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Proper soil cultivation is an essential part of agriculture whether growing corn or soybeans by the hectare or petunias in a windowsill box. The very act of breaking the soil in springtime conjures up images of the lone sturdy ploughman walking behind his mule, of the rich earthy sent of freshly turned topsoil in the cool morning air.

In the garden, soil cultivation is done either by hand, in smaller gardens, or with a mechanical tiller, or Rototiller, for larger gardens. The act of tilling, or cultivating, breaks up the soil, which has grown compacted from the rain and the sun, into fine loose particles. Cultivating also mixes fertilizer, compost and other organic matter, including unwanted weeds, into the soil which are more easily broken down into nutrients by beneficial microbes. The cultivated and enriched soil will be ideal for the upcoming year's crops to establish healthy root systems and thrive.

Those of you who have followed my gardening logs may recall my tale of woe concerning the death of my unwieldy monstrosity of a Craftsman 8HP front-tined tiller. The Craftsman tiller did work for breaking the soil but it was a bucking beast of machine that required all of my strength to hold it back and from tearing ass away from me. The aged machine was a part of my wedding dowry, if you will, and was at least 25 years old. In the past few years it had taken a lot of work to keep it in repair and last year developed an issue of overheating and dying that I was not able to resolve.

Or, better put, unwilling to further invest time or money into to resolve. I was ready to move on.

The main drawback of a front-tined tiller is that the action of the tilling tines also serves as its method of propulsion. The only thing holding the tiller back is a "depth stick" and the strength of the operator. This probably is not as big of an issue if you have a small tiller, but basically what I had was an 8 HP engine mounted directly on rotating steel tines. It had a mind of its own.

I spoke with a co-worker who also has been an honest-to-god farmer for most of his life. He swore by Troy-Bilt tillers and currently owns two of them: a Troy-Bilt Horse, his big one; and a Troy-Bilt Pony, his little one. He uses the Horse tiller in any situations where using the tractor and tow-behind tiller is impractical.

Troy-Bilt tillers are rear tined tillers which have powered wheels which slowly and evenly propel the machine while the tines rotate independently at a much faster speed to cultivate the soil.

I asked him if his tillers were easy to use to which he affirmed that he could walk behind the Horse using only one hand to squeeze the throttle and the tiller did all the work smoothly and effortlessly.

Hook, line and sinker, I was sold American!

But first: The story of the machine that C.W. Kelsey brought to the American garden!

"Troy-Bilt rototillers had their start in 1857 in Europe. A large, steam-powered "earth grinder" called the Romain Crosskill Digger was pulled by horses. Konrad von Meyenberg of Switzerland patented the original idea of a rototiller in 1910 and licensed Siemens-Schuckert-Werke, a German company, to produce rototillers. In Switzerland in 1918, Simar Co. began producing a similar tiller. Rotary tilling gained popularity in the United States during the 1920s. C. W. Kelsey of Troy, New York, became a distributor for Siemens and in 1930 established The Rototiller Co. Two years later he added the Simar tiller to his import and distribution business."{1}

"In 1934, Kelsey designed and built a 4-1/2hp Model AA All-American Rototiller. Lack of money for a complete manufacturing facility prevented full production of the AA. In April 1937, Rototiller, Inc. purchased the former Draper Cordage factory on 102nd Street in Troy, New York and started the process for full production of American made Rototillers. The next year, the first tiller, an improved Model AA but renamed the A-1, was built in Troy.

Kelsey was now interested in producing tillers for the average homeowner. The Wheelbarrow Cultivator came on the scene in 1939, the first American tiller designed for the backyard gardener. Apparently the idea was ahead of its time and sales were poor.

In 1944, through an agreement with Graham-Paige Motor Corporation, ROTOTILLER, INC. licensed Graham-Paige to manufacture tillers using the ROTOTILLER design and selling them under the ROTOTILLER brand.

In 1945, Kelsey made his second attempt at a small one-wheeled tiller (with) the new Roto-Ette Home Gardener. Kelsey’s Chief Engineer, George Done, thought the Home Gardener was priced too high for the home gardener. He started designing and building a much simpler machine that could be built at almost half the price. Kelsey was impressed with George’s design and ordered the machine into production.

In 1949 the Roto-Ette Model T came on the scene selling at $1 a pound; $194.50. Three months after the Model T went into production, a new one was produced every 9 minutes and they were selling like the proverbial hot cake."{2}

"Under the sales direction of Lyman Phillips Wood using mail order techniques, sales went from $600,000. a year in 1947 to $2,500,000. in 1952, when Lyman left the company.

1953 saw the introduction of Models 2 (2HP) and 3 (3HP) “Lightening Change” tiller featuring roto-tilling now 20” wide (power composting), roto-milling, reel mower, sickle bar, rotary mower, snow plow, wheel barrow, 500lb cap trailer, water pump, mulch grinder, electric generator, fruit sprayer, buck rake, lawn roller, and possibly other (features).

In 1957 Kelsey retired and sold the Company to his son-in-law Pennery Price. In 1959 they sold the Co. to Porter Cable, who sold it to Rockwell Mfg in 1960. In 1961 Rockwell sold it to Moto Mower. Moto Mower ceased tiller operations, thus ending the original Rototiller Co.

Rockwell Mfg. was obligated to still furnish parts for existing tillers and contacted (ROTOTILLER engineer) George Done who bought those rights.

WATCO Machine Products Co (Watervliet Co & Troy Co) formed 1 Oct 1961 by George Done and Pete Maraj. Watervliet Co of Watervliet NY (just across the river from Troy) owned by Myers Henderer made the tiller castings. Carl Grimm owned the factory buildings in Troy. In Nov 1962 Lyman Wood rejoined this newly formed group as a partner and mail order sales gradually took off. Trojan Horse first produced in Feb 1962 weighed 260 lbs, 4 ½ HP and sold for $350." {3}

WATCO Machine Products changed their name to Garden Way Inc. The Garden Way era, which lasted 38 years, made Troy-Bilt one of the leading household names in outdoor power equipment. The Troy-Bilt Horse I began production in 1967 and featured a 6HP engine, 20" tilling width, 12" diameter tines, and a 4 speed transmission with reverse. The Horse had a PTO (power take-off) which could power optional chipper and log splitter acessories. Other available options included a front mounted dozer blade, a cultivation blade and a furrower/hilling attachment.

The Horse II production model began in 1978 with 7 and 8 HP engine options followed by the Horse III in 1982 with 6, 7 or 8HP engine options. Sales figures reveal the total sales of Horse models I, II, and III to be 853,704 units. The Horse IV with OPC (Operator Presence Controls, which ensured two-handed operation) production began in 1987.

The Troy-Bilt Pony was released in 1976. This smaller model featured a 16" tilling width and only a single speed transmission with a reverse. PTO options were not generally available and the only optional accessory was the hiller/furrower attachment. The Pony was manufactured with either 5, 6 or 7 HP engines. An examination of serial numbers indicates that over 518,000 Troy-Bilt Ponys were manufactured through 1992.

The Garden Way era seems to be the most popular with a large population of Troy-Bilt enthusiasts who are represented by a healthy number of internet help websites, forums, fan websites and after-market parts vendors. A good number of these are listed in the references section of this writeup.

During Garden Way's nearly four decade lifespan, the company either acquired or innovated a fairly wide variety of products and interests. In addition to the Horse and Pony, which underwent only minor changes, smaller tillers such Bronco and Junior tillers were produced as well as a 10HP "Big Red Horse". A number of other products were also sold under the Troy-Built banner largely with the same reputation for rugged durability: the Tomahawk chipper/shredder, the Trail Blazer sickle bar mower, snow blowers, log-splitters and yard vacuums as well as riding mowers and tractors from the acquisition of the venerable Bolens Tractor Company. These products continued to be built in the New York facilities in Troy and East Greenbrush and the former Bolens facility in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

But by 1995 Garden Way seemed to have lost sight of its roots.

"Garden Way has been struggling in the last year. In May, Garden Way laid off 66 administrative and office employees in the Capital Region as it trimmed 111 total jobs to cut expenses and bolster profits. The company said at the time the cuts were needed to keep it competitive and were part of an overall effort to reassess and re-evaluate business practices. Last month, in one of the largest private finance deals in the Capital Region this year, Garden Way put up its manufacturing plants in Troy and East Greenbush plus equipment as collateral for a $23.5 million loan from Chase Manhattan Bank. That financial aid package came at the time Garden Way was wrapping up its purchase of StairMaster Sports/Medical Products Inc. of Kirkland, Wash., a leading exercise equipment company. The StairMaster acquisition marked the first time Garden Way had gone outside the outdoor power equipment industry and reflected the company's long-term strategic plan to diversify."{4}

Garden Way's fortunes would not improve and would soon become another sad statistic in the decline of American manufacturing.

"In 1997, Garden Way executives decided to close the plant in Port Washington in favor of consolidating operations in upstate New York. That idled more than 300 employees in Port Washington. (Within four years, Garden Way)filed for bankruptcy and is closing its Troy factory. Garden Way executives said the Troy plant will close by the end of September, leaving 550 workers without jobs."{5}

Many of the assets of Garden Way, including that of the Troy-Bilt tiller were acquired by MTD, The Modern Tool and Die Company, based in Cleveland Ohio. In addition to the Troy-Bilt and Bolens brands, MDT is the current manufacturer of Cub Cadet, Ryobi, Yard Man and White Outdoor Products.

As a side note, I had the privilege of visiting MTD's Modern Transmission Development facility in Litchfield, Kentucky when I was a field service technician for Wes-Tech Automation Systems. I did not see any Troy-Bilt products while I was there to service a conveying system for their hydrostatic transmission assembly line. I bought a Cub Cadet LT1050 riding mower shortly thereafter knowing that they had a fine operation there.

The reputation of Troy-Bilt name, unfortunately, has fallen in some peoples eyes in the MTD era. Among the more numerous complaints are broken tines, belts, axle seals, weak welds and "bad engineering," (what ever that implies.) Many decry these Troy-Bilts as inferior and made with poorly made foreign parts. MTD claims that Troy-Bilt garden products "are assembled at factories located in the United States. And although the majority of our component parts are also manufactured here in the United States, some of our sub-assemblies, component parts or optional accessories may be manufactured outside of the United States."

So, after scouring the internet for "the facts" and assessing the current new and used markets on Craigslist, I set my mind to buying a used Garden Way era Troy-Bilt Pony Tiller with the green triangular decal that said "Garden Way by Troy-Bilt" in a Cooper Tire-like bubble script.

For $460 or less.

Cash money.

With total Pony sales in excess of 518,00 there was a good number of them available each week on Craigslist. But either the price was too high, or the drive was too far, or it was a Horse, or it was an MTD, or it had a Tecumseh engine (my co-worker told me Tecumseh engines are garbage), and my dream tiller remained out of my grasp.

One day, I returned from work and there, in my neighbor's driveway sat exactly what I am looking for! My neighbor's Father-in-law drove it over in his pickup truck to till his daughter's garden. And to think that I had rented a shitty front-tined Honda FC600 just the weekend before!

I was giddy with excitement and seething with thall-shall-not-covet-thy-neighbor's-tiller envy. He let me test drive it and all my assumptions were true! It was just the right amount of machine. It could be lifted up by two people. It worked effortlessly. It was everything my old Craftsman was not. I absolutely had to have one of my own.

But in the long weeks that followed, MY tiller eluded me.

One day at work, another co-worker asked me, "Hey, Stuart! I hear you are looking for a Troy-Bilt tiller? My husband wants to sell his."

I affirmed that I was indeed looking for one. When she returned that Friday she said...


"Garden Way"

"5HP Briggs and Stratton"


Again, giddy like a schoolgirl, I told her that yes, it was exactly what I wanted! Since it was Friday, I would give her husband an extra $30 for his trouble if he agreed to drive it down to West Chicago from Woodstock if the machine was up to par.

"Hell, by 3PM he's going to be drinking already!"

"It's only 1:15PM! Call him up, let's set this up!"

Well, set it up she did, and by 4PM I was checking out my dream machine.

It was a bit beat up: The tine guard had sheet metal damage. It looked like the tines caught it somehow and bent it inward. The back flap was tied up with a rope to the handlebars. The handlebars had been re-welded and the welding work was sloppy but strong. The engine started on one pull! Hallelujah! It worked well; I tilled up a good piece of his tiny garden with ease. The carburetor seal leaked gasoline badly but we found that the bolts mounting the carb' to the engine were loose.

After tightening the loose bolts to my satisfaction and determining that a bit of sheet metal work was entirely within my capability. A deal was struck and for $330 under the sunny Midwestern sky on a warm afternoon with no problems in the world a two vehicle convoy brought my new toy home.

That Saturday, after some sheet metal work, I cultivated the finest, fluffiest six 14' rows of soil for this year's sweet corn crop. The finest, fluffiest soil I have ever known the joy of sifting through my bare fingers.

Yes, friends and neighbors, life is good.



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