The Rotary Power Mower And Its Inventor: Leonard B. Goodall

Leonard E. Goodall
December/January 1993
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Photo Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri.
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Reprinted with permission from, Missouri Historical Review, April 1992, The State Historical Society of Missouri, 1020 Lowry Street Columbia, Missouri 65201

Consumers Union celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 1986 by publishing a special commemorative book, I'll Buy That, in which it identified fifty twentieth-century inventions that had 'revolutionized the lives of consumers.'1 One of the fifty, the rotary power lawn mower, originated in the basement of a house on East Market Street in Warrensburg, Missouri, where Leonard B. Goodall lived and developed the mower. His work represents the story of an individual who saw a need and, with the spirit of an entrepreneur, set out to meet it.

Immediately after World War II, an important part of the American Dream included owning a home with a yard and, perhaps, even a white picket fence. Just as air-conditioning allowed people to live comfortably in warm climates. Goodall's mower enabled individuals to maintain relatively large lawns in a neat and attractive fashion.

Prior to the invention of the rotary mower, mowers were of the reel type. They could not cut high grass, which made it difficult for individuals to push them long enough to mow a large yard. As long as most people lived in cities or on farms, this presented no problem. City dwellers had either no yards or only small ones, and farm animals served as 'mowers' for rural inhabitants. The post-World War II suburbanization movement created a great need for a mower that could be used on large lawns, and Goodall's rotary power mower responded to that need.

Born to farmers in Delphos, Kansas, on November 17, 1895, Leonard B. Goodall grew up in the rural and small-town atmosphere of central Kansas. Although he completed only eight grades, he had a curious mind about mechanical mattersa curiosity that remained with him throughout his life and dominated his professional activities and work habits.

As a teenager, Goodall attempted to repair a tractor with open drive while the engine ran. The vibration caused the tractor to jump into gear. His left leg caught in the gears, necessitating its amputation. This tragedy later had a dramatic impact on his life. The handicap and his resulting inability to push a reel-type mower caused him to seek another approach to lawn mowing.

As a young man, Goodall moved to Salina, Kansas, where he married, and he fathered a daughter, Viva. The marriage ended in divorce, and in the mid 1920s he moved to Kansas City, Missouri. His curiosity had led him to develop a strong interest in two technological advances still in their infancy in the 1920sthe radio and the automobile. He had read and studied all that he could find about them.

While looking for a job, Goodall responded to an advertisement in the Kansas City Star for a radio repairman at the College Store, a privately owned book and school materials store in Warrensburg, Missouri. The exact date of this move is unknown, but his family believes it occurred about 1927. Although he knew little about repairing radios, neither did anyone else, and the College Store hired him. He moved to Warrensburg, found a single room in a rooming house on West Culton and began work. The owner of the store, Kenneth Robinson, became a lifelong friend, and Robinson's son-in-law, Garrett Crouch, later served as Goodall's attorney and as attorney for the Goodall Manufacturing Company.

Soon after moving to Warrensburg, two important events occurred in Good-all's life. First, he met Eula Johnson, a waitress in the Estes Hotel coffee shop where he ate regularly. She would later become his wife. Second, he became friends with Stanford McCann, an employee at the Ford dealership. McCann helped Goodall get a job there, and he soon left the College Store to work for Theodore Shock, owner of the Ford dealership. Goodall served first as a mechanic and later as shop foreman, a position he held through the years of the depression and into the late 1930s.

This advertisement for Goodall mowers appeared in the Kansas City Star on March 23, 1947.

On May 11, 1929, he married Eula Johnson, and they soon built a small two-bedroom bungalow at 444 East Market, a home they occupied until his death in 1971. The basement of that house became Goodall's first workshop, and the Goodall Corporation buildings were later built in the back yard and on a vacant lot next door.

After marrying, Goodall settled down to weather the depression. In addition to his regular job at the Ford dealership, he spent most evenings working at home on products that would enhance his income. He designed and manufactured two items that became locally popular. The first jigsaw puzzle she made by pasting pictures on thin plywood and then carefully cutting each piece with his saw. His unique way of cutting the pieces allowed the puzzle to be picked up. After the puzzle was put together, one could pick it up by a corner, and the pieces would stay together. (This feature may have had little practical application, but Goodall was quite proud of it anyway!) The puzzles served two purposes. He sold some, and he took others to the College Store, where they were rented to the public at ten cents per puzzle.

His other product was inlaid wooden lamps. He glued various kinds of wood together and then used his lathe to form the glued masses into attractive lamps. The pieces of wood then appeared as designs. The puzzles and the lamps supplemented the family income and provided an outlet for Goodall's creative energies.

The Goodalls also started their own business during the depression. When the Estes Coffee Shop developed financial difficulties, they took it over. Eula doubled as owner/manager as well as a waitress, and Goodall continued to work at the Ford dealership. After he opened the restaurant at 6:00 a.m., Eula came in a bit later to oversee the breakfast hour. By 8:00, Leonard was at his Ford job. He returned to help close the restaurant in the evening at 9:00. Leonard and Eula believed in the work ethic; the restaurant closed only one day a yearon Christmas. They operated the restaurant until 1941 and then sold it to devote more time to the mower business.

The Goodalls' only child, Leonard Edwin, was born in 1937.

The puzzles, the lamps and the coffee shop did not take all of Goodall's attention during this period. He began to spend evenings, after closing the coffee shop, working on the first rotary power lawn mower. His large yard was difficult to cut with a reel mower, and Goodall's artificial leg further hindered his pushing.

He first directed his efforts toward making the reel mower more efficient. He attempted to mount a blade on a bracket on the front of a reel mower. To be run by a pulley from the reel, it was to spin and cut the tallest grass, leaving only the short grass to be cut by the regular blade. It was, however, still manually powered. Now the new blade as well as the regular reel had to be turned by the person pushing the mower. Goodall soon decided this was not a promising solution to the problem of lawn mowing.

Next, he placed the rotary blade beneath a metal frame and mounted an engine on top of the frame and two wheels on the sides. He then used a belt with a ninety-degree twist to run from the engine to the shaft that came up through the frame from the blade. This enabled the engine to power the blade.

As Goodall experimented with making a rotary mower, he rejected two ideas quite early in the process. First, he did not like electric motors. He believed they did not have enough power, and he disliked having a long electric cord running to the mower. He was concerned that the cord would be accidentally cut and that an individual would be shocked, or worse. Therefore, he decided to use a gasoline engine to propel his mower.

Second, as he worked with small gasoline engines, he became unhappy with having to run a belt from the engine to the shaft on which the blade was mounted. What he developedand what he believed to be his major contribution to the technology of power mowerswas the vertical direct drive rotary power mower.

He turned the engine on its side so that the crankshaft was vertical. He then mounted the engine so that the crankshaft protruded through the frame, with the lower end of the crankshaft exposed beneath. He attached the blade directly to the lower end of the crankshaft, which now extended below the frame.

He appeared most proud of this particular innovation. When asked what was unique about his mower, he would reply that it was a 'vertical crankshaft mower' or a 'vertical direct drive power mower'a characteristic more important to him than that it was a 'rotary power mower.' The use of the engine made it a power mower, and the use of a belt with a quarter turn enabled the blade to rotate beneath the frame, an improvement over the reel-type mower. He considered mounting the blade directly on the lower end of the crankshaft to be his most valuable contribution to the technology of the lawn mower.

By the late 1930s, Goodall believed that the mower was sufficiently well developed to market commercially. He had ideas but no money to start a business and begin production. After finding the banks uninterested in such a project, he looked for other sources. A local businessman and insurance agent, Charles S. 'Sam' Baston, and a business associate of Baston's, Hardy Wray, agreed to join Goodall in a business venture.

The Articles of Association (incorporation), dated January 14, 1939, listed the owners as Charles S. Baston, fifteen shares in return for $ 1,500 cash; Hardy Wray, fifteen shares in return for $1,500 cash; and Leonard Goodall, thirty shares in return for property as follows:

'For and in consideration of assignment and transfer by Leonard Goodall to the Corporation of all his right, title and interest in and to the Goodall Rotary Cutter, an invention of the said Leonard Goodall, of a power-driven rotary principal mowing machine, together with the said Leonard Goodall's agreement to assign patent and patent rights now being applied for to the Corporation when patent is granted; said invention and applied for patent rights thereto being of the reasonable and fair value of Three Thousand Dollars ($3,000.00).'3

Goodall thereby began his business with $3,000 cash and his own ideas about making a rotary lawn mower. None of the three men guessed how significant for the world of lawn care, and how financially rewarding for them, this small beginning would prove to be.

At the same time that Goodall found business partners to join him in the incorporation process, he applied for his first patents. U.S. Patent Office records show that he filed his first patent application on March 9, 1939. On July 23, 1940, the office granted a patent for a 'Rotary Grass Cutter.' The definition in the patent began:

'The combination of a rotary type grass cutting mower comprising a wheeled base, a driven rotary cutter operating beneath said base member and between said wheels, a prime mover having a crankshaft extending vertically beneath said base . . .'4

Goodall received three patents on the mower over a period of six years: Patent No. 2208972 on July 23, 1940; Patent No. 2278922 on April 7, 1942; and Patent No. 145483 on August 20, 1946. The patent office granted Trademark Number 380331 to Goodall on August 20, 1940.' The Goodall trademark, designed to emphasize the concept of rotary movement, remained the symbol of the company for as long as it manufactured Goodall mowers. The symbol appears on every mower, in company brochures and, often, in advertisements in magazines and periodicals.

Today, Goodall's rural and small town background would be called 'blue collar. ' He had no expertise in publicity or advertising. Nevertheless, he understood the need to inform people about the mower, and he began to spread the word wherever he could. In addition, Baston and Wray helped with publicity.

The earliest extant printed information about the mower appeared in an extensive article in the Warrensburg Star Journal on June 1, 1939.6 The article called the mower the result of 'eight years of experimenting' and said Good-all developed it 'during his spare time in his basement.' This piece also contained the first known reference to price, indicating that the mower sold for $98.50. Three pictures published with the article showed Goodall in his workshop and the mower.

The first national publicity appeared in the October 1941 edition of The Maytag News. The mowers used Maytag engines. The article said the mower 'operates on an entirely different principle than conventional lawn mowers,' and it emphasized the point important to Goodallthe vertical crankshaft. 'A single arm with two cutting blades revolves horizontally to the ground. It is directly connected to the vertical crankshaft of the Multi-Motor and revolves at approximately 1650 RPM.'7

World War II almost put the fledging Goodall Manufacturing Company out of business. Soon after the production of lawn mowers began, war erupted in Europe, and then the United States became involved. The first mowers used Maytag engines, but engines manufactured by nearly all companies soon became unavailable.

In addition, Goodall had little interest in war contracts, even though some were available for small businesses. Unsophisticated in the ways of business, he had traditional concerns about dealing with government and bureaucrats. He preferred to 'wait it out' and do what little business he could.

During the war, Maytag engines were not available. Goodall could secure engines from only one company in the war years. He began manufacturing and selling mowers with engines from that company, but he later said that using those engines was the 'biggest mistake of my business career.' The engines developed a variety of operating problems, and many had to be returned to the company for repair and service. A major problem occurred because these two-cycle engines, unlike four-cycle engines, necessitated mixing oil and the gas, a procedure many consumers seemed not to understand. Complaints poured in to the company. Goodall strove to provide the highest possible quality mower, and the issue with the engines became a personal embarrassment as well as a business problem. He discontinued use of that brand of engine as soon as he could and did little business for the duration of the war.

The best years for Goodall and his company occurred from the end of the war until the company was sold to an out-of-state firm in 1952. As the war drew to a close, Goodall began to look for a postwar source of engines. He visited the headquarters of Maytag Corporation in Newton, Iowa, and Lauson Motor Corporation in New Holstein, Wisconsin, and corresponded with Briggs and Stratton and other engine manufacturers.

After considerable negotiations, he signed a contract with Lauson. That company agreed to provide engines with a vertical crankshaft, still a rarity in those days. In addition, Lauson built the engines with a special type of oil pump, which Goodall had helped develop and which provided better lubrication for the engines. Perhaps most importantly, Lauson agreed not to sell the vertical crankshaft engines to anyone but Goodall for five years. The Lauson engine thereby became the standard engine on Goodall mowers.

A review of the 'Lawn and Garden' section of the Kansas City Star editions after the war indicates that lawn mower advertising resumed in the spring of 1946. Lawn mower sales are highly seasonal, and advertisements tend to appear between February and May. The earliest postwar ads featured reel mowers powered by individuals pushing them and mowers powered with electric engines.

The earliest extant Goodall ad appeared in February 19479. In March 1947, a large ad (nearly one-quarter page) showed Goodall's daughter, Viva, pushing a mower, and declared the Good-all to be the 'one and only 4 cycle vertical crankshaft direct drive rotary mower.' The ad listed four models costing from $110 to $174 each ($657 to $1,040 in 1992 dollars)hardly an in-expensive piece of lawn equipment in those days. Although Goodall's associates had their own full-time businesses, Baston took an active role in the sales side of the business. (Wray had died in the mid-1940s.) Baston established dealerships around the country and assumed responsibility for an exhibit at the Missouri State Fair each August. Goodall, who did not enjoy sales work or the travel that went with it, appeared content to leave such activity to others.

In 1949 and 1950, the business expanded by erecting three buildings on the property Goodall owned behind his home and on the adjacent lot. The company clearly prospered during these years. Although sales figures and financial statements for the company have not been located, Goodall's personal income tax statements for these years are available. An indication of the financial strength of the company can be found by studying the dividends it paid. Goodall's tax records show that he received dividends as follows:

Year

Dividend

In 1992 $'s

1946

$8,150

($55,791)

1947

22,000

(131,584)

1948

48,900

(274,041

1949

48,900

(271,381)

1950

57,050

(316,612)

1951

16,300

(83,833)11

Since Baston and Wray's heirs owned 50 percent of the company's shares, they divided an equal amount of dividend income. They must have concluded that the 1939 investment of $ 1,500 each had been a wise investment indeed!

No obvious explanation appears for the sudden drop in dividends in 1951. Two possibilities come to mind. The Korean War may have affected profits, or 1951 may have been the beginning of the profit difficulties detailed below.

Only one financial statement of the company has been found. It indicates that, for the year ending December 29, 1950, the company made a profit of $138,980.93 ($692,681 in 1992 dollars) on sales of $954,124 ($4,755,354 in 1992 dollars).12

Although the business had been a financial success, Goodall considered selling by the early 1950s. Several reasons account for this. The first was competition. Goodall had an uncompromising commitment to quality; he remained determined to build the best mower that could be made. The Good-all mower quickly became known as the 'top of the line' and the 'Cadillac of lawn mowers.' The average small homeowner, however, did not need a mower that could cut five-feet-high weeds and mow through the most dense of Bermuda grass.  

Other manufacturers could build mowers of somewhat less quality, but still quite adequate for the average user, and sell them at lower prices. The Good all mowers were not inexpensive. Mowers selling for $110 to $174 in the 1940s were 'top of the line' in price as well as quality. Also large retail chains such as Sears, Roebuck &. Co. and Montgomery Ward became major competitors. They had retailing, advertising and distribution abilities hard for a small independent business to match.

Another aspect of competition was that, as time passed, it became increasingly difficult for Goodall to protect his product through the use of patents. Patent attorneys and others advised him that enforcing patents would prove expensive and time consuming. Goodall came to doubt that it would be worth the effort.

In addition to the competition, health problems tempted Goodall to sell. His tendency to be a perfectionist made him a worrier. He seldom slept through the night; thinking about the business often awakened him. He invented, improved and tinkered with products in his mind even while he tried to sleep.

He also worried about the financial pressures of the business. Because of the seasonal nature of the lawn mower business, mowers had to be sold between about February and May in order to have a successful year. Every year, Goodall went to the bank and signed a personal loan for $50,000 to buy the supplies and to cover the other expenses necessary to get ready for the season. Even though the business proved successful, the bank insisted on his personal guarantee on the loan. He knew that one bad season would affect not only the business but also his personal financial situation and that of his family. His worrying caused ulcers, and then bleeding ulcer shealth problems he had the rest of his life.

Goodall also realized that he did not need more money. His life style changed very little as his income grew. He never moved from the house he and Eula had built in 1929, although they added a third bedroom and a second bath. He had no interest in joining country clubs, playing golf or moving in the social circles associated with wealth. He seldom wore a suit or a tie except to church. He did want to drive a nice car (on which he could tinker), and he and Eula bought a country home in the Ozarks near Stover in 1953. The desire for more money, however, soon held little motivation for him.

Finally, Goodall had no heirs with an interest in the business. If his son had expressed an interest in engineering or manufacturing, Goodall would have continued until his son was old enough to take over the business. Such was not the case, however, and Goodall realized it. For all of these reasons, he decided to sell the business.

Goodall, Baston and Garrett Crouch, the company's attorney, let it be known that the company might be for sale under the right conditions. They contacted several of the larger mower manufacturers, engine manufacturers and lawn equipment retailing firms.

They also secured the assistance of F.C. Moseley and Co. of Kansas City, a commercial real estate firm. Foley Manufacturing Company, of Minneapolis, Minnesota, a company well known for making chain saws and saw sharpeners, learned of the availability through Moseley. They soon expressed interest, and talks began.

After extended negotiations, Foley purchased the corporation for $317,520 ($1,598,121 in 1992 dollars).14 A $1,500 investment made in the company in 1939 had grown to be worth nearly $79,000 by the time of the sale in 1952. The sale agreement also included a no-competition clause, in which Goodall agreed not to go into competition against the company and to give the company first opportunity to purchase any of his future inventions.

The company remained in Warrensburg and marketed its mowers with the Goodall name. Henry Garwick, a manager with the company in Minneapolis, moved to Warrensburg and assumed day-to-day management responsibilities. Goodall retired, although he remained on the board of directors, and continued his experiments. He sold several inventions to the company over the following decade.

Foley, the new owner of Goodall, experienced financial problems almost from the beginning. Only in 1956 did annual sales exceed the 1950 figure of $954,124.

Comments made at board meetings suggest reasons for the financial difficulties. E. F. Ringer, vice president of Foley, told the board in 1957 that the lawn mower business was 'getting more competitive.' Minutes of the January 25, 1960, meeting note that corporate profits had been hurt by having to offer prices and early bird discounts and by having to pay more for engines. The company had changed from Lauson engines to Clinton engines because the former had discontinued manufacturing that line of small engines.

Although Goodall remained on the board until 1962, no written record exists of his view of the company's financial troubles in the 1950s. As noted, expectations of increased competition and the difficulties of protecting patents had influenced his decision to sell the company in 1952. He also often stated to family members his belief that increasing paperwork and the administrative costs associated with operating a subsidiary company far removed from the home office hurt the business. Goodall believed in 'hands on' management. When he ran the company, he spent most of his time on the floor of the plant, effectively serving as plant manager as well as chief executive officer. That approach was impossible once the company became a subsidiary of a larger corporation in a distant location.

In 1962 Foley officials reached a similar conclusion and decided that it was too difficult to operate a business that distance from its home plant. It moved Goodall Manufacturing Corporation to Winona, Minnesota, much closer to the Foley main office in Minneapolis. Records in the office of the Secretary of State of Missouri show that the company ceased to exist as a Missouri corporation on November 13, 1962. On the same date, the company was merged into Goodall Manufacturing Corporation (a Minnesota corporation).17

The decision to remove the company from Warrensburg caused considerable excitement in the community. The Chamber of Commerce, city council, and the Warrensburg Industrial Development Corporation all had the matter on their agendas for discussion. In the years preceding Goodall's departure, Missouri Public Service Corporation had moved from Warrensburg to Raytown; Brook-field Unitog had departed to Clinton; and the company that made 'Warns-burg Sausage' had relocated to Sedalia. A state agency, the Missouri Commerce and Industrial Development Division, also discussed the Goodall removal at a meeting attended by a delegation of Warrensburg businessmen.

A Warrensburg Star journal editorial entitled 'We're On The Move All Right' began: 'The people of the Warrensburg community were somewhat stunned yesterday when they learned they were to lose another industry. Its product, the original rotary lawn mower, was the product of the mind of a man who is today a part of this community, Leonard Goodall. From the very first his power mower was an immediate success and carried the name of Warrensburg all over the United States.'18

Could the community have done anything to convince the company to stay? Some argued that the company had needed more space, made its needs known and found no positive response among community leaders. More space might have helped. But corporate executives in Minnesota, concerned about having only one subsidiary not near corporate headquarters, would probably have made the move at some time.

Goodall and his wife spent their retirement years in Warrensburg and at their Ozarks home south of Stover. The Stover property, known historically as Boyler's Mill, included a small lake and about seventeen acres of land. Goodall continued to experiment with mowers and used them to keep his property well mowed.

He also resumed some of the activities he had initiated in the 1930s. In the depression years he had worked with wood to make products he could sell to supplement the family income. In retirement he built grandfather clocks over fortyas a hobby. Some were sold, and some remain in the family. He erected a workshop at Boyler's Mill, where he built clocks and continued with mower experimentations. The work he did in retirement reflected the same commitment to quality and workmanship that had characterized his entire career.

Deteriorating health marked Good-all's later years, and he died at the Johnson County Medical Center in July 1971. After his death, Eula sold their home in Warrensburg to the Warrensburg School District. Today, the building contains the offices of the superintendent and other school officials. The buildings that once housed the mower manufacturing facilities are now a district vocational school. Eula Goodall continued to live at the Boyler's Mill property until her death in 1983.

Goodall's legacy, which began in a basement on East Market Street in Warrensburg, can be seen today on every suburban home lawn, park or golf course cut by rotary mowers. Upon his death in 1971, the Kansas City Star referred to him as 'the father of the rotary power lawn mower.'19 Goodall would have liked that appellation.

Leonard E. Goodall is a professor of management and public administration and former president at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He holds a B.A. degree from Central Missouri State University, Warrensburg, an M.A. degree from the University of Missouri, Columbia, and a Ph.D. degree from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

ENDNOTES

1  Editors of Consumer Reports, I'll Buy That (Mount Vernon, NY: Consumers Union, 1986), 143-146.

2  See Marvin Frahm, 'Goodall: First Rotary Mower,' Gas Engine Magazine 24 (March 1989): 16-18, for a detailed discussion of the technical aspects of the mower's development.

3 Office of the Secretary of State, Jefferson City, Missouri, Sworn Articles of Association, 14 January 1939.

4  U.S. Patent Office, Official Gazette 516 (July-August 1940): 947.

5  U.S. Patent Office, Trademark No. 380331, 20 August 1940; Application No. 428479.

6  'Lawn Mower Takes Work Out of Cutting Grass,' Warrensburg Star Journal, 1 June 1939.

7 'Multi-Motor Powers New Type Rotary Grass Cutter,' The Maytag News (October 1941): 7.

8 Goodall often repeated this comment to family members and business associates.

9 Kansas City Star, 16 February 1947.

10 Ibid., 23 March 1947.

11  Taken from copies of individual income tax returns of Leonard B. Goodall currently in possession of the author. The author based the calculation of 1992 dollar values on the Consumer Price Index of the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

12  Goodall Manufacturing Corporation, Financial Statement as of December 29, 1950.

13 Edwin F. Ringer, Minneapolis, Minnesota, interview with author, 5 October 1990. Mr. Ringer also provided access to corporate records of the Goodall Manufacturing Corp. in his possession.

14 Memorandum of Closing and Receipt, 21 February 1952.

15 Figures derived from the minutes of the meeting of the board of directors of Goodall Manufacturing Corporation, 31 August 1957.

16 Ibid., 25 January 1960.

17 Office of the Secretary of the State, Jefferson City, Certificate of Change of Registered Agent and Registered Office by Foreign or Domestic Corporations, 22 November 1962.

18  'We're On The Move All Right,' Warrensburg Star journal, 21 March 1962.

19  'Warrensburg Man Invented a Mower,' Kansas City Star, 31 July 1971.


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