Most people never notice the intricate, cast iron implements used to ferry hay in many American barns.
That's because the so-called hay trolleys are usually tucked away within the darkest reaches of an old barn, quite out of sight. Yet, like the farmers who relied on trolleys to move hay, Steve Weeber knows just where to find those hidden farm treasures.
The Iowa City, Iowa, collector first spied a beautifully painted trolley at a 1999 auction. "That's when I got the bug, right then and there," Steve says. Since then, he's documented and researched hay trolleys with hopes that he can unravel the history behind those often-overlooked farm collectibles. Even after endless hours of study, Steve says he's "still in the discovery stage," but willing to share what he's learned in the process.
Steve became hooked on hay trolleys after he attended a rural Iowa auction that featured implements owned by Lester Yoder, a well-known farm equipment collector. While most of the auction's goods were the usual farm show fare, Steve happened upon a half dozen brilliantly painted and restored hay trolleys hung on an iron rail for sale. "I was struck by their ornateness," Steve explains.
He was particularly captivated by the trolleys' striking paint scheme, with each manufacturer's name stamped in brilliantly embossed letters. "I was amazed that so much effort was put into something that few people ever see," Steve adds.
While Steve didn't buy the trolleys that day, he couldn't shake the colorful carriers from his mind. He went straight to the barn on the 120-acre Iowa farm where he was born and raised, and retrieved the carrier that hung inside, unnoticed for decades. Within a few days, he'd repainted and restored his first hay trolley: a 1905 trolley made by Ney Mfg. Co. in Canton, Ohio.
Although cast iron hay trolleys were produced for more than a century, Steve quickly discovered that scant information exists to help collectors decipher the history behind the ornate devices. After that realization, he set out to learn everything possible about those enigmatic hay movers.
The first stop on Steve's quest was a visit with Lester Yoder, the fellow who owned the trolleys that initially captivated Steve. Like many farm implement collectors, Yoder was more than willing to share what he knew, but Steve walked away with more questions than answers. For example, no one knows for sure how many companies made carriers or how many different designs were produced.
Next, Steve turned his attention to farm shows and auctions where he met others passionate about hay trolleys. He made friends with collectors who'd already amassed some information about the cast iron carriers, and with their help, Steve chose a three-pronged approach to unearth and compile a thorough hay trolley history. That tactic included two years spent photographing trolleys owned by about a dozen collectors across the Midwest, locating literature from different manufacturers and searching patent records. The time was well spent, Steve says, and he gained a wealth of knowledge about hay trolleys.
The truth behind trolleys
Like most farm equipment and implements, hay trolleys made farm work far easier, Steve says. Before their invention, farmers hauled hay from the fields on wagons and pitched it by hand into the barn or stacked the hay in enormous piles, which left it exposed to the elements. Sometime about 1860, hay trolleys were first introduced. The earliest hay trolleys moved hay from wagons to outside haystacks. Those trolleys ran along metal cables or steel rods strung between tall, wooden tripods on each end of the stack, Steve says. Yet, the style and function of trolleys changed when barns became more popular shortly thereafter, he adds.
The first barn-designed trolleys traveled along 2-by-4-inch or 4-by-4-inch wooden beams, Steve explains. Steel rails replaced the wooden beams about 1890, he says, because they were far sturdier. That's when trolleys began to take on their familiar design, with small, steel wheels that moved the device along a track high above the barn floor. Steel-track trolleys were generally smaller, lighter and easier to return to position when empty, he adds.
The newly adopted hay trolleys even influenced barn designs, Steve says. Eves that protrude on each gable end -also called hay hoods - provided support for the heavy steel rails and wooden beams that extended beyond the barn walls on which the trolley traveled, he explains.
Hay trolley history is divided into two distinct but overlapping phases, Steve says. The period between 1860-1920 was the era of invention and experimentation for trolley makers, when numerous small-scale "cottage" manufacturers drew designs and filed for patents, he adds. "Some of the most beautiful trolleys were made by those smaller companies," Steve says.
The years between 1900-1945 marked the peak of hay trolley manufacture, Steve says. Like many companies of that era, most small, independent makers were consolidated into just a few large companies, which in turn dominated the trolley market. Even at the peak of business before World War II, trolley makers weren't likely to make the Fortune 500 list, Steve says. In fact, only a few companies boasted total earnings of more than $100,000 per year.
Besides different makers and overall shapes, trolleys are most distinguished by their complex latch designs that activated the mechanism as it moved hay into the barn, Steve says. The latches and accompanying triggers were so unique that most trolley patents are based on the design of those integral components, he adds.
Latches were made for two functional types of trolleys, Steve says. One latch was designed for use with hayforks and one with hay slings - both tools that farmers relied on to hoist hay into high barn lofts. A hayfork resembles a large claw that grabbed loose hay off wagons rather than a familiar pitchfork with tines.
The sling type, on the other hand, looked like a hammock made from wooden slats and rope, and was laid across the bottom of the hay wagon before hay was loaded.
Trolley latches were the most important elements because the tricky triggers ensured that a heavy load could be ferried into the barn with relative ease, Steve explains. The latches not only sent the trolley rolling along its track into the barn, but also allowed the sling or fork to lower to the ground for another round after the hay was unloaded, he adds.
Sturdy draft horses pulled a typical trolley, Steve says. The hay wagon was parked beside the barn, and the hay sling or fork lowered to accept a load. When the hay was ready, the horses pulled the ropes and hoisted the bundle. Once the load was lifted, the latch was triggered and the hay trolley slid along the rail to deposit the hay inside the barn. Finally, the empty trolley returned to its original position for another load, the latch was activated as the trolley stopped, the sling (or fork) lowered, and the process repeated until the hay was safely stored in the barn.
Farmers used hay trolleys to move square bales well into the 1980s, but the devices lost importance with the introduction of round bales because they were too heavy for the carriers. As a result, most were essentially forgotten in the dark recess where they hung until collectors like Steve decided to shed light on the curious carriers.
Interpret and restore
With few resources to guide his quest to understand hay trolley history, Steve says he did a lot of head scratching as he familiarized himself with the collectible carriers. Four years later, armed with nearly 2,000 photographs of hay trolleys and historical records as guides, Steve says he's gained some insight into roughly 90 percent of the hay carriers available to collectors.
Of all the trolleys photographed, Steve identified 500 different styles distinguished by the latches used on each model. Eight manufacturers produced 400 of those trolleys, he adds. The largest segment of the carriers studied -200 of 2,000 - were made by one manufacturer, F.E. Myers Bro., of Ashland, Ohio. Myers produced about 58 different trolley types through the years, and luckily for Steve, the company is still in business and its extensive collection of sale literature and catalogs proved a great resource for his research.
Using a large sample of trolleys owned by a dozen collectors as a guide, Steve says that rare models are easy to recognize. If only a handful of any given carrier style surfaces in what he considers a relatively complete collection Steve explains, then those trolleys are deemed rare. After total immersion into the field, the hard-to-find trolleys are the only variety that Steve collects these days.
Although some farm collectors choose to leave their collectibles unrestored, Steve likes to feature his treasures as colorful works of art. First, he dismantles each trolley bolt by rusty bolt. "That can take anywhere from 10 minutes to 3 hours," Steve says with a chuckle.
Next, he sandblasts the cast iron and covers every component with an inexpensive, fast-drying spray paint base coat.
Then Steve repaints the parts with brilliant colors, including red, blue, yellow and silver. Trolleys with intact, original paint reveal that most weren't painted so radiantly when first manufactured, he says. Instead, they were pea green, dull red and lackluster blue. Steve repaints many of his carriers flat black because the ornately cast lettering stands out best against a dark background, he says. For his personal collection, Steve uses different colors to differentiate each maker's trolleys so they're essentially color-coded when displayed. Steve started with big plans to snatch up every trolley he found, but eventually narrowed his collection to only 100 rare trolleys that he displays in his Iowa barn. Whenever Steve wants to add a trolley to his collection, to avoid being quickly overwhelmed, he donates another to a nearby children's camp where the trolleys can be displayed.
Even though he's retired from a 33-year career with a Chicago-based chemical company, Steve, 60, still can't find enough time to devote to his newfound hobby. "Retirement is a funny word," he says. Yet, in between working his family farm and other chores, Steve plans to create a hay trolley Web site to share the knowledge he's gained. "It's a lot of fun," Steve says. "If a person starts digging, they'll really get into it."
Carriers for Camp Courageous
Besides sharing information about his colorful hay trolley collection, Steve shares the carriers themselves. To prevent his collection from growing too large, Steve limits the total number to 100. Whenever he finds another trolley to complement his selection of rare varieties, Steve culls another from the display. Instead of selling the discarded trolley to fellow collectors, he donates it to Camp Courageous, which provides rural experiences for children with disabilities near Monticello, Iowa.
When camp organizers wanted to build a timber-frame barn on the site, Steve allowed them to pattern the building off his own timbered barn. Asked about the donations, Steve is understandably modest. "I just do it to help out any way I can," he explains.
Trolley innovators and makers
Early "cottage industry" inventors 1860-1920
E.L. Church, Harvard, III.
A.J. Burbank, Harvard, III.
Eagle Fork Mfg., Appleton, Wis.
Browers Mfg., Crawfordsville, Ind.
H.H. & T. Mfg., Earlville,
Iowa Barnes Mfg. Co., Freeport, III.
American Hay Car Co., Hicksville, Ohio
Coshen Mfg., Goshen, Ind. Ricker Mfg., Rochester, N.Y.
Major manufacturers 1900-1945
F.E. Myers Bro., Ashland, Ohio
NEY Mfg. Co., Canton, Ohio Louden
Machinery Co., Fairfield, Iowa
J.E. Porter Co., Ottawa, III.
Hunt, Helm & Ferris Co., Harvard, III.
Milwaukee Hay Tool Co., Milwaukee, Wis.
Janesville Hay Tool Co., Janesville, Wis.
Whitman & Barnes Co., Chicago, III.
Beatty Bros. Ltd., Fergus, Ontario, Canada
James Way, Ft. Atkinson, Wis.