Some men collect cars. Some collect electric trains. But for David Nicholson of Enid, Oklahoma, nothing beats the romance of a vintage Lawn-Boy lawn mower.
Although he's only been a serious collector since last year, Nicholson has owned at least one or two Lawn-Boy mowers ever since he was in the fourth grade.
"There never was any other mower for me," Nicholson says.
He is continually acquiring and trading. Nicholson's oldest Lawn-Boy mower is a 1953-54 model. He also owns at least two 1955s – "for the year I was born."
Three of Nicholson's Lawn-Boy mowers are in show condition. One of the 1955s was still in good condition, right down to the original factory paint and original wheels. It showed little wear, and the original owner's manual was with it. The other two mowers, a 1957 and a 1958, he's restored to like-new mowing condition.
He's nearly finished restoring a third one, a 1963 model, and he's started working on a fourth, a 1962 model, as well as a fifth. He intends to use the latter, the other 1955, for mowing his own lawn. It will replace the brand new Lawn-Boy he bought last year and later gave to his father.
What attracted Nicholson to Lawn-Boy mowers?
First, it was the color. When he was a boy, he watched with fascination while a neighbor trimmed his grass with a bright, lime green-colored Lawn-Boy. Green has always been David Nicholson's favorite color. "Plus," he says, "I like the sound of the two-cycle engine."
Second, it was his birthplace. Nicholson was born in Lamar, Missouri, where Lawn-Boys were manufactured from 1952 until 1963. (All Lawn-Boy mowers today are manufactured in two Mississippi towns, Oxford and Sardis.)
Third, "I needed something that had nothing to do with my everyday business," says Nicholson, who repairs antique clocks for a living.
Nicholson's 1953-54 model is not the oldest running Lawn-Boy mower in the country. Last year the company, headquartered in Plymouth, Wisconsin, heard from at least three other customers from around the country who own working Lawn-Boy mowers that are more than 40 years old.
The pride of Nicholson's collection is his 1958 gold-colored mower. Lawn-Boy built the gold models for four years, from 1958 through 1961. The 1960 model year was notable because it marked the introduction of the industry's first rear-bagging mowers.
Nicholson was especially eager to acquire a gold model because the first Lawn-Boy he ever bought, with money he saved from cutting lawns as a boy, was a gold one.
He looked a long time before he located a gold Lawn-Boy for his collection. As he relates it, he actually had a dream one night last year that he had found two of them. The next morning, he took a new route to work, and there was the first one, lying against a chain-link fence.
"It was pretty well beat up," he recalls. "It was held together with baling wire, plywood and big old hardware stove bolts. Fortunately, the engine had not froze up, so I could use that."
Three weeks later, he was able to acquire another gold mower from a dealer. On that one, the engine was frozen, but the body was intact. So between the two, Nicholson had enough parts to begin rebuilding.
"My wife didn't know what to make of it when I bought and restored the first one," Nicholson says with amusement. "Now that I have 12 of them, she's completely confused."
Nonetheless, he's managed to inspire some enthusiasm for old Lawn-Boys in his wife, Cynthia. He has enlisted her help in scanning old magazines in the Enid public library for Lawn-Boy advertisements. That's for a Lawn-Boy history he intends to write in a few years, after he completes his research.
Writing a company history may sound ambitious; however, it wouldn't be the first such company history he's written. A few years ago he wrote and published a history of Santa Fe Railway timepieces.
His interest in that subject developed through several of his clock-making mentors who happened to work for the railroad. And when Nicholson moved to Enid in 1982 he himself worked with the railroad as a watch inspector.
Nicholson figures on spending another two to four years collecting research on Lawn-Boy's history. Meantime, he'll continue acquiring old Lawn-Boy mowers and parts.
The remaining mowers in Nicholson's collection need repair and restoration. Some are so badly deteriorated, it can take as many as four mowers to yield enough parts to make one working mower.
Nicholson keeps the old mowers he's collected in his garage, where he works on them during warmer weather. And in the winter?
"Every evening when I go home I open up the garage and have a look at them and think how nice they will look when they are restored," he says.
He also has boxes filled with parts he has scavenged and cannibalized from other Lawn-Boy mowers he's picked up over the years. He finds parts in unexpected places. For instance, he located some Lawn-Boy handlebars with a tree growing around them.
Nicholson once paid the original sale price for an old Lawn-Boy. Others he's picked up for between $ 10 and $25. Still others he's received for free. "But," he explains, "that doesn't mean it doesn't cost money to 'support my habit,' as I like to call it."
First, there's the labor involved. He completely tears apart every mower, then he begins rebuilding the engine. He replaces worn-out parts with authorized Lawn-Boy stock parts if he's got them. Parts that don't exist have to be machined, and that can be expensive.
"I've traded clock work for labor on a few occasions," Nicholson says. "I hate to think what the dollar value of that was. But being a clockmaker comes in real handy. So does having friends who are machinists."
Labor costs represent a major expenditure in restoring the old mowers. To get the restoration exactly right, Nicholson pays for such skilled labor as machining, welding, sandblasting to remove old paint, and custom mixing of paint to exactly the right color.
The sandblasting, repainting and detailing is done after Nicholson has rebuilt the engine, lubricated it, filled it with gasoline and mowed with it two or three times.
Nicholson's monthly long-distance phone bills have run as high as $155 for calls he's made tracking down Lawn-Boy mowers or parts, or gathering Lawn-Boy trivia for his history of Lawn-Boy.
Even before he begins working on his Lawn-Boy book, Nicholson has already helped to preserve and perpetuate Lawn-Boy's history. Last October (1990), he organized a get-together in Lamar of men who used to work in the Lamar Lawn-Boy plant during the '50s and early '60s. For the get-together, Nicholson brought the 1958 gold Lawn-Boy which he had restored, to show to the delighted former employees.
Nicholson told some of the former employees about another gold Lawn-Boy mower he had located, a 1959 model still in its original shipping box and never used. When the former employees heard that that mower was for sale, a fund drive was launched. When they raise enough money to cover the purchase price, the former employees will donate it to the Barton County Museum in Lamar.
Because of Lawn-Boy's impact on Lamar's history, Nicholson is also contributing some of the material he's collected to help the Barton County Historical Society build a Lawn-Boy exhibit in its museum. Among the items he has donated is a tiny Lawn-Boy lawn mower replica which he made out of brass.
The former Lamar assembly plant employees-now scattered to other parts of the country-have also helped Nicholson collect information.
Last Christmas, Curtis T. Morris, who was president of Lawn-Boy during the 1950s, delighted Nicholson by sending him a one-quarter-scale replica of a 1950s mower.
Today, dealers in his part of the country have been enthusiastic about his hobby. "Some of them get as excited as I do whenever I acquire a good one."
Nicholson says the Lawn-Boy Company has been especially helpful and encouraging: "They send whatever information is available." One piece of information the company recently sent him is its newest brochure for Lawn-Boy Walk-Behind mowers. It bears the company's new slogan, "Forever Mower."
No one knows how true that slogan is better than David Nicholson.