THE ROTOTILLER® STORY
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 machines based upon his patent. In 1918, THE SIMAR CO. of Switzerland began manufacturing a similar machine.
By the 1920's 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 CO. 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, Kelsey 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 E. Cluett, a wealthy industrialist who served as a silent partner, and ROTOTILLER, INC. began manufacturing 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 ROTOTI.LLERS® were manufactured at Willow Run, Michigan, until July 1947, when the farm division operation moved to York, PA. (Note: At the present time, Michael Blaugher at Frazer Rototiller Parts continues to supply parts for the Graham-Paige/Frazer 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 Kelsey 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!
Kelsey 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. Kelsey retired and turned the company over to the people who had worked with him through the years.
In 1959, the PORTER CABLE CO. purchased a controlling interest in ROTOTILLER, INC. and moved most of the manufacturing facilities to Syracuse, NY. In 1960, PORTER CABLE sold ROTOTILLER, INC. to ROCKWELL MFG.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 W ATCO was renamed GARDEN WAY MFG. CO.. TROY-BILT® commanded a share of the tiller market until they declared bankruptcy and were bought by MTD in 2001.
Much has changed since C. W. Kelsey started importing the "Earth Grinders" in 1930, but the basic principles of rotary tilling remain the same. Whether you have a Troy-Bilt®, a Graham-Paige, or some other type of tilling machine, chances are that you call it a "rototiller" and that would make Mr. Kelsey and the pioneer inventors before him quite happy!
Compiled by Robert C. Antram from material provided by
Gardening Beyond the Plow copyright 1981
Garden Way, Inc.
Revised December 14, 2016