area of lawn and such a lawn mower, too, with which their occupants attempted to do the same as their city cousins. Many, however, did not. In some cases human and animal traffic kept the ground around the home worn bare, muddy when it rained and dusty when it did not. Sometimes, when the grass cover thrived, a grandfather, ancient uncle or any such who could be spared from the most pressing farm work kept the grass more or less subdued with a scythe. Almost always on farms, when the field mowing machine was first put in use each year at the start of hay harvest, it mowed the "dooryard"—an area surrounding the farm buildings—and just before being put away at the end of haying it mowed this area again. Often that was all the attention it got. Some of the time, at least, many farmsteads were set in varying-sized areas of long, unkempt grass that received only minimal attention. Even where there were the better-maintained lawns, these were often the responsibility of children and even those children were needed more urgently at times for fruit and vegetable picking and similar chores. Reasons for neglecting the lawn were numerous and constantly arising. With few exceptions, rural lawns were kept small and never enjoyed a high priority status.

Besides, the reel lawn mower was a rather temperamental, even delicate, instrument that worked best only under favorable conditions. It had to be said for it that it was gentlemanly and created no disturbances. When maintained in the best condition, well adjusted and oiled, its sound was a subdued, rather pleasant mechanical whisper. Even the worn and loose-jointed ones raised little more than a rhythmic clatter that was not very annoying and certainly not deafening. The reel mower wasn't much good, however, in a rough-and-ready role, taking come what may in stride. It could cut grass and similar plant material, shearing it off between the blades and the bed knife. Under favorable conditions of smooth ground and trash-free grass it did a superlative job of that. That, however, was all it could do. Even a small twig could jam between a blade and the bed knife, lock the wheels and need to be freed, which could often be done by turning it over and running it backwards. Stones and wire caught there would dull the blades. Unless these were reasonably sharp, it could not cut at all. This meant that lawns might need to be raked free of trash, or at least undergo a perfunctory picking-up before they could safely be cut. When a reel mower became dulled it pushed progressively harder and harder, with less and less effect. Even on small and well-maintained city lawns, periodic grindings and adjustment were necessary and were best done by a serviceman in a shop equipped with a grinding machine for that purpose. The adjustment of blade meeting bed knife was a delicate one that needed to be perfectly made and was easily disrupted or knocked askew.

Most rural residents of, say, seventy-five years ago were busy farmers and no one who thought about it needed to wonder why their household grass plots were not better kept.

That's how it was until the decade first following World War II, when America's manufacturing capacity turned from the production of weapons to supplying consumer goods. Among the new consumer goods offered was the rotary gasoline-powered lawn mower—typically, a single blade revolving horizontally on the vertical shaft of an air-cooled, single-cylinder gasoline engine of three or more horsepower, all mounted on a wheeled deck covering the blade. The revolving knife created a suction that tended to raise the plant material upright, when the sharpened edges of the blade cut it off. That was the theory. In actual practice the blade, even if too dull to cut cleanly, would, by reason of power and speed, club or beat it off. Unlike the reel mower, it was hard to stop a rotary.

Few products ever gained a more rapid acceptance. The first one in a neighborhood made enough noise so that no one for some distance in all directions could ignore the din, so they came to see. What they saw was a man (for at first the men revoked all previous delegations of duty and took this task unto themselves; they could not resist it) walking quite rapidly and steadily behind a roaring little ogre that leveled everything in its path. If some unfortunate plastic toy lay in its way it chewed the luckless object into fragments and spectacularly spat them out its discharge chute. So swift and steady was its progress that the lawn-mowing chore was soon done.

With few exceptions the spectators were enthralled. Yes, it was noisy and yes, they could see it was potentially dangerous, but never mind that—they wanted one.

Soon, in many a neighborhood that you might pick at random, the sound of one power mower no longer attracted curious attention, as more and more people acquired their own machine. You gave it annoyed and distressed attention, maybe, if you were a lover of quiet or a night-shift worker trying to sleep by day, but not curious—not any more. Changes in the sound made appeared early-on, however—a recurring violent thud or crash as the roaring mower, typically operated by now with a hint of reckless abandon, struck an object not grass—a protruding stump, a rock, a toy, or the dog's half-chewed bone. Some of these objects it chewed up and spat out, indicated by a momentary extra clatter followed by resumption of the previous level of noise. Others stopped it cold, indicated by an especially loud crash followed by silence until the motor was started again. Sometimes it would take a while before it was started again. Blades could and did become bent from the impact and once in a while the engine's crankshaft became damaged, necessitating major repairs or replacement.

Stubs and roots once cut off by the mower were no longer there the next time it came by. An obstruction frequently hit was a high bump of earth. Often the machine charged right through these hillocks, cutting them down to blade level and dumping the cut-off dirt out the discharge chute, sometimes serendipitously into a low place in the terrain. People were discovering that by taking a few risks their power mowers could serve as brush cutters and land levelers. They were captivated by all this might and power and many people, by constantly edging over farther into "the rough" kept expanding the boundaries of their lawns, making them ever larger. Where weeds and brush were kept cut, grass in time became established.

There were injuries. Children and pets were sometimes hit by fragments or objects flung with great force out the discharge chute. People were known to have poked their toes under the deck edge, right into the moving blade. In the earliest years some folks learned to their sorrow that if the spark plug wire were not disconnected the engine might sometimes start just by moving the blade, and hands couldn't be pulled away fast enough to escape it. Catastrophic injuries resulted. But that word got around; such misfortunes were well publicized. Considering how fast the number of these machines increased and what a motley assortment of people operated them, it was a miracle the incidence of accidents was not greater. They were not enough to deter or even slow the machine's adoption.

What really gave the rise of the rotary mower its next and greatest impetus was the advent of the riding models—spare, scooter-like things at first, but soon small tractors of eight, ten, twelve and more horsepower. These relative monsters drove up to four feet of blade. often divided into two or three separate blades, the better to cope with uneven terrain. Now, beside increased cutting power, in addition they carried the operators in a comfortable seat. With this, everyone wanted to mow the lawn—Mother, Grandma, all but the littlest children. In nice weather it was restful, pleasant work, insulated as you were from irritating distractions by an enveloping blanket of noise. Probably the most successful at monopolizing this chore for their own were teen-age boys not yet quite old enough for a driver's license. They loved it the most, worked hardest at grabbing and keeping the job, and, truth to tell, often did the best at it, and the fastest.

Now lawns expanded wider and faster than ever. Brush was clipped, rises of ground succumbed as well, and stones were flung to the side. Probably someone, likely the boys, even did a little hand work filling in the low spots. The mowers took a beating, of course, in the initial stages of this process, but that didn't stop them. If they couldn't cut well, they still shortened grass by beating it off—not the most attractive-looking result sometimes, but you could always readily tell where they had been.

Today, nearly every rural home, even the more humble mobile ones, has a substantial area of groomed lawn connected with it. Some people mow literally acres of lawn. Others, who do not have enough land to exhaust their mowing enthusiasm, even mow a few hundred feet of roadside adjoining their dwelling. By contrast with earlier years the countryside has a much more cared-for and controlled appearance. Not everyone prefers this, but there are advantages. There are good places thus made for play areas, badminton and volley-ball courts and the like. Poisonous snakes, if there are any around, are less likely to frequent a close-cropped lawn than to stay back in better cover, and other vermin might similarly be deterred to some degree. Walking is easier and safer for old folks and sitting, in chairs or on the ground, pleasanter and safer. More people think mowed lawns in their place look better than tall grass and weeds than don't think so. However you view it, you have to concede that a far-reaching change has occurred and is not likely to revert. Therefore, it might as well be enjoyed for such benefits as it affords.

The effects of the glacier have changed little in eons. Our forested areas will never again look quite the same as they did before they cut the virgin timber. But the rotary power lawn mower roars confidently on, oblivious to its contributions to air and noise pollution, continuing to make its changes on the face of rural America.

© 1992, John Rezelman
Index to articles by John Rezelman
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