In the outer Minneapolis suburb of Plymouth lives a legend. There, in an unassumingly cozy neighborhood, is a mythological beast—thankfully, a benevolent beast. The beast breathes fire, bringing forth warmth and light in times of cold darkness. As it roams the streets, children cry its name: “Helen! Helen! Helen!”
It is no dragon, phoenix, or chimera. It is a lawnmower with a fire pit mounted in it. And its name is Helen of Troy.
It started on All Hallows Eve, in the time before the plague.
“We were trick-or-treating with a bunch of the neighbor kids, and it was fairly cold that evening,” explains Ryan Shipley, Helen's creator. “Someone was like, ‘We need a fire pit that you can bring with you.’”
A friend in the group mentioned that their former boss had turned a lawnmower into a fire pit. This sparked inspiration. Shipley, a software engineer by day who enjoys woodworking and other hands-on work in his spare time, started hatching a plan for a new project.
“I had this old portable fire pit that folds into a box that wasn’t doing anything, ‘cause I had built a real fire pit in the ground,” he explains. “My neighbor was like, ‘I have an old lawn mower.’ We were like, ‘Are we gonna do this?!’ ‘Yes, we’re going to do this!’”
The next morning, the gang came together in Shipley’s cold garage to merge fire with function.
It was surprisingly easy. The lawnmower parts came right off, as they were held on with just a few bolts. Off came the blades underneath and the motor. What remained was a hole in the middle of the lawnmower body, a perfect fit for the fire pit. The screw holes that once held the motor were used to secure it in place.
“We were done before we knew it,” Shipley says.
Next came the bells and whistles. Obviously they needed a place to put their beers, so cup holders were added using old license plates and the lawnmower blades. To make this even more of a party machine, a Bluetooth speaker was secured using zip ties. The old clippings bag can be used to hold a few extra logs of wood. They christened her Helen of Troy, as she was a Troy brand lawn mower.
The creation has been a flaming hit at neighborhood parties.
“Whenever there’s some kind of get-together one of the neighbors will be like, ‘You should bring Helen!” One New Year’s Eve we ended up house hopping rather than bar hopping,” he says. “Helen makes the rounds anytime we’re hanging outside and the weather’s good.”
Fortunately, Helen hasn’t really had any problems since her creation, other than a minor piece of plastic melting off. While there was some concern that the wheels could melt, thankfully they are far enough from the heat. Shipley reports that the hardest part is shoveling out the ashes and cleaning it out after use. But that’s a small price to pay for being a local legend.
“The first time people see it, at first there’s this look of ‘What is that thing coming towards me?’” he says. “It’s a great conversation piece. There’s something novel about having this fire you can push around.”
As for tips for making your own Helen of Troy, perhaps Shipley’s best suggestion is to make sure you don’t use anything you still need: A few days after after Helen’s creation, his neighbor discovered that the license plates he had donated for the cup holders actually needed to be returned to the state.
“He ended up bringing them to the DMV with holes in them and were like, ‘What on Earth is wrong with you?’”