The Mower with a History

Sometimes, the history behind an engine is just as interesting and unique as the engine itself. The story behind the engine my dad bought over 40 years ago is one example.


Kevin Hesse’s circa-1921 Ideal mower uses a horizontal air-cooled engine. R.E. Olds was the driving force behind the company.

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In the early 1960s, Dad hired a man to install an alarm system in our house. The man installing the system noticed the old engines and tractors that were in our barns, and he told my dad about a job he had worked on near Detroit, Mich.

R.E. Olds - of Olds Gasoline Engine Works and Oldsmobile automobile fame - had a summer estate on Grosse Ile, an island just south of downtown Detroit in the channel between the U.S. and Canada. After Olds passed away in 1950, the estate was divided. One of the people who had bought a piece of the estate had hired the same installer to install an alarm system for them. While working there, he noticed an old lawn mower in a shed with an engine that had heavy, spoked flywheels. He had never seen anything like it, and when he inquired about it to the new owners, they said it had been used on the estate when R.E. Olds was alive. They gave it to him as partial payment of the job and he took it home.

He only had it for a few years, but never did anything with it. He did not collect old engines, and when he noticed Dad's collection, he asked if Dad would like to have it. Dad agreed to give it a new home, mostly because it had belonged to R.E. Olds, not because he was interested in having an old mower.

The mower was brought to our place and stored in the loft of the barn, were it rested for the next 40 years. One day a couple of summers ago, I talked Dad into hauling the old mower down so I could restore it. We blew off all the old dirt and grass that covered every inch of the machine and, surprisingly, found it was in excellent shape. In fact, most of the paint was still on it, and the toolbox still held a grease gun, a spark plug socket, a tool to adjust the cutting blades and even some extra belt lacing for the drive belt. The dry cell batteries were useless, of course, but everything else looked as if it had been running just a few days ago.

We put fresh oil in the oiler, gas in the tank, hooked up a battery, and on the third crank, it fired up. I took it for a run around the field, and it never missed a beat.

That evening, I surfed the Internet looking for information on the history of the mower. I discovered it was made by the Ideal Mower Co. in Lansing, Mich., around 1921, but the big surprise was learning that R.E. Olds was the founder of the company. It's no wonder the mower was in such good shape. It was made by his company and used on his estate, and it undoubtedly had the best of care. We decided that beyond cleaning it up and replacing some of the wiring, we would leave it as it had been found - perhaps looking just as it did the last time R.E. Olds saw it, when he watched it mow the lawn around his estate one summer day 60-some years ago.

Contact engine enthusiast Kevin Hesse at: 6028 E. Joy Road, Ann Arbor, MI 48105;

Early Ideal mowers were equipped with 3/4 HP engines, and while the nameplate on Kevin's Ideal mower, serial no. 05620, doesn't list power output, it's assumed to be the same.