Friday, October 17, 2008


What is a Gravely?

Well, one of the age-old challenges farmers have faced is in how to efficiently work their land and their crops. If you've ever tried to use a spade to do more than dig a small flower bed into your front yard, you can probably appreciate that challenge. Digging by hand to prepare a seed bed is slow work that can be both difficult and frustrating. I'm sure draft animals were a vast improvement (and they even came with a lifetime supply of fertilizer!), but mechanization was truly a revolution when it came. Corner my dad sometime and he can tell you all about the impact mechanization had on the Ellsworth farm back in the day.

I'm no farmer. You just learned that my dad was a farm kid, but at best I'm a suburban gardener, and even that sort of gardening almost didn't take. You see, I grew up in an antique farmhouse, and my parents had a big garden most years I was growing up. I loved many of the types of produce they grew, but dreaded just as many. Add to the mix things like hoeing and weeding and watering on summer days I'd have preferred to be riding a bike or otherwise fooling around, and gardening was almost sworn off forever.

But having a dad who was a farm kid came with a couple of benefits. First, it meant he had a penchant for owning lots of power equipment, or at least borrowing it. I had access to a Farmall M as a kid, as well as a small diesel Ford tractor and various implements. Dad also made an interesting choice for a lawn mower -- he bought a piece of equipment he was familiar with from his youth, undoubtedly hoping he could use it for a variety of chores around the property. It was a Gravely Model L, fitted with a 30" brush cutter that served as our mower, and he also picked up positively medieval sickle bar mower (that looked perfect for lopping feet off at the ankles) and a snowblower (that looked hungry for human digits, limbs or even small livestock or pets).

So back to the question -- what's a Gravely? Well, I could get into all kinds of details, here, but I'll stick with the basics. A "traditional" Gravely is a two-wheeled tractor. The operator works from the rear, holding a pair of handlebars and operating a handful of levers. The engine sits beneath the bars at the far rear of the machine, bolted to a very heavy, very simple and very cool transmission that provides for up to 8 combinations of wheel speed, wheel direction and implement speed. They can be outfitted with a variety of implements -- mostly mowers, but also plows and tillers and brooms and blowers and the like. And countless home-made gadgets have been assembled for them as well, I'm sure. They are crude and heavy beasts, and they shake like a paint mixer -- especially the very old ones with the proprietary Gravely engines. In short, they are unlike anything most of us (or any of my friends' parents, back when I was a kid) has in our garage or shed.

The basic Gravely design was laid out in the 1940's, and continued with only detail changes until the last ones shipped a few years ago. In the late 1960's the neat old Gravely engine gave way to a Kohler engine, and that introduced a host of changes, but the fundamentals remained as originally penned. That's an amazing run, if you think about it. But where Gravely's made sense for small farms or private gardeners with big plots, they weren't big enough for medium or large commercial farms. My dad only used his sickle bar mower a couple of seasons at most, before giving up on it and borrowing the Farmall M and a field mower to do the job in a fraction of the time. And since they were essentially designed as small farm implements (60 years ago), they were/are far more crude and complicated than most homeowners will accept, even if much more capable. So they were essentially a niche product, and I'd be willing to bet most Americans couldn't tell you what a Gravely is.

The company had a number of owners over the years, including Studebaker, and is now essentially Ariens' commercial mower brand. They shut down the old Gravely offerings, and the closest thing to a Gravely 2-wheel tractor is a funny looking and expensive import with a hydrostatic transmission and the ability to use old attachments (with the right adapter kit). I'm honestly not sure that's even offered anymore. But eBay is a treasure trove of old Gravely stuff, and the old stuff generally works well if it's maintained and set up properly.

And when I was a kid, I had a love/hate relationship with ours. But as an adult, I think they're just wonderful. So when it came time for me to buy my own first lawn mower, I figured I'd get a Gravely. I wanted one machine capable of running multiple implements, and I ended up buying a Gravely 5665 with a Kohler 12 and an 8-speed transmission. It's been a wonderful purchase, and has needed surprisingly little maintenance over the years (and simple stuff at that). It's only been in the shop once, and I now have a 50" 3-bladed out-front mower deck, a wide snowblower, and a rotary plow for tilling. And I hae a couple of other tractors as well -- a 430 rider with a 40" deck as seen in my last post, and the very Model L that I grew up with (whose serial number dates to the early 1960's).

Actually, if I were to be honest, I'd add that I have two other snowblowers (including the mauler my dad bought years back), a plow blade, and another rotary plow gearbox kicking around. And if I were being really, really honest, I'd say that I've owned still another rotary plow, a 30" mower deck, one running L8, two non-running L's, all of which have been since sold on eBay. And that I gave my dad the L8, so it's sort of still my responsibility. I also convinced my brother in law to buy a Commercial 12, which came with a bunch of attachments. He has had nothing but bad luck with it, unfortunately -- exact opposite of my own experiences. Anyway, as you can see, I can be a bit of a hoarder.

When I took custody of the tractor I used as a kid several years ago, I picked it up in my trailer, then stopped at a car wash, where I blasted away at years of grime and oil with a power washer. Once I got it home I started taking it apart, I was able to identify several examples of my adolescent handiwork (ahem). Stuff like the trailer hitch being held together (sort of), by an undersized bolt and nut because dad didn't have the right bolt. Things like fabricated throttle cable anchors, cut from galvanized sheet steel and an old Army index card box bolted in place as a toolbox. Some of these things I left alone during the rebuild because there was nothing wrong with what I did then, but other stuff I had to fix. And though I'm proud to say that it ran once I reassembled it, I then discovered that the cylinder was cracked (a common problem), and it needed to come apart again. It's been that way for a couple of years now, and I just haven't gotten back to it. I have most of the parts, but need to find time to put it back together. Maybe this fall or next Spring. But there always seems to be another priority -- in some cases, another broken Gravely.

But they're still pretty cool.

All for now,


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