After the gasoline engine-powered rotary mower was invented by Missourian Leonard Goodall and manufactured in Warrensburg, the next big innovation was the riding rotary lawn mower. As yards got bigger, they became essential to the lawn’s caretaker.
It was the invention of the zero radius-turning mower, however, that really increased the speed and ease of mowing a large yard and actually made it fun. The man who created the first commercially available zero turn mower was also a Missourian and his first zero radius mowers were also manufactured in Warrensburg.
Max Boothe Swisher was born in southeast Johnson County in Missouri on April 19, 1928, to Samuel and Blanche (Boothe) Swisher. He was the youngest of three children and the 1930 census lists their residence as being at or near Post Oak, Missouri, which is probably where they were living when he was born.
Max, however, grew up on the family farm near Leeton. The town of Leeton is 22 miles due south of Warrensburg. The earliest mention of Max in a newspaper was a blurb from the Leeton Times of June 4, 1942. Max was 14 years old at the time and the newspaper reported that he had purchased a bicycle siren from Bobby “Flash” Baker.
Max’s father not only farmed, but also repaired and traded in farm equipment, ran a threshing machine crew and worked at a sawmill. Max learned to be mechanical from his father.
Max attended a country grade school until the sixth grade and then attended Leeton Public School from whence he graduated. He then went on to take classes in industry and mechanics at Central Missouri State College, starting in 1946.
When he left college, Max got a job working at the Goodall Manufacturing plant in Warrensburg, helping to produce the Leonard Goodall’s rotary power mower. Max surely became acquainted with Leonard, the inventor of the rotary power mower that Max helped manufacture and principal owner of the company, and perhaps he garnered inspiration from his boss.
Intrigued by the mechanics of lawn mowers, Max began tinkering with improvements in his father’s machine shop on the family farm. He took his father’s lawn mower and installed a gearbox on it so that the engine not only turned the blades but also propelled the mower so it didn’t have to be pushed. This was the first Swisher self-propelled lawn mower.
Max went on to develop and patent a self-propelled rotary walk-behind mower with vastly improved maneuvering capabilities.
When the Korean War came around, Max was drafted in 1951. In June of that year he married Lorena Pryor of Warrensburg. Max and Lorena would have three children in their 64 years together.
After Max returned from his two-year hitch in the Army, he started the Swisher Mower and Machine Company in a building in Warrensburg that was a former meat packing plant.
Max worked on developing a riding mower with the same improved maneuvering capabilities he had employed in his walk-behind mower. He called his maneuvering system a “zero-turning-radius” and patented it as such. His company began manufacturing this innovative mower in 1955.
Both his zero-turning-radius mowers-the walk-behind and the riding version-were the first in the market.
The company was a success and at its peak employed over 600 people. Max also served as a city councilman for Warrensburg from 1980-1986.
Max Swisher died on Oct. 30, 2015, at the age of 87. Max had been active in civic affairs in Warrensburg. In addition to his service on the city council, he also was a board member for the Warrensburg Chamber of Commerce and a member of the American Legion.
Mowing our lawns is most definitely a lot easier and more pleasurable than those days when we had to push those motor-less, reel-type mowers around the yard. A mowing job that might take three or four hours using one of those can now be completed in relative comfort on a zero-turning-radius riding mower in 30-40 minutes.
We owe that big change primarily to two Missourians. The fact that one of the men worked for the other at one time and that they both set up manufacture ring plants in the same Missouri town to produce their innovative mowers makes their stories just that much more connected.
The Swisher Company is still in operation in Warrensburg. The Goodall Company is also still in operation, but it was moved to Minnesota when it sold in 1962.
Both Leonard Goodall and Max Swisher were Missourians who simply loved to tinker and used their abilities to improve equipment that almost all of have had to use at one time or another in our lives.