The Mow Better Life of Craig Johnson

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(PHOTO: Marla Cantrell)

How One Man’s Generosity Sparked Mow it Forward


It’s early afternoon in downtown Mansfield, and Craig Johnson — neat gray hair, an easy smile — stands behind the cash register at his shop, Dave’s Small Engine Repair. The temperature is 96 degrees and climbing. You’d think lawns across the area would be browning by now, in this heat, in the dead of summer, but there’s little evidence that that’s true.

The inside of Dave’s Small Engine Repair looks like a movie set plucked the 1970s. An old bench seat, probably from a pickup truck, the kind with small metal ashtrays tucked in the armrests, serves as a makeshift couch in the breezeway outside the office door. A couple of heavy wooden bar stools (think old-style captain’s chairs) hug the long counter that separates Craig from his customers. A notice announcing fresh eggs for sale, a sign shaped like a coffee cup, and an old Razorback poster from the glory days hang near a hand-stenciled cardboard sign announcing the business’s terms of service.

Until 2015, this was Craig’s father’s place, and the décor is still all him. In this small town of approximately 1,140, time doesn’t move especially fast. Men of a certain age still gather at Dave’s for a cup of coffee, for the lowdown on what’s going on in the hills and valleys that radiate like spokes on a wagon wheel from this center of enterprise.

Four years ago, Craig’s father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Craig was eager to help his dad. He was working in the oil fields back then, where the money was good, but the pace was exhausting. “I was about to get married, and I was tired of sleeping in hotels and trucks and whatever, and working 24 hours straight, traveling all over the country,” Craig says. “I just tired of it.”

So, Craig moved to Fort Smith and took over the business in Mansfield. Thankfully, his father fully recovered and now spends at least a half-day every day at the shop where not much changes from month to month.

That is, until April, when customer Jeremy Book came in for repairs on his riding mower. He told Craig he also had three push mowers he’d give him IF he would donate one of them to someone who needed it.

At home, Craig spoke to his wife Elizabeth, who’s an agent for Farmers Insurance. “She said, ‘What if you kept the mower and loaned it out to people?’ So, I contacted Jeremy with the idea, and he agreed.”

They named the initiative Mow it Forward, and targeted Mansfield, Greenwood, and Hartford. Craig loaned the mower to those who asked, including a Mansfield Junior High student who wanted to mow lawns to help pay for football gear. “He tried to give me a cut of his money, and I said, ‘Absolutely not!’ I was just proud that he was working toward something like that.”

Craig is a product of Mansfield Schools himself, becoming a student after his family moved here in 1985. His father was an over-the-road truck driver at the time, and later bought Dave’s Small Engine Repair. Both Craig’s mom and dad had been brought up on farms, hardworking even as kids, and had owned a dairy farm together at one point.

While Craig was in school, he took a Civics class from Mr. Mike Elsken. Craig learned quickly, understanding the freedoms and duties of being a citizen of the United States, and the way the branches

of government work. “He taught in a way that just intrigued me and captivated me. And anytime I’m in a political discussion with anybody, I remember things I learned from Mr. Elsken.”

The two had lost touch over the years. But about a month ago, Craig was scrolling through the Facebook page, Fort Smith Residents’ Forum. He’d read that one of the members was diligently trying to deal with their overgrown lawn. That person had two mowers, although neither worked. Craig offered to fix one of them free of charge.

Lo and behold, Mr. Mike Elsken was reading the same thread and responded by saying HE had an old mower he wanted to donate. Craig knew immediately who he was, and the two reconnected. It turned out that the two mowers the Fort Smith resident had were beyond repair, so Mr. Elsken’s mower was given to that person.

Since then, Craig has launched Mow it Forward in Fort Smith, posting this service on the Facebook Fort Smith Residents’ Forum. He has help with delivery. “Mr. Elsken said, ‘Hey, we’re retired. JoAnne [Mike’s wife and another of Craig’s former teachers] and I would be happy to take it wherever you need in Fort Smith.'”

The process is simple. “Somebody messages me, gives me their number and address, and I tell Mr. and Mrs. Elsken where it needs to go, and when it’s done there, I tell them where the next place is. It’s made it easy on me to still help out from a distance,” Craig says.

That distance is approximately 30 miles on a road that passes by billboards for Jesus, a turnoff to the Walmart in Greenwood, vegetable stands that pop up every summer.

Mike and JoAnne Elsken’s assistance is critical during the mowing season when Craig works weeks without a break. Because of them, several people have benefitted, including an older woman in Fort Smith who borrowed the mower just before her grandson visited, so that he could keep her lawn in order. Of course, none of it would have happened at all without Jeremy Book, who got the initiative started.

Craig stands among his chorus of mowers that sit side by side just outside his office door, wipes his brow and smiles. “And Elizabeth,” he says, “had the idea to take Jeremy’s mower and lend it out.”

If there is a commonality in generous people, it’s that they deflect praise, always pulling others into the spotlight. Craig is no different. It’s true what he says, but it’s also true that it took a good deal of effort to get Mow it Forward rolling.

When asked where he learned kindness, he says. “My mom. She’s a really kind person.”

Beyond that, his parents taught him to take care of what he had and fix what he could. When the idea of Mow it Forward surfaced, it fit him perfectly. He knew he’d keep that loaner mower in tip-top shape.

Craig mentions his 11-year-old truck, as good as ever, as an example of what it means to care for something. He’s been taught the benefit his entire life. He points to where his pickup sits. The sunlight on this August afternoon is so shimmery, it seems to illuminate everything beneath it. Or maybe this quality of light is merely a symbol for how extraordinary the world looks when a few ordinary people decide to make someone’s life a little brighter than it was the day before.


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Marla Cantrell is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in AY Magazine, Arkansas Wild, Arkansas Money and Politics, Arkansas Flavor, the Mental Health Guide of Arkansas, Do South Magazine, and Woman's World, a national publication. When Marla is not interviewing and writing articles, she can often be found teaching writing classes at Chapters on Main in Van Buren, editing books, working as a biographer, and serving as a writing coach. She has won numerous awards for her work, including the prestigious Arkansas Arts Council Fellowship Award for Short Fiction.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Yet another sweet story of generous hearts in this area and brilliant minds, doing good! MOW IT FORWARD and Marla Cantrall

  2. Marla what a beautifully written piece. In this crazy world it is a joy to read about a much needed act of kindness. Thank you for sharing his story. Elizabeth is equally as giving in the animal community. She is driven and has such passion. I’m happy to call her friend.

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