DAZE WORK: You ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie
Just last month I wrote the bittersweet end to the saga of Dixie Chopper in Putnam County.
What was once a glorious homegrown story of national success has ended with a thud as the Dixie Chopper product is now produced in Gibson City, Ill., and the sprawling Fillmore facility is being repurposed into a tire distribution center.
It’s a little sad, and I can say that after seeing the operation from inside and out. To this day when I wear on of my Dixie Chopper polo shirts out in public, someone always takes note and asks, “Do you (or did you) work at Dixie Chopper?”
“Yes, yes I did.” And it was like we were the kids with the biggest and best toys whenever we went to trade shows.
There was a certain pride in knowing that for more than 35 years every Dixie Chopper ever built was made and assembled here in Putnam County, either at the Fillmore plant or for a brief time at the old Mallory building (since demolished) in Greencastle.
For me, it was only seven years out of a 40-year career, but it was interesting and thrilling and odd and bewildering over that timeframe.
If you don’t know Art Evans, you don’t know Dixie Chopper. He took an idea he formulated after spotting the first zero-turning-radius mowers at the Indiana State Fair, declared ZTR was the future of lawn mowing -- especially commercial lawn mowing -- and set out to prove it by building an industrial strength mower when the big companies didn’t want to do it.
After starting off in an old dairy barn on his parents’ property with a handful of associates in April 1980, the company grew to more than 200 employees at three locations (Fillmore, Greencastle and the Dixie Chopper Business Center) during its heyday.
The very first Dixie Chopper was assembled on April 15, 1980 and went to Art’s parents.
When as communications and public relations director, I found out that mower No. 0001 was still being used every week to mow grass 25 years later, I freaked out, fearing somehow that historic green mower might catch fire or otherwise fall to pieces before we could retrieve it from the Evanses and turn it into a museum piece worthy of display at the Putnam County Museum. It became nearly as big a draw at the business center as the Dixie Chopper motorcycle that was built with mower parts by the gang at Orange County Choppers.
A couple years ago Tami Van Rensselaer of the Development Center, Curt Krominaker of Pershing & Associates and I found ourselves together at an event on the courthouse square. Almost simultaneously we all realized we were back in the same jobs we were in before we defected to Dixie Chopper.
But it was a fun ride, this time with the World’s Fastest Lawn Mower.
I learned a lot about manufacturing and marketing and people in general.
Owner/founder Art Evans is one of those rare guys who could probably fix the Mars Rover with duct tape, a phillips screwdriver and his ever-present tire gauge.
After he built the industry’s first propane-powered mower, some of us joked that he should outfit it with a gas grill so you could grill burgers and brats while you mowed. That’s when I learned you could never tell the man something can’t be done. Because couple days later we were shooting photos of the propane mower in action at Russ Hesler’s house and eating burgers that had been cooked on the back of the mower.
Of course, everyone remembers the jet mower and how Evans put a Chinook helicopter engine on a Dixie Chopper to prove the strength and durability of its pumps and frame. The jet mower ended up on an episode of “Home Improvement” where Tim the Toolman (Tim Allen) used it to race Bob Vila.
The Orange County Choppers motorcycle took on a life of its own after its introduction at Speed Week at Daytona. When it wasn’t on display here it was serving as a customer draw for dealers all over the United States. I used to send out media alerts to all TV stations and newspapers within a 50-mile radius of where the bike would be on display. I can’t tell you how many morning news programs sent a crew out for a live-at-the-scene report.
Later we sent a Dixie Chopper out west where “Little People, Big World” was filmed in Oregon. That happened because the father on the TV program, Matt Roloff, called me one afternoon as he was walking into the set of “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” asking for a mower he could use on the show. Took that request to the boss and it was a done deal before the day was done.
Yea, Dixie Chopper’s in my blood forever I guess, as I’m sure it’s in the heart of many others who worked there multiple years. I’ll still have a Silver Eagle in my garage whether the business is here or not.
Like an old friend. Dixie Chopper’s gone ... but definitely not forgotten.