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Bolens Garden Tractor

Garden tractor manufactured by the
Gilson Bolens Manufacturing Co.,
Port Washington, Wisconsin, 1928-1939.

(Museum object #2001.1.1)

This multi-purpose, walk-behind garden tractor helped bring the advantages of gasoline power to small farmers and market gardeners across America. It is equipped with an attached cultivator frame (the rear two wheels) and two spring teeth, which were used for loosening soil and weeding. According to a 1927 catalog, buyers could also purchase attachments for plowing, seeding, spraying, and lawn mowing, along with numerous accessories and options. It is powered by a one-cylinder, 1.4 horsepower, air-cooled Briggs & Stratton motor, with a power take-off. The Gilson Manufacturing Co. was the first company to attach a gasoline engine to a multi-purpose gardening implement, producing the first two-wheeled, power-driven garden tractor.

Mechanizing the production of grain was one of the great achievements of 19th century American technology. Beginning before the Civil War, companies like the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co. developed new machinery for planting, harvesting and threshing, dramatically reducing the human labor required on American farms. While such machinery transformed production of grain crops before 1900, the benefits of this technology were not applied to all crops equally. Mechanizing small scale vegetable and specialty farming took another several decades, and the Gilson Manufacturing Co. played an important role.

The company’s roots go back to 1850, when an immigrant from Luxembourg named Theodore Gilson established a foundry in Port Washington to manufacture agricultural equipment. The company grew and added other products, most notably hardware for swiveling office chairs developed by Theodore’s son, John. An early investor in office chair production in the 1890s was Harry Wilbur Bolens, a newspaper editor and inventor who became secretary and sales manager for the Gilson company. Harry Bolens became president of the company in 1909, finally buying it outright in 1914. The "Bolens" brand name began appearing on Gilson equipment shortly thereafter. Bolens changed the firm’s name to the Gilson Bolens Co. in 1928 and to the Bolens Manufacturing Co. in 1939.

Gasoline engines had been used to power pumps, cream separators, silage cutters and other small pieces of farm equipment since the turn of the century, but in 1919 Gilson became the first company to attach a gasoline engine to a multi-purpose gardening implement, ultimately manufacturing about 7,000 of these tractors for the Beeman Tractor Co. of Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Sensing a new market for its products, Gilson began making garden tractors under its own name by the early 1920s, marketing them to agriculturalists who either grew crops for which machinery had not yet been developed, or who lacked the capital to buy larger equipment or the sizeable acreage upon which that equipment operated most efficiently. Early Gilson-made garden tractors were probably powered by the company’s own engines (Gilson had produced its first gasoline engine in 1905), but Gilson ceased engine production in the mid-1920s and, like many other makers of outdoor power equipment, began buying them from the nearby Briggs & Stratton Corporation of Milwaukee.

In its 1927 catalog, the Gilson Manufacturing Company pitched its tractors to market gardeners, flower growers, nurserymen, poultry keepers, vegetable farmers, estate keepers, park and country club superintendents, and “home gardeners and suburbanites.” The catalog boasted, “The BOLENS Tractor is more than merely a time-saver – it puts pleasure into the work that formerly was drudgery. No more long days of weary toil – all the work can be done in average working hours so there’s always time for recreation.” The back of the catalog is filled with photographs and testimonial letters from a wide variety of users, from onion growers to foresters from across North America and abroad. According to Bolens’ obituary, by his death in 1944 the Bolens Manufacturing Co. was the world’s largest manufacturer of garden tractors.

The market for these implements began declining by the 1950s with the introduction of small, four-wheeled lawn tractors and riding mowers with attachments. By then Bolens had expanded its business into a full line of commercial and residential lawn mowers and other outdoor power equipment.

[Sources: Trade catalog, “Bolens Tractors.” (Port Washington, WI: Gilson Manufacturing Co., c. 1927),WHS pamphlet 95-2476 (rare books);
“The Bolens story.” (Port Washington, WI: FMC Corporation, Bolens Division, c. 1967), WHS pamphlet 84-346; History of Washington and Ozaukee Counties, Wisconsin (Chicago: Western Historical Co., 1881).]


Posted on June 15, 2006

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