Think spring: First rotary powered mower was invented in Lititz

By on February 24, 2016

Photos courtesy of Dave Stehman Adam Fahnestock on his tractor, with his son Lloyd

“It;’s official: the groundhog didn’t see his shadow, which means that spring is just around the corner.”

And with the promise of warmer weather comes blue skies, outdoor grilling, and waking the lawn mower up from its long winter’s hibernation.

To celebrate, this month I present a story on an early innovation in lawn trimming having local ties.

Originally developed nearly 80 years ago to remove tall weeds at a family cemetery plot when a normal mower wasn’t getting the job done, the Kuts-Al & Trims lawnmower offered improved accuracy for precision weed and grass cutting.

And evidence suggests that it was developed right here in Lititz.

Our story begins with Adam Fahnestock, who purchased the Brunnerville store in 1920. Eighteen years later however, he decided to sell the operation to pursue a new business venture — building a better lawnmower.

“He ran the store, but eventually sold the business and moved to Kissel Hill to build these lawnmowers. We moved there in 1938,” says Fahnestock’s daughter Fern Ness, now of York. “He built the lawnmower shop in the barn first, then the house. The blade was one solid piece at first. It would hit stones and break, so he then created a little blade on each end. It was the very first rotary-powered mower.”

This new creation utilized dual blades which were laid downward, facing the grass. These blades, which he developed to act like scythes, were strategically placed and thus could reach up to the very edges of trees and fences.

Also able to mow a width of up to 30 inches across, the trimmers (one running clockwise, the other counterclockwise) boasted six to seven thousand cuts per minute.

The earlier designs had gearboxes and leather belts to run the mower blades; while later versions had regular v-belts, without gearboxes.

Fahnestock, who was also a Brethren pastor, would later apply for a patent which was officially granted to him in January of 1940.

And as one of the early sales brochures promised, it was a lawn mower that needed no salesman.

Legend has it that the invention eventually caught the attention of the John A. Roebling Company of New Jersey, whose strong wire rope was used to build iconic structures like the Brooklyn and Golden Gate Bridges.

A deal was struck, and the company agreed to pay Fahnestock royalties to lease the patent rights under their name.

By 1945, the Roebling mower was being sold to a larger market with the help of salesmen like David Ebling of nearby Bethel, who made his first sale to the Strausstown cemetery. Prior to this, Ebling sold Fahnestock’s original Kuts-Al & Trims mower to his valued customers.

1955 then saw the machine decrease in sales, most likely attributed to more modern equipment which was being introduced at the time.

That was more or less the end of Fahnestock’s state-of-the-art creation; however, every so often, one of his mowers appears at local public auctions just waiting to be admired (and possibly taken home) by someone whose curiosity is piqued by its unique shape.

Once such collector keeping the legacy alive is Dave Stehman of Manheim.

“My grandfather had mowed a cemetery in the 1940s, and knew about them. My dad also always talked about them,” he said.

Stehman now owns some of the later models, and continues to be fascinated by the history behind them.

“I believe it to be the first rotary-powered mower, at least in America,” he added.

Although these mowers are no longer made, the story of how it came to be, as well as the folks that help keep its history alive, is a lasting tribute to the innovation and forward thinking of one Adam Fahnestock of Kissel Hill.

Cory Van Brookhoven is president of the Lititz Historical Foundation, and has authored several books on topics involving Lancaster County history, including Lititz. He welcomes your comments at coryvb@hotmail.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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