There have been many articles written about the Graham-Paige
ROTOTILLER through the years, most of them being over fifteen
years old. Some of the articles are vague and contain
incorrect information. On this web page I will add what I
have discovered in my research with the documentation I have
found. I have had a B1-6
since 1977 and got into the collecting hobby after seeing a
very interesting display October 1998 at the Grease, Steam and Rust
Show in McConnellsburg, PA. I didn't realize it then, but that
would launch me on the path of collecting the ROTOTILLER brand
equipment. Robert C Antram was the man with the display and over
the years he has shared much info along with many questions he was
seeking answers for. Soon I got that passion to learn more as
well and through another collector got connected with great sources of
information in Troy, NY, and was able to answer some of those
questions and come up with some more of my own.
There are many photos and
to this article. Click on words that are blue and underlined to
see the item, then use your browser back button to return.
Beginnings of ROTOTILLER:Automotive pioneer Cadwallader Washburn Kelsey started the Rototiller Company in 1930 after spending three decades in the automobile industry. He had a complete machine shop in his home by age 17 and with castings he bought, built his own 5 hp 2-cycle engine, then built a car around it in 1897,one of which is in the Smithsonian Institute. Probably one of his most famous cars he built was the three-wheeled Motorette introduced in 1910.
In 1930 Siemens mounted a major effort to introduce their tillers to America, sending a representative to offer Kelsey a distributorship. That representative, H B Hiller, was a former employee of Kelsey's in the automobile business. He had returned to Germany to visit relatives and due to the poor economy of the time, could not return, so he found a job with Siemens. Kelsey was up to the challenge despite The Great Depression and rented office space on Broadway in New York City and formed the Rototiller Company. The Siemens tiller was designed for the well cultivated grounds of Europe and did not do well with some of the often rocky American soils. Kelsey made some suggestions for improvements and they were incorporated into future machines. In 1932 he added a line made by the SIMAR Company of Switzerland. At that time he moved to a warehouse in Long Island City, NY, and incorporated his operation and conducted business as ROTOTILLER, INC., and registered "ROTOTILLER" as his trademark. You can read about one of their models here .
In 1934 Kelsey designed and made his own tiller, the Model AA (All American). In 1937 ROTOTILLER, INC., moved to Troy, NY, and tooled up to make an improved Model AA, called the A-1. You can see an A-1 here. Kelsey would go on to make six foot wide tiller for a tractor to pull and a Rototiller Tractor with mounted tiller to make soil-cement streets. He would make the B-1, B1-2, and the B1-3. In 1938 he made a small, one-wheeled machine called the Wheel-Barrow Cultivator for the average home owner. It did not achieve much success, but he tried again in 1945 with the Home Gardener, which you can see here.
Graham-Paige Enters:World War II was coming to a close and many manufacturing companies were trying to decide what they were going to make after the war. Graham-Paige leadership decided they were not re-entering the car manufacturing business as they did so poorly financially before the war. Some thought Joe Frazer initiated the ROTOTILLER deal. Not so according to a copy of a letter I found at The Rensselaer County Historical Society and Museum in Troy, NY. You can view the letter here. The letter is from ROTOTILLER'S lawyers and is addressed to Mr. W L Eaton, Vice President of Graham-Paige Motor Company and ironically it is the same month as G-P offered Joe Frazer the opportunity to buy into the company. So Joe Frazer did not initiate the acquisition of ROTOTILLER, but did follow through on the deal when he became chairman and president of G-P in September the same year. Mr. William L Eaton and then president R J Hodgson left. More about them later. So why ROTOTILLER? I cannot give a concrete answer to that question. I do know G-P was looking for a product to make after the war and Kelsey expected a huge demand for garden tillage equipment. He wanted to make that equipment for the home owner and find a larger manufacturer to produce the large, commercial type tiller that was currently his main product. Here is a quote from the 1951 Rototiller Field Day brochure that gives a valid reason: "As the war was drawing to an close Mr. Kelsey rightly foresaw the tremendous demand which lay ahead for rotary tillage gardening machines and for garden tractors in general. He felt that the best way for Rototiller, Inc. to team up with the necessary capital and plant capacity to meet this demand would be to enter into a licensing agreement with some large manufacturer". With his automotive background I would think he knew people throughout the automobile business. Specifically how Graham-Paige and ROTOTILLER, INC. got together is unclear.
ROTOTILLER, INC. made at least 3 complete B1-4 prototypes, 2 went to G-P along with a couple of motors, and Kelsey kept one. The photo of the B1-4 was scanned from 1946 The Red Tractor Book and is the only photo I have ever seen. According to my Troy contact, he is sure the photo was taken outside the Troy factory. The information concerning the building of the B1-4 comes from transcripts of interviews with Phil Carabis, a mechanic/machinist who worked there for ROTOTILLER INC, and Garden Way. The interviews were done in preparation for the booklet entitled Gardening Beyond the Plow published by Garden Way in 1981. The B1-4 was based on the B1-3 that ROTOTILLER was building. A B1-3 is here. Go here to see an ad promoting the B1-4. The lower photo does not look like the production B1-6, so was it a B1-5? In the transcripts, Phil Carabis speaks of building the prototypes for Mr. Eaton and later mentions taking the B1-4 to Willow Run and meeting both Mr. Kaiser and Mr. Frazer. At least three prototypes were built, two went to G-P, Kelsey kept one. It would be almost a year until one came off the assembly line. That seems like a long time, but remember G-P like most other manufacturers were required to make products for the war effort. Finally on September 2, 1945 they were given the order to stop war production efforts. Also Joe Frazer needed to find finances to support this venture and he was directed to Henry J Kaiser. As a result the Kaiser-Frazer Company was formed. Joe Frazer would operate under the Graham-Paige name selling his cars under the name of Frazer and the Rototiller being made under the Farm Equipment Division, while Henry Kaiser would make cars under the name of Kaiser. They would share space in the former Willow Run Bomber Plant, Willow Run, Michigan.
The B1-6 was featured at the Waldorf Astoria along with the Kaiser and Frazer cars in January 1946. Frazer claimed his company had orders for 50,000 of these tillers. The first one came off the assembly line in March 26, 1946 and many were air freighted to distributors. They initially sold well, although they made little profit according to Richard M Langworth in his book The Last Onslaught On Detroit. Langworth said by November Joe Frazer admitted privately that they were in trouble. He said "Graham-Paige was making only bare profit on the Rototiller, and was well below breaking even on Frazers". According to Langworth, Hickman Price (executive assistant and nephew to Joe Frazer) said "We ultimately had thousands of those rototillers on hand" and that they were "a secondary product that after an initial demand failed to sell".
Production fell way behind on car production partly due to limited steel supplies and Joe Frazer was relieved as general manager and replaced by Henry's son Edgar. Clay Bedford, Kaiser's shipyard manager took on duties of expediting materials needed for manufacturing. Steel was a big need. According to Langworth, sometimes Bedford would have steel flown to the plant in the morning and by afternoon it would be part of finished cars rolling out the other end of the plant. Practices like this did not help the profit margin at all!
On February 5, 1947, Graham-Paige's auto assets were sold to Kaiser-Frazer, but Joe Frazer kept the farm equipment business. This business became Frazer Farm Equipment Division, Graham-Paige's only subsidiary and would have to leave Willow Run. Donald Jones says in his book, The Rototiller In America, that Joe was offered space at the K-F plant in Long Beach, California, but declined because most sales were on the east coast and if car production increased he would need to leave there. Long Beach is mentioned in the 2nd edition of the Operators Manual for the B1-6 and B1-6RS in that those machines built there would start with serial number 150001. There is no mention of a B1-7, so could it be that all or most B1-7 machines were York built?
Frazer Farm Equipment moved to York, PA, by summer of 1947 and started production of the tiller there. The next year they contracted Jaques Power Saw Company of Dennison Texas to build 10,000 tractor chassis for them to install the Rototiller engine and two-speed transmission and sell it as the Jaques-Frazer Model T. This is the same tractor Jaques was selling as the Mighty Mite, but with a Briggs model ZZ engine. In Donald Jones book he states "After 470 machines were made Frazer told Jaques no more were needed and to stop production". In 1949 Jaques filed a civil suit against Frazer for the sum of $747,098.96, the amount due for the full number of contracted units.
According to a copy of the Royalty Account sheet that I have, Frazer
made a total of 1216
tillers through the three final quarters of production in 1949.
After selling the auto business, they did not have that exposure for
sales. They tried selling direct from the factory and greatly
reduced their price, but to no avail. In a copy of a draft letter
from Rototiller's lawyer to the owner of SIMAR it states "AS
a matter of fact, Rototiller, Inc. made a counter proposal that it
undertake to assist in pulling Graham-Paige out of the hole by taking
over the manufacture and sale of Rototillers as the agent of
Graham-Paige, but this did not meet with any response on Graham-Paige's
part". There are also references of help offers in other
correspondence copies I have. In August G-P sold half of
Frazer Farm Equipment Division to Mast-Foos Corp. The next year
they sold the remaining half to Mast-Foos. Mast-Foos was a
company that bought up faltering companies owned by Dallas
The operation then
moved to Auburn, Indiana, and continued to provide parts and new
machines with left over parts. Frazer Farm Equipment Co was
operated by H S Liddell, Dallas Winslow's right hand man. Mr.
Liddell acquired the business after the death of Mr. Winslow in 1961
and operated it until his death in 1985. His company provided every
part needed and did factory rebuilds and would assemble new machines
from NOS parts. In June of 2012 Mr. Michael
Blaugher purchased Frazer Farm Equipment Company, changed the name to
Frazer Rototiller Parts,
moved the operation to Warren, Indiana, and
continues to supply parts. Mr.
Blaugher has the large books where all the models and serial numbers
were recorded of the two wheeled tillers that were built.
According to his lists a total of 57,538 machines
were built. According to Wikipedia, Graham-Paige Motors dropped
the Motors in 1952 and got involved in real estate and in 1959 bought
controlling interest in Madison Square Garden. A few years later
it's name was changed to Madison Square Garden Corporation.
Back At Rototiller, Inc:
There was consideration of canceling the contract with G-P for lack of
royalty payments as early as February 8, 1946. This documented by
copies of time sheets I acquired at the Rensselaer County Historical
Society in Troy, NY. There are records of at least two more
occasions where there was talk of canceling the contract due to lack of
royalty payments. In addition, G-P canceled their initial order
of 80,000 engines and transmissions with Bell Aircraft, leaving them
with engines, transmissions, and a supply of associated parts.
They came up with a way to utilize these engines in a powered wheel
barrow called the Bell Prime
Selling out to Mast Foos violated the contract G-P signed with Rototiller, Inc. Both Rototiller and SIMAR were to be notified whenever G-P decided to cease manufacture of Rototiller. My authority on SIMAR says SIMAR sued G-P as well as Rototiller, Inc. This document (side one, side two) says things were settled between G-P and Rototiller, Inc., and Rototiller in Troy, NY, could now use their trade mark once again to market their products and did so until around 1962 after Porter-Cable sold to Rockwell. I am not sure how Frazer Farm Equipment could still assemble and sell new machines under the name of trade name of ROTOTILLER. G-P did not legally have the right to sell the name. I have this page from a 1951 Field Days brochure where Rototiller says they have the rights to their original trade mark once again (bottom left of page). It appears that they were disappointed according to the following quote from their 1950 Rototiller Field Day brochure, "We, at Rototiller, believed that we were going to do business with William L Eaton and Mr. Hodgson. It was their integrity, intelligence and reputation that influenced us to enter into this contract". Langworth quotes Mr. Hickman Price, Jr. as saying "There was a management at Graham-Paige who were conducting wartime production, and it had been understood that, come the end of the war, they would leave the business. Along about August or September they did". William Eaton became a ROTOTILLER,INC. distributor and within five years became their largest dealer on the Pacific Coast. Mr. Eaton also served as a director of ROTOTILLER, INC. Another fact that could be noted as a possible factor for Eaton and Hodgson's exit was Joe Frazer and his family ended up with enough shares to have total control of G-P at about the time the two former managers left.
If you have any additional information to add or questions about the history I have here you can contact me via my contact page.
The material on this site may not be reproduced, distributed, cached or otherwise used, except with the prior written permission of Charlie H Zuck, ZucksRototillers.com
Literature copies, notes, inspiration from Robert C. Antram
The Last Onslaught On Detroit by Richard M. Langworth
Jack Mueller Automotive Archives
Jim Betts and CIRCLEKF.COM
The Rototiller In American by Donald Jones
The Rensselaer County Historical Society and Museum, Troy, N.Y.
Author's Literature Collection