Harvesting Hay: The Early Years|
by Pat Browning
As one drives across this land in the upper midwest states, it isn't unusual
to see a steel-wheeled, horse drawn sickle bar hay mower in farm front yards.
Four and one-half, five, and six feet were common sickle bar lengths with five
feet the most common. At the end of the bar was a special board, set at an
angle with a round stick attached for the sole purpose of creating a distinct
separation between the newly cut swath, and the standing hay. This separation
was essential for two reasons. On the next round with the mower, the sickle
bar didn't get clogged with hay cut on the prior round, and to form separation
to enable raking into windrows. Arranging hay into windrows set the stage for
pickup of the hay by hay loading equipment. The sounds and smells of a team
of horses drawing that mower along to cut fine alfalfa hay still hang in my
mind as a pleasant ones -- peaceful too.
To form windrows, farmers used a special machine called a side delivery rake.
This rake was a system of tumbling tines to gently kick and roll the hay into
a neat, straight row. With a five-foot sickle bar cut, it was customary to
rake two of the five-foot swaths into a single windrow. Hay was usually
windrowed with some 30 - 35% of its original moisture content so as to protect
the delicate, green leaves from being lost, and from being bleached by the
sun. Drying continued in the windrow.
Once in a great while we would become victim to "hay devils" which were sort
of like mini-tornadoes that would pick up raked hay, carry it for a spell,
then drop it here and there. Those occasions just made life more complicated;
you worked the other hay, and then use the side delivery rake, or the dump
rake to re-gather the scattered hay.
Once dry enough to store in the barn, the windrowed hay was gathered onto a
hayrack using a hay loader pulled behind the wagon, directly over the windrow;
the wagon and loader drawn by a team of horses straddling the windrow of hay.
As the fresh, loose hay was shuttled up onto the wagon by the loader, Dad
would use a three-tined pitch fork to "build up" the load, first at one end of
the wagon and then at the other, back and forth until no more could be loaded.
At this point, the loader was unhooked from the wagon, and the load taken to
the barn for unloading.
As one can picture, this method of harvesting hay is manual labor indeed,
there was no shortage of other forms of grief -- even beyond the breakdowns of
harness parts of machinery. I recall once where, overnight, a swarm of yellow
jackets invaded a windrow of hay. Dad found their fury the next day as the
hay loader brought up "hay with bees!" Dad was eaten up. He could hardly see
for two days! But still, there was no time for rest. Down hay had to be
The relationship between the barn's hayloft and those wagon loads of hay
merits a bit of discussion here. Our barn was built on a hillside. As a
matter of fact, every building on the place was on the side of a massive hill.
Maybe that's the reason I walk with a limp to this day for no apparent reason!
At any rate, the hayloft had five sections running the length of the barn; two
on each end or side, and the center section. We would drive the team pulling
the wagon load of hay up the gentle ramp, into the center section for
Once in the barn, the wagon was blocked, and one of the two horses was taken
to be used to pull the hay rope. Hay was taken from the wagon to the hayloft
by a system using a long, strong hay rope, a smaller trip rope to release hay
from the hay fork, a trolley track w/trolley running the barn's length, and a
special hay fork to grasp a huge amount of loose hay from the hayrack. Two
types of hay forks were commonly used -- one a harpoon, the other a grapple
fork. In the early years, Dad had only the harpoon style. It was made of two
long, strong tines about three feet long, set about 20 inches apart; down
through each was a sliding bar to operate a 'gripper' at the end of each tine.
You would push the harpoon fork down into the loose hay all the way, then pull
up the trip arms to set the grippers, one on each tine.
At this point, the horse selected to pull the hay rope, connected to the rope
by a single whipple tree, was driven or led out away from the barn a set
distance between 75 and 125 feet, lifting the fork load of hay up to the
trolley track; at which time the trolley was released from the center position
& free to travel down the track. When the fork load of hay was over the place
in the loft that the hay was to go, the trip rope was pulled, releasing the
grippers and thus the hay. It would be also at this point that the person
driving the horse (usually Mom) was to go no further! Dad would have placed a
special marker at the point beyond which Mom was not to go. Once at that
point, Mom unhooked the rope, allowing Dad to pull the hay fork back and reset
it into the hay load while Mom brought the horse back for another pull.
Many farmers didn't have barns with the "drive-in" feature. They unloaded
wagon loads of hay at one end, outside of the barn. Using a two-rope system
as above, fork loads of hay were taken up off the wagon to the trolley track,
then along the track to the hayloft section desired where the trip rope (when
pulled) dropped the hay. These barns had a fairly large door at one end,
hinged at the bottom; a doorway which extended upward to the trolley track,
just under the roof peak. You can recognize these barns easily because of the
"extended peak" at the end of the roof, and the door below.
Every now and then, Dad had to go into the hayloft, with his pitchfork, to
move hay from the barn's centerline to the outer areas. This effort was to
maximize storage and to make the hay more retrievable in the winter months.
Hay making time is a dreadfully warm and muggy time of year. Mom was always
concerned that Dad was pushing it too hard in that heat. Mom once placed a
thermometer up in the hayloft to show Dad how dangerous it was. The glass
burst! That meant temperatures were well over 120 degrees inside that barn.
And so Mom would always have plenty cool water, or Dad's favorite Cool Aide
drink available. I call it Cool Aide, but in those days, folks purchased
extracts from the Watkins Man with which to make flavored drinks of Root Beer,
Grape and Orange. More times than I can count, I recall Dad's overalls being
wet enough with sweat that you could wring it out of them.
Hay making prior to hay balers was indeed a labor intensive set of
operations. And working that hard during hot, muggy weather fully drained
one's energy level by day's end. But there was still the dairy herd to milk
and otherwise tend too. Many is the time Dad would be in half sleep, his head
against a cow, as he completed stripping operations, (hand-milking after the
milking machine). When there weren't baby brothers or sisters of mine to be
tended to, Mom was right there with Dad to help milk the cows. And then there
was ALWAYS repairs to attend to such as a loose band on wooden wagon wheels,
or harness parts to patch or re-rivet, or hayrack boards to replace -- either
on one of the standards or the bed. In later years, a tire may have to be
repaired. After milking time, there were still things to be done, more often
than not, things that just couldn't be put off until a "rain day."
An interesting point here; our hayrack had wooden wheels with wood spokes and
steel bands, common everywhere in times before WW2, and well known also in
those western movies that were so popular a few decades back. What Dad would
do for loose bands; remove the wheel, position the band where it belonged,
then drop the wheel into the stock tank overnight! In the morning, the wood
would have swelled and the band would be "tight as Dick's hat band," as the
saying went. A little grease on the axle, slip the wheels back on, then
tighten the hub nut and you were set for several more days of service.
The essence of making hay that still burns in my mind is characterized by the
saying, "Make hay while the sun shines!" When you have "hay down" in the
fields, there can be no rest until it is brought in where the weather can no
longer hurt it. Getting your hay rained on is really a bad thing. The loss
of food value is hard to judge, but severe. Ideally, if you had reliable
weather forecasts and were also a little bit lucky, you could harvest your hay
without rain. And if you were fortunate enough to not have hay down when it
did rain, those were the days when making repairs were relaxing ones.
There were also many good times to go with the work. Any of you who has
smelled the aroma coming up from a field of drying alfalfa hay knows a joyful
odor. A similar aroma is sensed by those in all walks of life shortly after
mowing their lawns. It is the sugar contained in the plant that brings out a
smell pleasing to humans and non-carniverous animals alike.
I remember working with horses as a pleasant experience. Those hardworking
'plugs' were gentle animals, and you got the sense they were so grateful at
feeding time. Horses just love oats and good hay. We always strived to have
lighter hay (than alfalfa) for them; timothy and red clover were their
favorites. And if you had hay with any mold in it, they would reject that in
a heartbeat. It was as if they knew it wasn't good for them. And if one has
any heart at all, you won't give a hard working horse lousy food!
I mentioned bees earlier. I recall one occasion; we had the hay loader and
wagon out by the barnyard, ready to head out for another hayfield. Dad and I
were getting a drink or something. At any rate, neither of us was with the
team. Then, without any reason we ever learned of, the team took off on a
full gallop with wagon and loader in tow, out into the cow pasture. The
loader was flipped over and badly damaged, at which time it became unhitched
from the wagon. The team continued on until they wedged the wagon between two
oak trees! What a mess: damage to the wagon, broken harness pieces, and a
terrified team of horses! The only thing we could imagine would have brought
that on is that one or both of the horses were attacked by some bees or horse
flies. They were buzzing around that really hot, muggy day.
In later years, making hay would change drastically with wider use of in-
field hay balers and field choppers. I must tell you though, while packaging
hay into bales did speed up hay making operations a great deal, by no means
was the manual work element completely removed! Many a farm kid can vividly
recall the muscle-building days of handling baled hay. There were city kids
who regretted "challenging" the farm kids, learning the hard way that we did
have muscle! My friend Tom, also a farm kid, remembers the time when a couple
"city slickers" showed their jealousy over the issue of farm kids being
excused from "after-school" PE class. Tom, a slender wiry kid with a mild
mannered disposition tried telling them that "they really didn't want to mess
with him." Well, that cool, self-confidence was more than they could stand.
Tom ended up "putting a hurt" on both of them, after which time they showed
more respect for farms kids. Those were the days!
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