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Dixie Chopper turns 30

Thursday, April 15, 2010

While every Dixie Chopper has been produced in Putnam County, a couple of the brand's most famous moments came elsewhere, with the production of the Dixie Chopper motorcycle by Orange County Choppers, above, and the appearance of the Dixie Chopper Jet Mower on "Home Improvement.
It is April 15, 1980 ...

The Internet, cell phones and Twitter are not even a twinkle in any inventor's eye.

Post-It Notes are being introduced, making sticky little yellow squares part of intra-office communications forever. Ray Kroc is celebrating 25 McYears since opening his first McDonald's in Des Plaines, Ill. And Ford Motor Co. is watching its Pinto series go down in flames after a fatal fiery rear-end collision lands the company in an Indiana court.

Shock jock Howard Stern is just starting his broadcasting career at radio station WWWW in Detroit. "Grease" is no longer the word on Broadway as it closes after 3,388 performances. And on TV, J.R. Ewing is gunned down on "Dallas," setting off a "Who Shot J.R.?" infatuation that would last for months.

With the hostage crisis playing out in Iran and the U.S. announcing its boycott of the Moscow Olympics, most American eyes are on the skies as Mount St. Helen's begins erupting after 123 dormant years.

But in an old dairy barn on a small farm east of Fillmore, Art Evans is putting the finishing touches on a machine that will help change the way grass is cut in this country. On April 15, 1980, Evans completed his first Dixie Chopper zero-turn lawn mower, calling it the Magnum 5018 with an 18-horsepower Briggs & Stratton engine and a 50-inch cutting deck.

"Thirty years ago I believed that we could change the way people mow grass in this country, and it's all about productivity and showing people how to make money," Evans has repeatedly said. "I have a belief that we should build a product that won't break when you use it."

In celebration of Dixie Chopper's 30th anniversary, the company is being featured in the County Commerce series at the Putnam County Museum at 1105 N. Jackson St., Greencastle. The Dixie Chopper Jet Mower is currently on display at the museum and the Orange County Choppers Dixie Motorcycle will be added to the display on Saturday when there will be a noon to 2 p.m. public reception.

Regular museum hours are 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.

A down-to-earth, self-made businessman, Evans didn't invent the zero-turning-radius lawn mower, but he certainly helped perfect its application after seeing one on display at the Indiana State Fair in the 1970s.

He knew then and there that zero-turn was the time-saving future of the mowing industry -- especially for commercial cutters -- and that the plodding, old dinosaur of a lawn tractor and its steering wheel faced a future not unlike that of the black-and-white TV.

Evans became the Indiana distributor for Dixon mowers, but when that company resisted his suggestions on how to make its mowers more reliable, productive and durable, Evans decided to build his own mower. And Dixie Chopper was born.

That very first Dixie Chopper mower (No. 0001) was used weekly by Evans' late parents to mow their property for more than 26 years before it was reclaimed, restored and turned into a museum piece.

The famous Dixie Chopper slogan may be "The World's Fastest Lawn Mower" (one with a 74-inch deck can mow a football field in 10 minutes) but Evans' own motto has been "build up to quality, not down to price." And although Dixie Chopper now operates with Gary A. Morgan as its second-ever president, it still subscribes to Evans' seven business principles.

Success has not changed the 68-year-old Evans. He still doesn't have an office at Dixie Chopper's 120,000-square-foot headquarters near Fillmore. He still wears a company ballcap to work and roams the factory, troubleshooting whenever and wherever necessary.

A favorite Evans-ism is, "Presentation without demonstration is just conversation." That axiom certainly helps explain two of Dixie Chopper's most famous outside-the-box enterprises -- the OCC Dixie Bike and the famous Jet Mower.

It would have been easy to turn down a six-figure expense to have the Teutuls of Orange County Choppers build a Dixie Chopper Bike, utilizing its distinctive lawn mower parts. But the success of that venture, featured on the popular "American Chopper" TV show, has taken on a life of its own.

The two-part Dixie Chopper Bike segment (the sixth bike of the show's second season and 14th TV bike overall) has been replayed dozens of times since May 2004. Along the way, it has helped generate sales of collectible die-cast toy bikes and T-shirts, as well as helping to introduce Dixie Chopper to a whole new user base.

But the independent thinking that probably defined Evans and Dixie Chopper most was his earlier idea to mount a 150-horsepower Chinook helicopter engine on a standard Dixie Chopper mower. The idea was to prove its quality and reliability, figuring if it could withstand the power and torque of that engine and speeds in excess of 50 mph, the standard mower could take a lifetime of weekly pounding.

The Jet Mower also ended up on television dozens of times, most notably "Good Morning America" and the 1994 season finale of the Tim Allen sitcom "Home Improvement." In the latter, Allen used the Jet Mower to win a challenge race against "This Old House" host Bob Vila.

Today, Dixie Chopper builds the most productive mid-mount zero-turn lawn mowers in the industry, ranging from a 23-hp model with a 44-inch cut to a 40-hp version with a 74-inch deck and various combinations in between.

Only Dixie Chopper offers four separate fuel options. Besides models with gasoline engines supplied by Generac, Kohler and Briggs & Stratton, Dixie has a new diesel with a Caterpillar engine, a Generac propane unit in both 66- and 74-inch cutting widths and the industry's only compressed natural gas-powered mower, the revolutionary Eco-Eagle.

Not only has every single Dixie Chopper been made in the USA, they all have been manufactured and assembled right at home in Putnam County -- all since April 15, 1980.

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WOW!!! Very well written! Thanks for recognizing an outstanding Putnam County resident. Congratulations Mr. Evans on a job well done.

-- Posted by cvilleguy on Thu, Apr 15, 2010, at 9:12 AM

Thats because their media guy used to work for the banner. Everytime this company sneezes we must hear of how great the place is. What about...John McKeehan (Drain-O inventor), The Normington's (Choc-cola), Chet (the flip top guy); but not evertime they turn around are we hearing of there acomplishments. I guess the ego's of these folks are not as huge as this guy.

-- Posted by dcsaiht on Thu, Apr 15, 2010, at 10:05 AM

Oh dcsaiht, you will be deleted. You can't talk ill of the infamous Mr. Evans.

-- Posted by tjchopper on Thu, Apr 15, 2010, at 10:06 AM

Guess those other companies don't have very effective marketing departments. C'mon give us a break! Good story about an innovative AMERICAN company. Didn't notice a Drano, Chocola, or Flip top facory on Putnam County EMPLOYING Putnam County residents. Jeez!

-- Posted by headlettuce on Thu, Apr 15, 2010, at 5:04 PM

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