Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Bunton Lawn Trimmer

Above my Bunton Model 12-35B, powered by a Briggs & Stratton "High Inertia" Flywheel engine. Below, sensible warning information posted on the front.

The machine has a small (12 inch) blade.  Two openings at the front of the deck allow it to bring heavier growth into contact with the blade, so it can sever small saplings.  By today's consumer safety standards, no one would allow a blade to be uncovered like this, but from an engineering perspective it makes the trimmer really useful for handling brush.  While its small size seems to make many folks on the web believe this model was designed exclusively for cemetery work, the ad below indicates that it was intended as a general lawn trimmer.

It turns out that the company's Ontario distributor was Duke Lawn Equipment Limited.  Coincidence?

The story begins in 1935, when Leonard Goodall was frustrated with the buckhorn plants growing outside of his coffee shop in Warrensburg, Missori.  The conventional reel-type mower wouldn't touch them, so Goodall had the idea of attaching an electric motor to a deck and putting sharpened steel blades on the shaft.   Goodall found it also cut grass well, and replaced the electric motor with a 2-cycle gas mower from his wife's washing machine.  Thus was born the rotary mower.  It caught on because it required far less maintenance than reel-type mowers and because of immense demand for consumer products following World War II.  (For the full story, read The Rotary Power Mower And Its Inventor: Leonard B. Goodall.)

The mower also proved perfect for Kentucky blue grass, since it didn't cut it too low.  This brings us to Louisville, Kentucky, best known as the home of the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Louisville Slugger baseball bats. (In 2015, the Louisville Slugger Museum was named one of the most beautiful factories in the world. It placed #12, and fourth among American factories.)  It was also home to W. Price Bunton, who became a distributor for Goodall rotary mowers in 1948.  That same year, the manager of a Louisville cemetery approached Bunton with a request to develop a mower that would be compact enough to trim grass between headstones. He and his two sons came up with a successful design, and founded the Bunton Company. Six years later, the same cemetery manager asked them if they could produce a high capacity mower that was also maneuverable.  This was the seed for the Bunton's premier product:  the wide-area, self-propelled, walk-behind mower, a.k.a the Lawn Lark.  (Sadly, they never offered a Sod Sparrow, a Grass Goose or a Turf Turkey.)

By 1969, Bunton had grown enough to purchase Goodall entirely.  However, as the decades rolled by, small, family-owned firms like Bunton found it increasingly difficult to compete against larger manufacturers, and consolidation became the corporate byword.  In the 1980's, Cushman bought Brouwer & Steiner before being purchased themselves, along with Ryan, by Ransomes in 1990. Toro acquired Olathe, Lawn Boy and Hardie Irrigation.  

In 1991, facing financial difficulties, Bunton was sold to Larry O'Connell and a partner for $1 million.  The company had about 100 workers at its East Indian Trail plant.  In 1994, he bought out his partner and then, in 1996, sold the company to Textron Incorporated, a $9 billion diversified company that included Bell Helicopters and Cessna amongst its holdings.  The price Textron paid was "undisclosed", so I assume that Mr. O'Connell did well on the deal. Textron rolled Bunton into its Wisconsin-based Jacobsen Division, a company it had acquired around 1975.  (See an earlier post for more info on the history of the Jacobsen firm.)  It also dropped about $1 million into the plant and added a few more employees.   Some time in the next decade it would seem that the Louisville plant was closed in preference for consolidation of operations in Wisconsin. Textron subsequently picked up Bob-Cat of Wisconsin, but then sold it off to Schiller in 2006. In 2014, Dixie-Chopper, an Indiana manufacturer of zero-turn radius mowers, fell into Textron's orbit. (Textron also acquired the Beechcraft aircraft company that same year.)  In 2015, Textron kept Jacobsen but sold off the other brands to Commercial Grounds Care Inc. (CGC), an affiliate of Schiller-Pfeiffer, which now now controlled Bunton, Bob-Cat, Ryan and Steiner and Brouwer.  Manufacturing of all five brands was to be continued at the Johnson Creek, Wisconsin plant.  However, the latest news from the Bunton Turf website is that "The BUNTON product line is not currently being manufactured; however, we also are the manufacturer of the BOB-CAT® line up of commercial mowers, which includes all of the features and benefits you are accustomed to on BUNTON."  So, it seems that Bunton finally met its end in the jaws of Bob-Cat.

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