Restorer says fleet helps him preserve a piece of history

Teen collects vintage lawn mowers

JACKSON --- Tyler Cunningham's fascination with lawn mowers goes far beyond a summer job.

"I just love 'em," he said. "I'll keep as many as I have room for."

In a shed behind his family's home, the 15-year-old collector maintains a growing fleet of vintage mowers -- all in the name of history.

There is a Locke reel mower -- sheathed in cast iron and weighing 300 pounds. Nearby is a 1969 Sears, Roebuck Suburban Super 12 lawn tractor, complete with chrome hubcaps and a cigarette lighter.

"In the owner's manual, they called it a 'cigar' lighter," he said, laughing.

Each mower has a story.

The 1960s Gravely Model L with optional walk-behind sulky, for example, was never intended to be part of his collection.

"It was in a guy's shed, and he just asked me for help to get it running again," he said.

After he worked on the engine and frame and replaced a few parts, it worked just fine.

"As a thank you, he offered me a VW Bug he had, or told me I could have the mower," Tyler said. "Of course I took the mower."

Collecting mowers, he said, is a way to enjoy and preserve a part of Americana that is often overlooked or forgotten.

"You also have to like keeping a lot of junk around," he said.

His most cherished mower was perhaps the easiest to acquire. It was rescued from a trash pile.

"We'd gone to an estate sale and looked all around and didn't see much," he said. "Then I looked in this pile of junk and saw it."

The prize was a rare Snappin' Turtle mower, manufactured around 1951 in East Point, Ga., by Southern Saw Works.

It features a cast-iron shell to protect the user from the sharp blades and is widely regarded as one of the first power mowers to fuel a market spawned by the postwar upsurge in subdivisions and home ownership.

"It wasn't even in the sale," Tyler said. "It was just in the trash."

He asked the auctioneer how much it would take to buy the treasure. "He told me five bucks, and threw in an old rototiller, too."

The Turtle will need a complete restoration, but most of it -- including a cast-iron snapping turtle head protruding like a hood ornament from the top -- is intact.

Some of Tyler's other mowers are more modern, stretching into the 1980s. As a collector, he has become a good mower mechanic.

"On some of these, he took every nut and bolt out and rebuilt the engine," said his father, Bave Cunningham, who helped teach his son how to work on the mowers. "He's gotten good at it, but he also works very hard at it."

Restoring and collecting vintage mowers doesn't come cheap, especially when some models require obscure parts.

Tyler finances his hobby any way he can.

"But mainly," he said, "I mow yards."

Reach Rob Pavey at (706) 868-1222, ext. 119, or rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.