The View from Mudsock Heights: The Ancient Belching Monster in the Barn

By Dennis Powell | Posted at 10:26 PM

So call me a Luddite. Fact is, calendar notwithstanding, I shall consider spring to have arrived when I can start the Gravely without risk of dislocating my shoulder. Part of this has to do with the lifting of heavy weights to build my strength and part has to do with the weather becoming warm enough that the oil in the thing is thinner than molasses.

The Gravely? The what? Well, therein lies a story.

If you look closely, you might find modern Gravely garden tractors and lawn-service mowers in use this summer, but when the name is mentioned many people will nod, well, gravely. They are thinking of a strange, powerful, and innovative machine that was invented in 1916 by one Benjamin Franklin Gravely in, of all places, Pomeroy, Ohio (though he’d soon begin building them in West Virginia). It is this earlier model of which I speak and one of which I own. Don’t ask me why.

The Gravely qua Gravely — the one which is spoken of reverently — went largely unchanged in its general configuration for half a century: a big, heavy-duty engine atop a set of two wheels, handles with controls sticking out the back in the fashion of a horse-drawn plow, and a rotating shaft with connector called a power takeoff at the front, from which the powered attachments are powered. The Gravely was sometimes not easy to start (I learned all I know about profanity by listening to my father getting the family Gravely running in the spring), and after awhile a model was brought out that had a battery-operated electric starter. But there was no generator, so after a few starts the battery had to be recharged. Once it gets running, though, a Gravely will go on forever. Mine is 40 years old, a veritable youngster.

The only implement I have for it is the rotary mowing deck, which makes the machine look for all the world like an upside-down Starship Enterprise. It is also for my purposes just about useless — it’s good for big, flat areas and I have none of those. The old Gravely is not agile. It does not turn well. The mower out front is on skids instead of wheels, and they are wont to catch in the turns. The deck can flip over on its fore-and-aft axis, with the tractor itself remaining upright. This means that it is possible to catch a skid on a turn and suddenly be looking into the roaring blade of doom. This does not impart confidence. The blade has no brake, so it keeps rotating when power to it is cut off. I think mine is still spinning from its last use in October.

The controls are what in the modern lexicon would be called counter-intuitive. To go forward, pull back on the handle. To go backwards, push forward. This can make for some real excitement when things get a little out of control.

It is sometimes nice to remember the innocent and interesting days when product liability was not a concern.

Ah, and there is the sulky, a little trailer that attaches to the back of the thing. It has a seat on it in an effort to make it a riding tractor. I have one of these; it’s in good shape. Most of them are, because many owners have used it once and decided to put it away. It carries the operator a little too close to the machine, which is no problem when going straight. But when turning, especially where the ground is uneven, the handles of the tractor swing across with the risk that morning’s baritone could be evening’s soprano. Sulky users scream a lot.

There is more. Attachments were made for the Gravely. Some are what you might expect. There was a full line of plows, discs, and harrows for tilling the soil, a sickle bar for mowing hay, plus snow blowers, seed spreaders, blades to move dirt and snow and gravel. Some are not what you would expect: the roofing remover, for instance, which scrapes the roofs from buildings, or the pump, which uses the engine’s power for … pumping, or the fogger and the sprayer and the back-hoe. There were dozens, doing just about everything (though I’ve found no attachment for vacuuming carpets). My personal favorites are the circular saw, which mounts out front and will level all in its path, and the chainsaw, which also sticks out the front and appears perfect for jousting scenes in some sort of post-apocalyptic “Mad Max” movie set in the Midwest. There are a pushcart — talk about putting the cart before the horsepower! — and a V-plow, which looks like the cowcatcher on an old steam locomotive.

Large, heavy, unwieldy, inconvenient, loud, dangerous: the old Gravely is all these things and more. For my purposes it is also highly impractical. But I’ll be out there with it again this year. And as I do, I’ll be smiling and happy.

Some of you will understand why. Which is good, because I can’t explain it.

Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at

Re: The View from Mudsock Heights: The Ancient Belching Monster in the Barn

Thanks for the memories. I ran a somewhat newer version one summer mowing the yard for a woman whose husband was in prison. She barely kept the house payments going. Her yard was huge, hilly, and had many different kinds of grass. A local church loaned us the Gravely. After one quick lesson on running it, I went to work. In time, I gained a fair fine touch for backing in and out of humpy corners. I never tried the sulky, as the flawed design was too obvious.

Posted by Ed Hurst - Feb 28, 2009 | 9:36 AM

Re: The View from Mudsock Heights: The Ancient Belching Monster in the Barn

You don't do it justice. It's all the things you say and a few more. But it does with dual wheels, climb hills like a goat, and with a 40 or 50” mower with wheels is the first zero turn mower that mows 2-3 acres an hour. We used ours for years with a rotary plow to plant our first organic tree nursery (we couldn't afford a regular tractor). I still have my first, one a 1969 Model Super L and we have 3 other walk behinds and 3, 4 wheel Gravely tractors in daily use on our various farms (one with the very rare trencher) They've made me a lot of money. I don't know many tools that will handle 40 years of hard work and keep going. That's why you and I and many other Gravley “crackpots” keep the old girl around. Ren

Posted by Ren - Mar 07, 2009 | 6:28 PM

Re: The View from Mudsock Heights: The Ancient Belching Monster in the Barn


The problem you have is that you've only had the pleasure of owning one of them. It takes two to get really good at thinking things about them. The 30” deck you are talking about also instills fear in trees up to 2” in diameter. For those worried about voice changes, Gravely made a sulky that will only whack your knees. It's called a Steering Sulky.

Owner of 2 wheelers from a 1948 to a 2006 model. And a whole batch in between.

Posted by Don - Mar 07, 2009 | 9:28 PM

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