Did you ever wonder where the riding lawnmower was invented? Me neither. But I certainly was intrigued to learn that one of the first riding lawnmowers was invented in rural Kansas. This is the story of how a wonderful labor-saving device was created by a rural Kansas entrepreneur.
Meet Virginia Toedman, the daughter of the man who is credited by at least one Web site with creating the first riding lawnmower. To paraphrase a well-known saying, I´ve had push mowers and I´ve had riding mowers, and riding mowers are better.
Virginia Toedman explains that she grew up on a farm near Ransom, Kan., population 326 people.
Now, that´s rural.
Her father was Virgil Cofer. Virginia says, "Mom was worried I would wander out in the tall grass and get bitten by a snake. She was always telling Dad to mow that lawn. But instead of using the push mower, he would go out and tinker in his shop."
Then one day in about 1950, he came out of his shop driving a lawnmower while riding on the top of it. He had built it with three wheels and mounted a tractor seat above the engine and blade. It made an easy, time-saving way to mow the lawn.
Boy, I wish I had something as productive to show my wife from my tinkering in the shop when I´m supposed to be mowing the lawn. In Virgil´s case, his new device was a great success. In fact, Mr. Cofer eventually set up a company to manufacture his riding lawnmower. But what to call it?
Mr. Cofer named his lawnmower for his daughter, Virginia. It was called the Virginia Wonder Mower. Virginia Toedman says with a smile, "Yes, I have the dubious honor of having a lawnmower named after me."
She has a 1950s vintage advertising brochure with a picture of little Virginia atop the mower. The ad says, "A child can operate the Virginia Wonder Mower. It is the safest mower on the market today." Virginia is posed in her little dress, complete with black patent leather shoes. At least she isn´t wearing pearls.
So that explains the Virginia in the name, but what about the word Wonder? Apparently Mr. Cofer thought he would market it as a modern wonder, although Virginia says with tongue-in-cheek, "Mom said it was a wonder that he ever got it done."
Not only did he get it done, he sold Virginia Wonder Mowers all over the country from coast to coast. In fact, to promote the endurance and durability of his product, he rode the Virginia Wonder Mower from Whittier, California to Washington, D.C., traveling 3,181 miles in 15 days. Virginia says, "Dad changed the pulleys so it was geared faster to cover more miles. He and a neighbor took turns driving the mower and following it with a truck. When they got to Washington, he showed it to Sen. Andy Schoeppel on the lawn of the Capitol building."
The mower was quite a success in its time. By the early 1970s, Mr. Cofer was ready to sell his patents and get out of the business.
Virginia says, "There were so many rules and regulations which came down from OSHA and the state that it wasn´t worth it to continue."
So the Virginia Wonder Mower is no longer built, although a man who had worked for Mr. Cofer went into a lawnmower building business for himself.
Virginia married and became a teacher. She has taught elementary school in Ransom for 30 years. Her brother, Dale Cofer, has refurbished several of the old lawnmowers and has ridden them in parades.
Have you ever wondered where the riding lawnmower was invented? Well, now you know at least one version of the origin. On behalf of lawn owners everywhere, I thank Virgil Cofer and his family for making a difference, with the innovation to create this labor-saving device and the entrepreneurship to market it nationwide.
And there´s more. Remember the man who left Mr. Cofer to start his own lawnmower company? That company is still operating in Ransom. We´ll learn about that in our next column.
Ron Wilson is director of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development at Kansas State University.