Caroline C. Morris
Tyler Van Berkum, who recently completed his second summer internship with the La Crosse County Historical Society, gamely test-drives this human-powered Grand Universal lawn mower from the 1920s-1930s. He could testify that it still cuts grass just fine.
The five-blade mower, made entirely of wood and steel, weighs about 35 pounds and would have required significant effort to push through high grass. Blair Manufacturing Company of Massachusetts, the makers of the Grand Universal, specialized in “Self-Sharpening” and “Self-Adjusting” mowers such as this one, which were popular from the 1920s through the 1940s.
As more Americans had lawns to mow in the twentieth century, thanks to the democratization of home ownership, reliable lawn mowers were a big business. This particular mower was once the property of Oren Ernest Frazee, Chairman of the Biology Department at State Teacher’s College, now University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
Van Berkum, a graduate of La Crescent High School, is currently a Junior at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, majoring in Political Science and minoring in History. His ability to “take a subject, break it down, and master it” was an asset to the Historical Society this summer according to Executive Curator Peggy Derrick, particularly regarding a large volume of unprocessed ladies’ millinery, and everyday tools like the Grand Universal lawn mower. The “information that an object can provide…is invaluable to the historical narrative,” Berkum said. Even an item as commonplace as a lawn mower has a story to tell.
This article was originally featured in the La Crosse Tribune.