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The Rototiller® Story

Author Photo
By Staff

640 Alpine Road, Lewisberry, Pennsylvania 17339

Rotary tilling probably can trace its early history to the
Romaine Crosskill Digger, a monstrous European steam-powered
contraption pulled by horses in 1857. In 1910, Konrad von Meyenberg
of Basel, Switzerland, patented the present day tiller idea and
licensed the German firm of Siemens-Schuckert-Werke to manufacture
the machines based upon his patent. In 1918, The Simar Company of
Switzerland began manufacturing a similar machine.

By the 1920s, the idea of rotary tillage was beginning to
attract attention in the United States. C. W. Kelsey, in 1930,
became the distributor for the Siemens machine and established The
Rototiller Company in New York City to import and distribute these
‘earth grinders.’ In 1932 the Swiss Simar tiller was added
to the Rototiller line of equipment.

The European tillers were quality machines, but were designed
for the well-cultivated farmlands of Europe, not for the often
rocky American soils. Tine breakage was a problem. Kelsey soon
recognized that changes were needed, and he designed and patented
his tine shock absorber to install on the imported tillers.

By 1932, Kelsy registered the trademark Rototiller® and began
manufacturing the All-American Rototiller®, a smaller, more
durable, inexpensive, and easy to operate tiller, in 1934. Kelsey
teamed up with George B. Cluett, a wealthy industrialist who served
as a silent partner, and Rototiller, Inc. Manufacturing began
operations in Troy, New York, in 1937. Over the next few years,
several different models were developed. During World War II, the
Rototiller factory was turned over to defense production. By the
end of the war, rotary tillers had become quite popular with
commercial growers and at least five American firms were building
the larger type tillers. Still, no one had built a small tiller for
the home garden.

In 1944, Rototiller, Inc. made plans to convert to the exclusive
manufacture of its small home gardener model and discontinue the
production of its professional B-model series. An agreement was
made with the Graham-Paige Motors Corporation of Detroit which
licensed Graham-Paige to manufacture tillers based on the
Rototiller, Inc. design and sell them under the Rototiller
trademark. Rototiller, Inc. would continue to do business under
that name in Troy, but would market its tillers under the Roto-Ette
trademark. Graham-Paige Motors became Graham-Paige-Frazer, then
affiliated with Kaiser-Frazer, and sold the Rototillers® through
their automobile dealerships. GP Rototillers® were manufactured at
Willow Run, Michigan, until July 1947, when the farm division
operation moved to York, PA. (Note: At the present time, the Frazer
Farm Equipment Company of Auburn, Indiana, continues to supply
parts and offers rebuilding services for Rototillers®.)

With the manufacture of the larger tiller turned over to
Graham-Paige, Rototiller, Inc. moved quickly into the production of
its Roto-Ette® model and by 1948 was enjoying very successful
sales. A flood of cheaper front tiller machines came on the market
and this competition forced Kelsy and his Rototiller, Inc.
engineers to design a better, less expensive machine–the Model T
Rototiller. After three months into production, they were building
a new tiller every nine minutes and selling just as fast!

Kelsy turned next to a marketing plan that would include
gardening booklets, advertising, and field days to put the Troy
based firm in the garden tiller spotlight. In 1957, C. W. Kelsy
retired and turned the company over to the people who had worked
with him through the years.

In 1959, the Porter Cable Company purchased a controlling
interest in Rototiller, Inc. and moved most of the manufacturing
facilities to Syracuse, New York. In 1960, Porter Cable sold
Rototiller, Inc. to Rockwell Manufacturing of Pittsburgh. Rockwell
soon wanted out of the tiller business and offered it to some of
the original employees at the Troy plant. Knowing the product’s
potential and having much of the manufacturing equipment in place,
these employees brought the business back to Troy in October 1961,
under the name of Watco Machine Products, Inc. Their newer model,
The Trojan Horse, was marketed through a national mail order
business. A trademark challenge in 1968 by a manufacturer of huge
earth-moving equipment necessitated changing the name Trojan Horse
to Troy-Bilt® in honor of its hometown, and the company name Watco
was renamed Garden Way Manufacturing Company. Today, Troy-Bilt®
commands a share of the tiller market.

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