For tractor, snowmobile, snow blower or general antique outdoor equipment enthusiasts, Gilson might be a household name. Made from primarily cast iron parts, a practice that dates back to the mid-19th century, Gilson snow blowers are considered by some as collector’s items and by others as tried and true machines. Gilson snow blowers were most prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s and had Briggs & Stratton engines ranging from 5hp to more than 9hp and as well as clearing widths of 26 to 30 inches.
The Gilson story begins in 1855 with Theodore Gilson who moved from Milwaukee to Port Washington, Wisconsin. From 1855 to 1900, Gilson’s company, Gilson Manufacturing, made various cast-iron items, including heating stoves/furnaces, farm plows, miscellaneous farm implements, and cooking utensils. His son and then grandson succeeded Theodore during this time. In 1898, a man named Henry Bolens joined the venture, which coincided with the development of the Gilson Gasoline Engine. Henry Bolens bought the Wisconsin-based branch of the company in 1911 and in 1940 changed the name of the company from Gilson Manufacturing to Bolens Manufacturing. In 1911, Gilson Manufacturing opened an engine manufacturing facility in Ontario, Canada. This facility didn’t become part of Bolens Manufacturing. The Ontario facility focused on producing kitchen appliances and chairs.
It was in 1955 that a son-in-law in the Gilson family tree took over the Ontario facility and began manufacturing outdoor power equipment. The operation built a large factory in Plymouth, Wisconsin, in the mid-1960s. It was around this time that family ownership dissolved but was survived by the brand name, Gilson. The 1970s could have been the peak for Gilson Manufacturing. Their tractors, snow blowers, rototillers, snowmobiles, and other equipment were made from cast-iron parts and their designs, to some, were considered innovative. In 1988, LawnBoy acquired Gilson Manufacturing. In 1989, The Toro Company acquired LawnBoy.
Modern snow blowers could take design tips from Gilson products that were made in the 1960s. Gilson snow blowers manufactured in the late 1960s featured a straight-line bucket in front, which means the auger protrudes out in front of the machine. This feature allows the auger to cut into snowdrifts first instead of the side plates. Specific models with this feature are the GIL-478A Garden Mark machine built for the 1966/67 winter season and Model #835 from the 69/70 snow season. For the 70/71 snow season, Gilson introduced the 3-speed UniTrol (friction drive), which continued to be featured on models for 10 years. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Gilson introduced a 5-speed design.
The acquisition of Gilson by LawnBoy and then by The Toro Company means that Toro will still make repairs on Gilson equipment through LawnBoy dealers. A common repair on these snow blowers is to replace the worm drive. A reason for this failure is that the lubing agent gets old and causes wear on the “worm gear.”