- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Powerful, loud mowers have been showing lawns who’s boss for decades. But now contraptions that couldn’t cut butter without a good shove are quietly — really quietly — making a comeback.

Manual lawn mowers, long the 98-pound weaklings of the tool shed, are pushing their way, or, more accurately, being pushed around more yards all over the country.

“It’s phenomenal,” said Teri McClain, inside sales administrator at the 112-year-old American Lawn Mower Co. in Shelbyville, Ind., which she said is the only manufacturer of reel mowers in the United States. “Sales continue to rise every year.”

Phenomenal might be a little strong. Statistics aren’t available, but Ms. McClain estimates that 350,000 manual mowers are sold in the United States each year — most made by her company. That is just a small fraction of the 6 million gas-powered walk-behind mowers that hit the market last year.

Still, that number is about 100,000 more than were sold just five years ago and seven times as many as the estimated 50,000 a year sold in the 1980s, she said.

American Lawn Mower was one of about 60 domestic manufacturers of manual mowers at the end of World War II, when power mowers began taking over the industry, Ms. McClain said. Now, it is the only one making the mowers in the U.S., although some U.S. companies make the mowers in other countries.

Sales of manual mowers at Strosniders Hardware in Bethesda have increased about 10 percent per year over the past five years, said Craig Saur, garden buyer manager at the store. But sales of electric and battery-rechargeable lawn mowers have increased at a similar rate, too.

“In the past five years or so, I think there are a lot of people going to electric [and] battery-rechargeable mowers,” Mr. Saur said. “I think that’s where the trend is.”

At Zimmerman’s Ace Home Center in Burtonsville, sales of manual mowers recently have increased by about one additional mower per week — “slightly higher” than normal, said Edward Beaver, department manager of plumbing and heating. But he said the increase may be attributed to it being peak lawn mower season, a period from late April to the middle of June.

According to buyers and sellers, the resurgence of these quaint reminders of yesteryear is due most notably to growing environmental concerns and an increasing number of women who do the mowing.

Headlines about global warming, pollution and vanishing natural resources have people from all walks of life making changes.

“It’s out in the media, and people tend to lean toward the hot topic of the news,” Mr. Saur said.

The mowers provide one way to respond to pollution from gas-powered mowers, not to mention the warnings from at least one former vice president.

“I definitely see a bigger selection of people all the time, especially since the Al Gore movie [‘An Inconvenient Truth’],” said Lars Hundley, the owner of Clean Air Gardening, a Dallas gardening equipment retailer.

The mower also is appealing because it is inexpensive — about $200 — and so simple. Zimmerman’s sells one manual model for $99.50.

It looks different than the one invented in England in the 1830s to take over a job that once belonged to scythe-wielding people or hungry sheep. And with the use of lighter metals and plastic, it’s a lot lighter than the heavy iron and wood mowers some baby boomers remember pushing around for a measly 50 cents an hour.

But it works pretty much the same way it always did: Just push it and it cuts.

“I don’t have to worry about gas, repairs and getting [the mower] started,” said Eric Skalinder, a 35-year-old Chicago teacher.

Perhaps just as significantly, more people are finding they don’t need a power mower because they have less lawn to mow.

Therefore, manual lawn mowers are appealing, Mr. Beaver said. In Burtonsville, town houses, which tend to have small lots, are common, he added.

Ms. McClain said houses in many new developments are being built on lots of a third of an acre or less. And with yard sizes reduced even further by increasingly popular amenities like rock gardens, sitting areas and dog runs, “the mowing area is really very small,” she said.

But nobody suggests that manual mowers are going to push power mowers aside.

Susan Chin of JT Mower in Annandale said her mower repair store rarely works with manual mowers. She said the store gets about one manual mower per year that needs its blades sharpened, a process that costs $39.50.

Reel mowers, which Mr. Hundley said many people buy over the Internet, increasingly are showing up in large hardware chains and small mom-and-pop places alike. But he said stores aren’t likely to let push mowers that cost about $200 or less to take valuable display place from power mowers that can cost hundreds of dollars more.

“They’d rather sell an $800 Toro they make a couple hundred bucks on than [make] a few bucks on a push mower.”

• Adam Terese of The Washington Times contributed to this report.

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