Willoughby: Aspen’s lawns and mowers | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Aspen’s lawns and mowers

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Lawn mowers date back to the 1800s. Push mowers, such this one shown in 1917, came out in 1870.

Tired of shoveling, we resent spring snowstorms. Enough already. Yet the more it snows, the longer we can keep the lawn mower in the garage. The tender green of spring reminds us to remove the pile of objects stored on top of the mower, sharpen the blade and — if it is a gas mower — test-start the engine after it hibernated all winter.

Contemporary Aspen seems to have fewer acres of lawn than I remember from my childhood. Today’s trees and other landscaping fill some of that space. Also, new owners bought the vacant lots of the 1950s and built homes on them. Although every child needs a grassy space, child-free residents may perceive a lawn only in terms of the work it requires.

I am not sure whether grass was invented for children to play on or to provide a chore for adults to assign to their offspring. Either way, the green expanses absorbed otherwise idle hours. When my friends and I gazed across a ragged field, we saw potential for the kind of green that we could take to the bank.

The proportions of my backyard did not measure up to those of my friends. But two of my uncles maintained larger lawns. Those required gas mowers, a switch from the standard push mower workout to a mechanical challenge. Cranking up a mower just right produced a noisy reward.

M.J. Elisha presided over the town’s lawn chore extraordinaire from his Main Street residence. His rolling, multi-level affair featured steep connecting fairways. The precarious slopes required that Elisha perilously mow across them rather than push the mower uphill and down. I benefited from this labor and rolled sideways down those sweet-scented hillocks with abandon, a favorite childhood activity.

My friends Barney and Gary Bishop maintained a humongous lawn. Albert, their father, must have overdone it with the fertilizer because the grass always seemed to grow faster there. Albert was a tinkerer, a devotee of Popular Mechanics. Gas mowers self-destructed, a never-ending repair project that often involved replacement of the pull rope that started the machine.

Albert made his own electric lawn mower when he attached an electric motor to a push mower. To do so, he replaced the mechanism that transferred force from the moving wheels to the cutting blade with a pulley. He connected that pulley to the motor’s pulley with a fan belt. Although it got the job done, his invention required a very long extension chord. Albert used a standard lamp cord to reach the extremities of the lawn. When in a rush, his boys would drive the mower over the cord and cut it. This happened more than once. They hurried because Albert required that they complete the chore before he would take them fishing each Sunday.

Aspen, a kids’ town in those days, offered acres of grass to foster baseball, football and tumbling games. City parks, the lawn at St. Mary’s and expanses among widespread homes colored Aspen as green in summer as snow washed it white in winter. We still love these changes with one exception: Springtime’s dandelions make some of us sneeze.

It’s that time, so put a hankie in your pocket, rev up your mower, and make Aspen green again.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.

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