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A ditch mowers story

Sun, Sep 10th, 2000
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All those miles and all those yearsBy Wayne PikeMonday, September 11, 2000

Glen Van Grevenhof is one of those workers that most of us see, but few of us know much about. Glen is a "ditch mower" and has probably gotten to study more of our area township roads and ditches at a lower speed than anyone.

Township governments hire Glen to mow their ditches, paying him on a "per mile" basis. Mowing ditches is necessary to allow better lines of sight for drivers and to prevent tall grass from acting as a snow fence in the winter. Glen bids for the job in a couple townships, but gets most of his repeat business based on his past reliable performance. Glen jokes that he gets the job because, "Nobody else wants to do it." Glen mows for eleven townships including Bloomfield, Beaver, Spring Valley, Sumner, and Forestville in Fillmore County; LeRoy and Pleasant Valley in Mower County; and Salem, Rock Dell, Pleasant Grove, and High Forest in Olmsted County. When Glen is not mowing, some townships hire him to remove trees and brush from their ditches.

The eleven townships normally request that their ditch mowing begin about June 16 of each year. The pheasant hatch is over at this time and the young pheasants are mobile enough to get out of the way. Glen begins mowing all eleven townships at this time, covering about thirty miles of road each day. Thirty miles of road means sixty miles of ditch. There are five-hundred-ten miles of township roads in the eleven townships that Glen works for, and he mows every ditch along those roads. That amounts to over a thousand miles of ditch. When Glen is finished with the first mowing, he goes to work cutting brush and trees. About the first of September, or earlier if the grass has grown faster, he will be back with his mower for the second ditch mowing of the season. Two mowings per season is the normal practice, but some townships request three per year.

Glen got started in the ditch-mowing business about eleven years ago. He mowed two townships that season with an elderly Farmall Super H equipped with a sickle mower. That early experience was particularly rugged as the Farmall did not have a live power-take-off and the sickle mower continually suffered breakdowns. The slow progress became even slower as the grass grew longer and heavier ahead of him. In addition to the tedium and constant repairs, Glen was exposed to the heat, cold, noise, and dust as he rode the cab-less tractor. Although many changes have been made in his mowing equipment over the years, a cab has been a relatively recent addition. Glens wife, Stella, recalls, "Before he got the tractor with a cab he would come home all white from the dust and his hair would just stick straight out." Now, with his Farmall 1086, Glen says, "I just get in and turn on the air conditioning and stereo and set my seat and away I go." A new disc style mower has almost eliminated breakdowns and plugging problems.

Up-to-date equipment has made the job easier than when he started out, but Glen admits that it is still a hard job. Sitting in one position looking over your shoulder and steering with one hand from dawn until dark can be physically tiring, especially early in the season. "The worst is if its rough," Glen claims, "But most roads are pretty well taken care of by the graders."

The normally tranquil township roads can provide some exciting moments. Heavy rains sometimes cause washouts along the edges of the road that create a hazard for Glen and his 130-horsepower mowing tractor. He tells of the time when an entire section of road fell in behind him as he passed over a culvert undercut by high water. Aside from the occasional skunk that causes only momentary unpleasantness, most obstacles that do damage to his equipment are manmade. Over the years, Glen has encountered tires, posts, furniture, a bedspring, phone wire, and miles of electric fence wire. The disc mower is powerful and difficult to stop, but wire tends to wrap around the rotating discs and will eventually cause damage. "One time I hit a pile of telephone wire," Glen says, "It took two of us three hours to get it untangled. No damage was done to the mower, but we lost a lot of time."

If his equipment is damaged on naturally occurring obstacles, Glen usually has to pay his repair bill. Damage done by an obstacle placed in the ditch by someone who should know better may be a different situation. Glen tells of hitting a short signpost placed in the ditch by a construction crew. It was hidden in the tall grass and was not there the previous time Glen had mowed. When Glens mower hit the post, the mower was almost totally ruined and the repair cost was about $3500. The construction company admitted its mistake and paid that bill.

Glen is grateful that in his eleven years at this job he has never come across anything in the roads or ditches that has been too shocking. However, he has developed a strong dislike for people who leave their garbage along the township roads. "Garbage is the worst. It doesnt do any damage to my mower, but it just flies all over and makes a mess," he says, "It is just stupid of people to do that with their garbage."

Treasures are an even rarer find than trash. Stella lists only a "neat bottle and a jar" among the things that Glen has brought home from mowing that were worth keeping. Glen laughs when he tells the story of his one valuable find, a Craftsman hinge-handled wrench, that he picked up on a road one day. "That night I was testing milk for a farmer who lived a few miles away. He was telling me how he lost his wrench set out on the road that morning, so the one valuable thing I found in all those years, I had to give back."

Glen may underestimate the value of a few things he has found along his township roads. Stella reveals that Glen has become quite a flower lover over the years and will bring home a bouquet of unusual blossoms now and then. Their well-kept Spring Valley home, where they have lived for twenty-two years, is decked out with a beautiful perennial flowerbed that sports many of the colors one might find in a township road ditch at its best.

Although there are days when Glen claims to mow all day and never meet a car or see a person, he is appreciative of the people with whom he does cross paths. "Most people are very considerate and cautious when they meet or pass me," he says, "I have never had a close call with traffic." Glen also speaks very highly of the people that hire him to mow the township ditches. "These townboards are the best bunch of people to work for," he claims enthusiastically, "They are just super."

Mowing ditches and cutting brush would not seem to leave much time for other pursuits, but Glen and Stella both work in Fillmore County as milk testers. This job requires that they get up early and work late as they go to dairy farms collecting milk samples and data several days each week. Glen enjoys working on wood projects in his spare time and admits to almost always wanting to be in his shop working at restoring and showing antique tractors.

Glen is somewhat philosophical about ditch mowing. "All those miles and all those years," he says, "These township roads are kind of boring, but I guess I like it. At least there is job security because there will always be grass to mow and brush to cut."

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