When Lee Stadtmiller took over as manager of the City of Billings Mountview Cemetery in Montana, it took the crew 12 days to mow 65 acres.
Stretches of rainy weather made the situation worse as the crew couldn’t mow, but the grass continued to grow. The result: a cemetery that looked unkempt despite the best efforts of the landscaping crew.
After their first attempt with fertilizer, a particularly wet spring and an unkempt-looking cemetery on a Memorial Day weekend, Stadtmiller was given a directive: The cemetery needed to be mowed once a week during the growing season. Stadtmiller had to find a way to improve efficiencies and the appearance of the grounds, while staying within budget.
Stadtmiller met the directive by replacing an older fleet with versatile, maneuverable and durable mowing equipment from Walker Manufacturing. This new direction helped reduce mowing time from 12 days to 3 days.
“Mountview went from a cemetery that received mostly complaints to one that regularly garners compliments. It is now one of the most beautiful in the area,” he says.
Fixing the Problem
Stadtmiller had been a funeral director before changing careers and becoming cemetery manager 14 years ago. “I was getting tired of starting my day at 2 a.m. I was looking for something where I could deal with people at the same time in their lives, but that was less stressful.”
Meet Cemetery Manager Lee Stadtmiller
Occupation: Directs all functions ofcemetery operations including maintenance of the grounds of Mountview Cemetery
Property: 65 acres in Billings, Mont., that includes more than 23,000 grave sites, some dating back to 1882, and nearly 1,000 trees.
Equipment: 4 Walker mowers, 3 6x4 Gator UTVs, Husqvarna line trimmers and a JCB backhoe
Priorities: Durable equipment that can efficiently maneuver around gravesites and trees and that feature attachments for removing leaf debris and snow.
Stadtmiller took over the historic cemetery’s manager duties and the challenges it was now facing, including restrictions on the amount of workers that could be hired during the mowing season.
Started in the early 1880s, the age of the cemetery led to another challenge, uneven grounds due to collapsed graves. That landscaping challenge was part of the reason the previous superintendent purchased five John Deere 455 tractor mowers, along with attachments for snow and leaf debris removal.
“My predecessor evaluated a number of mowing systems before he came upon the JD 455. He found that it scalped the uneven ground the least. Although the mowers didn’t scalp the grass, they were not agile enough to adequately mow around the headstones and trees, so the crew had to use push mowers to finish the job,” Stadtmiller says.
When Stadtmiller arrived, he was told that there were 2,000 graves to fill in. “I’ve leveled more than 7,000 graves, adding as much as 6 inches or more of dirt to make it level. It’s still not perfectly smooth, but it’s a lot better than it was 14 years ago,” he says. The cemetery has more than 23,000 grave sites and nearly 1,000 trees.
Stadtmiller needed a system that allowed for faster and better mowing as well as one that offered attachments for year-round landscape maintenance. He evaluated equipment from Toro, John Deere and Walker mowers, brands that were sold by local dealers. “We buy everything locally. We are supported by tax dollars and we like to use companies that pay local taxes.”
The Mountview Cemetery’s fleet includes 4 Walker mowers, including the Super B model. The crew uses snow blower, broom, blade and debris blower attachments for year-round maintenance.
He asked to try the equipment on the grounds and found that Walker mowers purchased from Meadow Green Sales met all of his criteria: ability to efficiently mow around structures and trees, interchangeability of year-round attachments, durability and a local supplier.
Stadtmiller began transitioning to the Walker mowers in 2002, reaching his current fleet of 4 Walker mowers. “We normally run the Walkers for about 3,500 hours and replace them every 6 or 7 years. It now usually takes us about 3-4 days to mow and trim the grounds every week. Some of the crew is using string trimmers while others mow.
“The mowers with 62-inch decks are used in the majority of the cemetery. In the original portion of the cemetery, stones are haphazardly placed and the terrain is difficult, so the mowers with the 52-inch decks work the best in those areas. I also have an area that is not developed yet where the 72-inch deck works well,” he says.
The two newest mowers are the new Super B model. “It’s a little bit taller unit and is more durable. The Super B being farther off the ground means it’s not as dirty for the operators, especially when they’re mulching leaves in the fall,” he says.
His attachments include two snow blowers, a broom, blade, debris blower and mulching decks. The crew uses the blade, broom and snow blowers to remove snow from the cemetery’s roads and sidewalks and sites that will be opened for new graves sites. The broom, debris blower and mulching deck are used to clear leaves and other debris. They use Husqvarna string trimmers instead of push mowers to finish some areas.
His crew is also responsible for opening up gravesites. They use a JCB backhoe with front-end bucket for excavating the gravesite and remove the dirt with a 1-ton dump truck or with Gator 6x4 UTVs. The UTVs are also used for traveling the grounds and transporting hand-held equipment and tools.
Counting on Dealers
Meadow Green may have initially won the cemetery’s account based on the Walker equipment line, but Stadtmiller says they have met his needs for service since then.
“They cater to us. Either I, or my lead worker, can call them and ask for a part and we get it as soon as possible. If the repair is under warranty, they come and pick it up and take it to their shop. They’re about 10 miles from us, so that’s a benefit,” he says. The crew or the municipal shop handles most of the repairs that are not under warranty.
Stadtmiller says he doesn’t need ongoing visits from the dealership’s sales team, but does want to know about the latest offerings, such as with the new Super B. “I usually ask for a quote when I need it. It then has to go through a committee to be approved in the fall and is replaced the following July.”
The city has directed that the mowers need at least 3,000 hours of operation before they can be replaced. Stadtmiller tries to replace them before they reach 4,000 hours.
He has to make an educated guess because he never knows how much the mowers will be used in the off-season for snow removal. The Gator UTVs are replaced on the same schedule and his trimmers usually last about 3 seasons before they need to be replaced.
He turns to other dealers for his other equipment. For instance, Stadtmiller purchases Husqvarna trimmers from Shipton’s Big R stores and Gator UTVs from Yellowstone County Implement. Both dealerships are in Billings.
He chooses dealers over big box retailers because of his commitment to support local businesses — and because retailers can’t promise him prices or equipment availability 9 months prior to purchase.
Willing to Change
Stadtmiller is proud of the changes that have been made at the cemetery and he continues to look for other ways to improve. He says he has found the best mowing solution for now, but that could change.
“I’m always looking for options on equipment that are best for my unique situation. I’m not looking for the next ‘new-fangled’ thing that’s out there, but specific equipment to meet my needs. I might upgrade to another model or another brand or dealer if it’s proven to me that it’s a better way to go.”
For instance, he’s looking at options for UTVs that provide heavier cargo capacity. That way, he says he can use the vehicles to remove gravesite dirt instead of the dump truck. That method would be less intrusive on the cemetery grounds, especially during a wet season.
Stadtmiller says his role as Mountview cemetery manager is about honoring tradition. “Tradition is very important to us in the U.S. and nowhere more so than in our cemeteries. But, tradition can become a stumbling block if it prevents changes necessary to improve performance. Our crew was encouraged to look for new ways to improve the mowing process as well as other areas of operations in the cemetery and the result is a dramatically improved cemetery.”