Wednesday, February 15, 2017

It's a Snap

I know what you’re thinking and the answer is yes, this bizarre looking contraption really is the great grand daddy of that Snapper Zero Turn you ride around your yard all summer.

A visit to the home page of boasts that snapper was the builder of the industry’s first self propelled rotary lawn mower in 1951 but provides little else in the way of history for their product. One would hope that a Corporation as big as Briggs and Stratton could afford to provide a little more but in this era of bean counter business administration I guess that’s asking too much. From this point on the picture only gets murkyer.

Wikipedia offers the most complete story I’ve found on the Snapper mowers but contradictions crop up here and there. The mower was manufactured in McDonough, Ga. located about forty miles south of Atlanta under the brand name Snappin Turtle in the early 1950’s. William Raymond Smith, a lifelong resident of McDonough bought the McDonough Power Company in the 1940’s and shifted production from products for the lumber industry to manufacturing lawn mowers for the rapidly growing suburban market. The Wikipedia account credits W. R. Smith with patenting the mowing blade used in the mower, but one of the sources, an article that appeared in the New York Times on July 21, 2003 states that he acquired the patent from two Florida residents, Neal and Alex Smith who shared his name but were not relatives.

Surf on over to the Nostalgia Ranch ( ) to check out an ad for Snappin Turtle Week, April 7 to 14, 1956 “The Premiere of America’s finest mower”.  Here another question arises, are these well dressed turtles telling us that production began in 1956 rather than 1951?  Whatever the case it’s an interesting period advertisement. Among the tidbits of information it offers: four models were produced, 19” and 25” with 2 to 6 hp engines, “Just guide, it glides”, “No wheels, follows contours, can’t scalp”, “Self propelled to climb banks”, “Fingertip control and power reverse”, “ Pulls sulky and other implements”. On that last note, while you’re visiting the ranch be sure to watch the video of a Snappin Turtle pulling the operator on one of those sulkies. It’s a surprisingly agile rig.

William R. Smith served as President and CEO of the company from the late 1940’s until 1979. In 2002 Snapper was acquired by Simplicity Manufacturing which brings us to one last resource you might want to check out:  an interesting account of how and why the CEO of Simplicity turned down distribution of Snapper products by WalMart. It’s an entertaining read. As things turned out he could have saved himself the trouble. In 2004 Simplicity was acquired by Briggs and Stratton. If you visit the Snapper web site today you’ll find WalMart listed prominently among the retailers. Moral of story: You can say no to WalMart but that doesn’t mean WalMart will take no for an answer.

Special thanks to Kirk Kahler for bringing his Snappin Turtle to the C.A.P.A. 2016 Expo.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Sears and Roebuck Economy Tractors

John Baum is a man on a mission. Actually it has two parts; 1 acquire the world’s largest collection of Sears and Roebuck Economy tractors and 2 spread the good word about this little known brand far and wide. John began collecting Economy Tractors in 1976 and as of 2016 he owns sixteen of them. Sears contracted with the Peru Wheel Company of Peru Illinois to manufacture an affordable tractor in 1937 and tractors were produced for only two years, 1938 to 1939. Peru Wheel made the frame and most of the cast components and used rebuilt Ford Model A engines and transmissions for the drive train. Most sources place the total production run at about 500 tractors. John estimates that perhaps 100 of these have survived so at 16% of the supply he’s well on the way to realizing the first of his goals.

John retired from farming in 2000 and has devoted his leisure time to his second mission ever since. I caught up with him at the Western North Carolina Fall Harvest Days Antique Engine & Tractor Show near Asheville, NC. in 2016. It’s about a fourteen hour drive from his home in Appleton, Wisconsin but according to John it’s one of the more leisurely trips he takes.  He estimates that he logs about 25,000 miles per year on the road to shows, with destinations like Ft. Meade, Florida and Yuma, Arizona. He even attends a show in Alaska and that’s pulling a trailer loaded with tractors. I call that dedication to your hobby.

Information about these tractors is almost as hard to find as the tractors themselves so it’s hard to say why Sears only offered them for two years. Some sources cite design issues like problems with the over the hood steering mechanism on the 1938 model. Others say the gathering storm of a world war caused manufacturers to shift production away from products like farm tractors. It is interesting to note that during this same period the Sears catalog also offered a Graham - Bradley tractor built by the Graham - Paige Motor Company that may have been more appealing to prospective tractor buyers.  Whatever the reason, production ended with the 1939 model.

Ad copy produced by Sears ( not surprisingly ) was effusive with praise for the Economy brand. “The performance of Sears Economy Tractors during the past season has brought enthusiastic response from farmer owners in every section of the country. They like the Economy’s ease of handling - its surplus power - its economical operation. And they smile over the small amount it cost them: less than $500 for a sturdy, powerful, good looking two plow tractor!”

“Powered by a dependable Ford Model A motor and transmission completely rebuilt to Sears exacting specifications, carries regular 90 day guarantee, backed by Sears.”

“ Shipped from a factory near Sterling, ILL. from where you pay freight.”  You could be the proud owner of all the above for $495 cash. The tractor shipped with steel wheels as standard equipment, pneumatic tires were an option as were fenders.

J.B. hasn’t snapped up all the remaining examples yet. This nicely restored ‘39 was on display at the Foothills Antique Power Association of NC Power Show in 2015. At the time it was owned by Floyd Sigmon. Presumably, it still is.

Without doubt the best way to learn more about this obscure brand of tractors will be to visit Gibsonburg, Ohio on Labor Day Weekend 2017. The Sandusky County Restorers of Antique Power will host the 12th annual gathering of Graham Bradley and Sears sold farm tractors at the White Star Park in Gibsonburg on September 1st through the 4th. For more information about this event visit: .  You can bet that John will be there.

Resources:  : Sear’s Mail Order Tractor, the 1930’s Economy Tractor by James N. Boblenz.  :  Standard Catalog of Farm Tractors by C.H. Wendel.