My friend Allen loved presents. He loved to receive them and he loved to give them. The best presents, in either direction, were the surprises. Last summer Allen cooked up a bunch of surprises for me and he was as happy as a child.
He had no money to spend, but he had time and talent and he knew what my farm needed. He also had a son who collected metal scrap to sell. Allen would look over Damon’s latest load of junk and remove whatever caught his eye. (Damon was very patient.) Inevitably these items were old, rusty, and didn’t run. Allen would tear them down, tinker with their engines, scavenge parts from other broken machines, and eventually get them running again. Then he would call me.
“Hi, honey! I got ya somethin’!”
His last present to me was double-barreled: a 16-hp Cub Cadet 128 lawn tractor and a tow-behind brush hog.
The Cub Cadet is a heavy-duty steel work horse, no plastic on it anywhere except the seat cover. (When I looked up the serial number I found it was built in August of 1971.) By the time it reached Damon it had no mowing deck and would not start.
Allen didn’t care about the mowing deck. In his mind it would be perfect for me as a mini-tractor to tow small implements. These days many farmers use four-wheelers for this purpose, but four-wheelers are very expensive — and Allen knew I am afraid of them. However I’m perfectly at home on a lawn mower. He always laughed and scolded me for disengaging the blades on whatever mower I was using and bumping lickety-split over the fields to meet him the moment I saw his truck coming down the driveway.
Allen found a new(er) carburetor and got the Cub Cadet running. He put chains on the back tires to make up for the lack of four-wheel drive.
And then he attached the brilliant find, the tow-behind brush hog. It is a “Mo-Chief Heavy-Duty Mower.” Though Damon picked it up from a different owner, it also dates from about 1971. I found an original sales brochure online.
I should note that when I first read the name Mo-Chief, I was puzzled. With my Southern roots, I automatically read “mo” as Southern for “more.” (“Honey, wouldn’t you like some mo’ of these biscuits?”) More Chief, I thought. Hmm. That’s strange. Of course, eventually I realized it was cute advertising spelling for “mow.” However, when Kyle punctiliously refers to the “Mo-Chief,” I find I still don’t hear the name as the maker intended.
I was thrilled when Allen and Damon delivered this great present. The combination Allen had put together was perfect for me — or would have been, if everything worked at the same time.
But we were plagued by challenges. Allen had found a used engine cover, carburetor, and pull cord for the brush hog, but the gas intake seemed faulty. It would run fine for ten minutes, sputter, and die. Allen came out several times to tinker with it.
Sometimes the blades mowed cleanly and other times they merely pushed over the grass. Allen came out again to adjust the height of the deck.
He was always patient. He knew we would get the problems ironed out.
Finally Allen suggested that maybe we needed a higher hitch welded onto the Cub Cadet. I turned to my friend Larry, a science teacher at school who also does all the building work for theater productions. Larry was sure we could cobble together something out of recycled materials.
He cut up pieces of an old steel bed frame and adjusted the height of the prospective hitch. He said cheerfully that it was a great opportunity for me to learn to weld. Larry teaches thirteen-year-olds to weld every year.
I was full of eager anticipation as I pulled on a welding mask — only to discover to my chagrin that I have zero aptitude for welding. “Follow the bead,” Larry instructed me patiently. I couldn’t even see the bead. I was completely lost. The whole experience made me very cross. Welding joins higher math as something my brain simply cannot grasp.
I am smiling in this photo because Larry has done the welding. We now had a steel hitch four inches higher.
Next it was the tractor’s turn to be problematic.
It had always been slightly difficult to change the gears smoothly. “Clutch is a little sticky,” Allen observed. (On his first test drive at home, he had run into the wall of his garage.) Now I suddenly couldn’t change gears at all or stop the tractor unless I cut the engine. Damon inspected it and diagnosed that it needed a new clutch.
At the end of last summer Mike picked up the Cub Cadet and took it home. He brought it back with a new clutch just as my school year was starting. I put all my mowers away for the winter.
This summer Kyle and I got out the tractor and the mower. Both started up with a healthy roar. The mower still had a baffling tendency to mow strongly for ninety minutes and then sputter to a stop, not to restart until it had rested. Far more problematically, however, it continued to mow one smooth swath followed by two or three in which the grass was simply pushed over.
Kyle and I raised the hitch a little more, with a stack of steel washers.
There was a slight improvement, but mowing was still a frustrating experience. It hurt my heart that Allen’s fabulous gift was not working out as he intended.
Then we had a lull of several weeks. I went to use the mower, yanked the pull-cord, and broke the rewind. Within a week Mike had repaired it, but while putting everything back together Mike forgot to reattach a bracket holding the oil reservoir. When Kyle began to mow, oil spilled all over the deck — and the bracket was lost in the field.
The Willard company seems to have gone out of business in 1972. My Mo-Chief actually was produced by a company called “Connur” or “Comur” (way to go, logo designer!) in New Jersey. This outfit also apparently quickly folded; I can’t find any record of it at all. Certainly there are no replacement parts available. It took Mike a while to fashion a new bracket, but a few days ago I found a note in his handwriting on the mower.
I tried it that night. It still mowed one good swath out of every three.
This was driving me crazy. I called Damon. Could he think of anything the problem might be?
“Might have a clutch in it that’s slippin’, might be a wore-out belt.”
I was distracted: a clutch? How could the mower have a clutch without a clutch pedal?
“Internal clutch,” he explained. “I’ll look at it next time I’m out there.”
Reversible wheel arms for rough terrain cutting! (That’s handy to know.) V-belt drive! How interesting — I’d recently had to buy a V-belt for the little mower in the sheep pasture. In July, Kyle had been mowing high grass at the bottom of Betty’s field with the Craftsman and the strain of the heavy cutting stretched out the belt. The mower began to merely push over the grass.
Push over the grass?!
At last the penny dropped. The belt, the belt, the belt!
The next morning I stopped Mike in his rounds at school. “Would you mind checking?”
Mike came by the farm after work, took out his wrenches, and unbolted the deck.
“Well, you sure do got belt problems!” he exclaimed. There were two belts. One was missing a large chunk and the other was completely weather-checked.
Yesterday Mike replaced the belts. I fired up the tractor and mower, and tears came to my eyes. We have found the answer.
The Mo-Chief now mows a clean swath, four feet wide — every time.
I am so thrilled. It’s hard to explain the intense pleasure I feel, to know Allen’s last gift is now working.
I know he would be very happy, too.