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This story was written by Mark Neeley and originally published in a 2009 edition of VintageFans.com’s newsletter.
The vintage Gravely tractor was, and still is, the finest multi-purpose garden tractor ever manufactured.
It’s a machine so tough that it will whip you into submission if you think that you can keep up with it. I can speak from experience, as I’ve been around them all of my life. I am a fourth-generation Gravely tractor owner. My family history with the tractors reaches back to the 1940s. I do not remember that 1940s model that my great-grandfather used, but I do remember the one used by my grandfather.
My introduction to Gravely came at an early age, around 1970 or so. My grandfather, who we called Daddy-Bob, had a small, rural farm that he and my grandmother worked. It was a magical place to a four- or five-year-old child, and I loved to help gather the eggs and help out with other duties of the day. I followed Daddy-Bob around like a shadow when he went about his work on the farm. Daddy-Bob had a large vegetable garden that he tended, and for that job, he ran a late-1960s Gravely Super Convertible tractor. I remember being very cautious of this machine, thinking at the time that it had a mind of its own and that it was not something to be played with. In fact, I was scared of it.
A Gravely tractor outfitted with its rotary plow is akin to a medieval torture device that could easily scare anyone unfamiliar with its use. Actually, think of it as a walk-behind locomotive with an automobile differential attached to the front that turns a cement mixer-style paddle. No kidding. Anyway, those are my first memories of this great machine: helping Daddy-Bob in his garden as he walked behind his Gravely, which turned the quartz-infested, red South Carolina earth.
I remember him keeping me far away and behind him when he used the Gravely. As it plowed that rich soil, it would occasionally hit a large piece of quartz, purge it from the perfect furrow and hurl it aside. I would then run the quartz out to the end of the garden, where it laid amongst the other unfortunate quartz that I somehow thought were diamonds. As soon as I ran back, there was always another “diamond” waiting for me that the Gravely had uncovered. To this day, I can see Daddy-Bob in his trademark khaki work pants and matching work shirt — much like County Agent Hank Kimble from Green Acres — wiping his face occasionally with a red bandana handkerchief. He was one of the hardest working men I ever knew. He relied on his Gravely heavily during those years, and it never let him down.
From those first memories of Daddy-Bob’s Gravely, one thing always stuck out — even from the earliest age — and that was respect for the tractor itself. I respected that first Gravely because Daddy-Bob had greatly encouraged that I had better respect it and not play with it, or else. It was a serious piece of machinery. As I grew up, I came to know Daddy-Bob’s Gravely as part of his and Nanny’s farm. His Gravely became a flagship of their farm: one of those things that, at the time, you seem to think will always be there.
A Gravely for All Seasons
When I became old enough to safely operate the tractor, I was allowed to crank it and operate it around their place — usually with the PTO disengaged. I mentioned earlier that the Gravely Tractor was multipurpose, so let me explain. It not only operated a rotary plow and cultivator for the garden, but also ran a 30-inch bush hog mower for the lawn or — where we used it the most — clearing the briars. But wait; that’s not all! Vintage Gravely Tractors have the capability to run in excess of 35 attachments. That one tractor can run everything you need to operate year-round; and that idea was the foundation for Gravely’s four-seasons logo.
Among the attachments available were a snow plow, snow blower, circular saw, chainsaw, reel mower, gang reel mower, 40-inch finish mower, 50-inch finish mower, sickle mower and brush hog, to name a few. Only four bolts needed to be removed to change out one attachment for another. It really is an ingenious arrangement that Mr. Ben Gravely came up with in Dunbar, W.Va.
Respect for the Machine
In my teens, my dad used his Gravely around our house to clear brush and cut down overgrowth in the woods around our house. I remember he had two tractors; he traded in an older 1950s or ’60s short-hood model for a later ’60s-style Custom Convertible. Neither of those tractors stick out as much as Daddy-Bob’s, but I do remember that Dad’s tractors furthered my respect for the machines and reinforced what I already knew: Gravely tractors were one of the toughest machines ever made.
An American Workhorse
Today I own and use several Gravelys throughout the year. Why would I use an older model machine when I could buy a new one? Because vintage Gravely tractors are built like tanks, and their all gear-driven power trains can take just about any abuse you can throw at them. Nearly any vintage Gravely tractor found today can be restored to outperform anything new on the market today for what it was designed for. I cannot recommend them enough for anyone who has a need for such a machine.
The original Gravely Model L walk-behind tractor can still be found in use across the United States. It is a prime example of what “Made in the U.S.A.” meant when those tractors were originally built from the 1930s–1970s. There is also a lesson to be learned on what longevity and customer loyalty meant to repeat customers. In an era of easy bankruptcy and government handouts, you have to wonder how so many companies in the past rose through the decades to build this country. Gravely did it by designing an honest, workhorse, walk-behind garden tractor that would last a lifetime and beyond.