RototilleR – The 1930’s
The Move to Troy
It seems remarkable, certainly unexpected, that two relatively minor “start-up” enterprises located in different parts of New York State would ever have anything to do with each other. But that’s exactly what happened. One was located at the southern end of New York’s tidal estuary known as the “mighty Hudson” in Long Island City; the other at the northern end of its navigable waters in Troy.
The year was 1930. Long Island City, just over the bridge from central Manhattan, offered a more affordable warehouse location for Mr. Cadwallader Washburn Kelsey to set up shop for his imported Swiss rotary tillers. Before this, he had been renting space in Greenwich Village which was pricey and less convenient. Kelsey was anxious to get started with this new venture.
Up to this point, Kelsey had been an automotive pioneer of considerable status. Before 1900 at the tender age of 17, he had built a car in his home-workshop in Philadelphia which didn’t work. But that was only for starters. Undaunted, by 19 he had built a working three-wheeler called the “Auto-Tri” which today is archived at the Smithsonian. By 1910 he had gone into production, in Hartford, CT., with a car known as the Motorette. He owned patents on automotive innovations too numerous to list, though his best known was the invention of the “sway bar”, still used by the industry to this day.
But the rough and tumble competition of the early years in automotive history had left him on the outside looking in.
But the rough and tumble competition of the early years in automotive history had left him on the outside looking in.
Kelsey was an outstanding mechanical engineer and designer and he was not to be defeated by lack of success in the automotive world. He was still young at age 50 and ambitious enough to tackle a new venture. Agriculture was ripe for mechanization as well as transportation, so he turned to something he had been introduced to as a youth in Switzerland: rotary tillage for small scale truck farms, tree and shrub nurseries and even home gardening. Tilling the soil needed mechanization to improve productivity on the farm just like everything else. The concept of rotary tillage had been pioneered in Switzerland and Germany where several manufacturers were building machines called Bodenfrasen. These motor driven units featured steel tines rotating around an axle to lift the soil leaving a smooth seed bed. This operation took the place of the plow and spring-tooth harrow as well as the final disking of the soil, making one procedure do the work of three. His intention was to introduce this concept of rotary tillage to American agriculture and possibly to manufacture what might be classified as “small motor driven rotary tillers” here in the US.
Getting our heads around Kelsey’s switch from automotive to agriculture shouldn’t be too difficult when we look at the mechanical requirements of farm equipment. We’re talking about gear and shaft transmissions, belts and pulleys, wheels and axles all supplied with power from a gas or
electric motor. Sounds pretty Tin Lizzie-ish to me. And let me add a totally obscure trivia item which seems too quirky to ignore: Kelsey’s Motorette was steered, not by a steering wheel, but by a lever type mechanism called a “Tiller”.
There also seems to be a family connection behind Kelsey’s familiarity with Swiss agriculture. First of all, he was born in Switzerland in the city of Clarens in 1880 when his parents were visiting the country. While his family were US citizens from Philadelphia, they apparently spent part of Kelsey’s youth there. He seemed to be well acquainted with the work of the early pioneers of the rotary tillage movement. It’s also quite possible there is a connection with the makers of the Simar rotary tiller which was manufactured in the Swiss city of Geneva, not far from Kelsey’s birth place of Clarens. Speculation on my part, perhaps, but a clue worth noting. Additionally, the inventor of rotary tillage was a Herr Konrad Von Meyenburg, of Geneva whose daughter, interestingly enough, was a featured guest at Kelsey’s 1938 Rototiller Field Day in Troy.
Now with Automotive behind him and a new dream ahead, Kelsey incorporated this new start-up “Rototiller, Inc.”
Maybe I could label this odyssey, “the Tale of Two Start-Ups”, with a bow to Mr. Dickens, but let’s not get distracted so early in the game. For now, let’s zoom in on that other Start-Up at the top of the river in Troy and see what the connection might be to Kelsey’s new venture down in Long Island City.
The year was also 1930, and Troy native Mr. George B. Cluett II, was in the process of starting a suburban housing development just over the Troy city line to be known as “Brunswick Hills”. Cluett was a third-generation descendant of George B. Cluett, founder of Troy’s collar, cuff and shirtmaking firm of Cluett, Peabody & Co. He had little or no interest in grandpa’s collar and cuff business, but, at age 25, was ambitious and full of other ideas. He had just purchased approximately 141 acres of farm land for his housing project and was anxious to get started.
I think it’s important to mention here that all this was taking place only one month after the calamitous Stock Market crash of October 1929 which came to be known as “Black Friday”, an event which threw the entire nation into panic.
In spite of the ensuing chaos, Cluett charged ahead. He had obtained a license for the construction of “Permanesque” style homes which featured English-Style architecture appealing to upwardly mobile families. These house offerings were pre-engineered in various styles. The buyer needed only to select a style, or model, work out any unique detailing and sign the order with appropriate financial instruments, and Cluett & Co. would take it from there. Cluett then had the land surveyed and divided into generously sized house lots and went on to negotiate pre-construction contracts with a number of would-be homebuyers.
Finances also appeared to be secure for the new venture as Cluett ties to the firm that brought fame and fortune to the family had long since been severed with most of the control now in the hands of outside investors. So, with monetary settlements over corporate control issues nicely tucked away in pre-Black Friday dollars, Cluett was clear to activate his development plan.
By the mid 30’s a number of homes were completed and occupied by families, roads had been built, utilities put in place and new sites were being developed at a steady pace. In the course of all this Cluett hired a landscape contractor to work up the lawns, driveways and shrub details of these high-end new dwellings. This contractor was a local nurseryman by the name of Warren Huntley who showed up with a Swiss made Rototiller in his bag of tricks. Huntley claimed he could do the work required faster and better than other firms using men with pick, shovel and rake; an argument that secured the job for him.
And this is where the two start-ups at each end of the Hudson river began to learn about each other.
Cluett noticed the work Huntley’s crew was doing with the Rototiller and was intrigued. He was a guy who admired technology. Similar in point was his interest in the Permanesque Homes. He could order a specific style selected by the buyer, have the material shipped to his site and Cluett’s crew would put it together. No architect, no engineer needed for his payroll; just a good crew and the job went ahead. Ditto with this Rototiller. It enabled the crew to till the ground around the house keeping topsoil in place thus creating a suitable exterior more efficiently than other methods. In fact, he was so impressed with Huntley’s machine that he asked about the details. Huntley told him it was imported by a guy down in Long Island City who was interested in setting up production to manufacture them here in the US.
He said What?
I really don’t know the details of the conversations and the thoughts running through Cluetts’ head; but I can imagine because I had the experience of knowing Mr. Cluett personally.
You see, my family was one of the early settlers in this “B’Hills” enterprise, having moved in to our new Permanesque Home in 1932, and Mr. Cluett was the father of my friend, Brud, aka: George B. Cluett III. Brud was born in 1930 only a few months apart from my birthday in the same year. He was a freckle faced neighborhood kid with a “dead-rabbit” haircut just like the rest of us who played in the dirt piles next to the foundations of the new houses going up. From this relationship kids like me got to know “Mr. Cluett”. He was usually around since his office was attached to his house. Some of us would go with Brud to see his dad at the office for one reason or other and we soon found out how temperamental he could be. He would either throw the lot of us out shouting, “Judaaas Priest, will you get out of my office”, or nicely invite some of us to accompany him in his Ford pick-up truck on a run to the city dump. That dump run was a real treat; the other part scary.
But Cluett soon found a way to get in touch with Carl Kelsey. In a quote from Gardening Beyond the Plow he said to Huntley, “If this machine is good enough to make money for you, there must be a future to it. Why wouldn’t it be a good idea to get this company to move to Troy? It would give employment to some people here out of work.”
Huntley had done his job. Now Cluett would pick it up from there. He had connections and he went to work. People with influence in Troy wanted this business here once they got wind of it. Kelsey, on his part, had an impressive background as engineer, entrepreneur, and promoter. By 1933 he had a sales organization, had put on an impressive Field Day at New Jersey’s Rutgers University and was the featured lecturer at the 1933 meeting of the American Society of Agricultural Engineers in Chicago. Rotary tillage was getting some press, moving beyond concept and into the arena of practical solutions for agriculture.
With the nation in deep depression new ideas were essential to the recovery. And he wanted to set up production of an impressive product line in the world of agricultural machinery.
When I think about this, Kelsey could have gone anywhere. Why not Hartford, Ct. where his Motorette was produced. Or Springfield, Ma.; or some manufacturing town in the Midwest? Cities were eager to attract new business with a hot growth potential.
But Cluett, it would appear, was the catalyst who convinced him to set up biz in Troy. As a city with an impressive industrial background,Troy also offered available factory space, a skilled labor force, and best of all, a group of locals with investment dollars - and there may have been other factors - Troy certainly offered Rototiller,Inc. an excellent next step.
By 1937 Kelsey had set up a complete machine shop in the old Draper Cordage factory at 102st in Troy and was turning out product.
This, then, is a thumbnail account of the somewhat surprising events that resulted in Rototiller, Inc. locating in Troy, NY. It became an important new industry which provided jobs for many people from 1937 until the end of the century. The last iteration of this enterprise was Garden Way Mfg. which produced the Troy Bilt Rototiller and went out of business in 2000. Between Rototiller, Inc. and Garden Way Mfg. the company produced well over one million units, many of which are still tilling gardens to this day.
Stay tuned for the next chapter, The 40’s – After the war: The Roto-Ette Home Gardener to 1949 and a close call with bankruptcy.
Thanks from the author: None of this would have been possible without the help from my wife, Jane, for copy editing and helpful suggestions. Also from my friends, Allen Cluett, for essential historical information and many coffee reviews, and Charlie Zuck of zucksrototillers.com for sharing research data. I will be counting on their help as we till up new ground in the next chapters of RototilleR.