by Henry Lane Hull
In the 1950s, the late Chap Champlin became one of the first gardeners in the Northern Neck to purchase a Gravely tiller. A career Navy veteran from World War II, Chap kept a large vegetable garden. Edible plants were his focus; he was not much into flowers. He anticipated the coming gardening interest in mulch by advocating for sawdust as a way of loosening clay soils.
Chap would go to sawmills, the owners of which joyfully filled his pickup with fresh sawdust that he then dutifully spread on his garden, following up the application by tilling it into the soil. He would set his blade to go a bit deeper with each tilling until he was down to 15 inches. He also saw great value in seaweed and would harvest it from his rowboat, let it dry and then incorporate it in future applications, claiming it gave the soil a definite boost of energy.
He specialized in growing all types of melons, but mainly cantaloupes and watermelons. He was driven by the need to be self-sufficient, paying for the Gravely by tilling other gardens and selling his melons as soon as they began coming in ripe. He was a distinctive individual, always wearing denim shirts and jeans. Indeed I never saw him in any other attire.
Chap began, or at least contributed to, a rage that spread across the Northern Neck for Gravely tillers. The closest dealer was Carl Smith over on Route 17 in Gloucester County, and his truck delivering tillers and mowers was a common sight along the highways and byways of Historyland. Carl’s shop was an oil and grease repository from decades of routine repairs and service, but his equipment always sparkled and he could put his hands on any gadget or part that he needed among the vast array of what to others seemed an unfathomable collection. When he died the Northern Neck gardeners whom he kept in Gravelys mourned along with those of the Middle Peninsula.
Gene Yeney was one of Carl’s initial local adherents, having bought his first Gravely in 1973. Wanting more power, he traded it in in 1975 for a heavier model. Gene gardened on shrink-swell soil that was brickyard-quality clay when he began working it in the 1960s. Slowly he built the soil up to topsoil-level and began experimenting with rare and exotic vegetables. As with Chap, Gene was not a flower person, ever wanting to be able to eat what he was growing.
Inspired by Chap and Gene, my father bought our first Gravely from Carl in 1976. That model was a walk-behind bushhog, to which I later added the tiller attachment. When Gene died his widow, Betty, kindly gave me his Gravely, thereby eliminating the need to switch attachments from bushhog to tiller. Once working with my own equipment, I too became a follower and ultimately bought a riding mower and cart, thus I was an “all-Gravely” operation.
As the years passed, and after Carl’s death, and as I became more involved with other projects, the Gravelys sat in the barn, and my Good Wife began seeing great potential for them, not in the garden or in the field, but at Leon Saffelle’s recycling center up on Route 360 beyond Heathsville. I have been most delicate in expressing the view that they still have significant potential. To that end I have been in consultation with my good friend, Leroy Cuffee, the mechanical guru of the Northern Neck. When Leroy looks at a piece of equipment, it knows it better “act right.”
This year I have been concentrating on gardening with raised beds and containers, but with Leroy’s assistance and direction, I am hoping to return to the glory days of Gravelying along, thinking of Chap, Carl, Gene and the many other friends who combined to make me a “believer” in the red machines that, with a little, actually a lot, of human effort, can transform a patch of clay soil into a garden oasis.