PRINCETON — Ever since he can remember, Larry Keaton has been a Gravely Tractor man.

On the 15-acre farm on which he grew up, the Princeton man recalls helping his father use a West Virginia-built 1948 model L Gravely to complete all of the chores it took to keep a mid-20th century country home place operating. Later, the U.S. Foodservice truck driver remembers using the 1967 'custom convertible' Gravely he inherited from his dad to start his own family farm in Mercer County. And now, as the old ways roll over into the new all around him, he is proudly continuing that Gravely tradition started by his father all those years ago, passing his longtime love onto two more generations of Keatons.

And, as those who know him know, Keaton is passing that passion on in a big way.

“I started collecting old Gravely tractors in 2006, and I have 17 of them, now,” he said with a laugh. “Gravely tractors have been in my life since I was born, and what makes them so special to me is that they were made in West Virginia up until around the 1960s, right there in Dunbar. I remember at one point in my life my dad told me our tractor was made in West Virginia and it just meant something to me. It's pride, I guess, and that still means a lot to me today.”

It's a pride developed over a lifetime spent working the farm, just a man and his tractor, plowing and cultivating the garden, mowing the lawn, raking the hay, removing the snow, and doing whatever else it took to get the job done. Until just a few years ago, that hard work was the sole purpose Gravelys served in Keaton's life, and work they did.

“There's not a thing that's been built today that's as tough as these tractors are,” he said. “It's a machine that can be used in every season for whatever needs to be done, and our tractors have never had an easy life. We use them for everything, and the quality and workmanship of them just really makes them stand out. These machines were built way ahead of their time. I've always known that, but for all these years, I always thought I was the only person in the world who loved Gravely tractors.”

All of that changed, though, when he discovered the Gravely Tractor Club of America. It was then that a “whole new world of Gravely” opened up for the man known to friends as “Larry the Tractor Guy”.

“I found out that there are thousands of other guys who like them just like I do,” he said. “I joined immediately, and that's really where all of this started for me.”

Not long after joining the club, Keaton submitted his father's 1967 Gravely, which he retired and entirely restored in 2004, along with an accompanying essay about his passion for the tractors into the organization's “Gravely Biggest Fan Contest.” His entry became one of five finalists, earning him an all-expense paid trip to the annual Gravely Mow-In in Brillion, Wisc., where the company is currently headquartered.

“We had such a good time up there, and on the way home, my wife and I stopped at a Gravely swap meet in Somerset, Penn.,” said Keaton. “I was looking at this completely restored 1974 super convertible Gravely that this guy had for sale, and everybody was just foaming at the mouth over that tractor. I realized Vicki had disappeared, and when I found her, she had that guy over there and was writing him a check for that tractor. That just made everyone envious that my wife would buy me that tractor.”

And so it began, the collection that has since grown to more than five times the size it was on that fateful day when Vicki decided to do something special for the man who has worked so hard all of his life to support his family.

“He was looking at that tractor and I saw his eyes just light up, and I thought, 'You know, this man works so hard for us; he always does for everyone, and we're going to do something for Larry,'” she said. “I just love that smile on his face, and I know he loves his Gravelys, so I thought, 'I'm going to start something here.'”

And start something she did, in the collection that seemed to grow far more rapidly than Larry ever could have imagined. First, there was the friend of a friend who wanted to get rid of two old Gravelys he'd received as a trade-off for some work he had done. Then, as the Keatons traveled to Gravely shows and swap meets throughout the southeast and Midwest, people with tractors to sell began to come out of the woodwork, eager to show their goods to the man with such a keen interest in the Gravelys of old.

“We went to a show in Tennessee, and there was a man who seemed just desperate for me to have his tractors,” said Larry. “After the show I went to his house, and looked at them; he had eight of them. I took down the serial numbers and went home and did some research, and several months later, I contacted him and brought seven of those tractors home, two pick-up trucks and a trailer load full. That gave me seven more, and the next tractor show we went to, my son, Jason and I took 10 Gravely tractors to it.”

The rest just accumulated from there, one from a man sharing a hospital room with Vicki's brother, one, a 1949 model similar to his father's first 1948 Gravely, from a Gravely newsletter ad, and two more from a Mercer County friend who drove down the Keaton driveway one day knowing he'd found the place to unload a couple of older model Gravelys he didn't need. When it comes to the oldest tractors of the company started in 1922 by Ben Gravely, most everyone seems to know that Larry is their guy.

“Gravely made their own engines up until 1974 or '75, and that's the only thing I collect, the ones with Gravely engines. The newest tractor I have is a 1974 and the newest is an old '44 model. I didn't have much hope for that one, but I brought it home and worked on it a little and it cranked right up. I've been so lucky with that; I haven't had to overhaul any of them, and that's amazing, really. It just goes back to show you the quality that they really are.”

Still, he's had to put of lot of hard work into each of the tractors in his prized collection, which also includes several Gravely attachments, some of which are extremely rare and hard to find. While just one of the tractors was running when he bought it, most all of Larry's Gravelys are in working order today, thanks to the long hours he has put in in the garage with Jason and his four-year-old grandson, J.T.

“We mostly do tune-ups and cleaning of the engines, and we restore them and completely paint them up if they need it,” he said. “We have three of them pretty much complete, and that's our plan, to get them all completely restored one day. Jason is really mechanically minded; he can just take one apart without thinking about it, and J.T. could just about take one apart already, too. He stays out there with us all day when we work on them, and he already thinks they're all going to be his someday.”

And truly, that passing along of the Gravely tradition is the ultimate plan of his collection, Larry says, and the reason he continues to put so much into his love for the tractors that have been a part of his life since childhood.

“That's the whole idea,” he said. “A lot of guys that I collect with at these Gravely shows don't have anyone to pass their tractors on to, because they're just junk to most people. I don't have that problem, and that's why I don't mind collecting and getting more into it, because I've got two more generations that are interested in them.”

That family legacy, above all else, is the clear-cut reason behind Keaton's passionate Gravely pursuit, a pastime that Vicki says the family will be continuing for many years to come.

“We'll always be collecting tractors,” she said. “But, to Larry, it's more than just collecting tractors. He and I make trips out of the shows and the times he goes to pick another one up, and we have a ball. He's made so many friends through this, and he shares the hobby with his son and grandson. I see the smile it puts on his face, and I just light up when he gets a new toy. Each of his tractors has a story behind it, and, it might sound crazy, but they're like a part of our family.”

And for a family man as down-to-earth as the tractors he collects, that attachment means those beloved Gravelys are here to stay.

— Contact CharLy Markwart at cmarkwart@ptonline.net.

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