The Rototiller® Story

| September/October 1999

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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