Hoisting with Hay Trolleys

Hay trolley refined timeless rope-and-pulley technology.

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Tim Pefley’s Hicksville ratchet-lock trolley. The ratchet-lock prevents accidental unloading in case of broken ropes.

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Hay … How did they get it up in the barn in the old days?

With a fork, of course. Or at least that's how it was originally done.

Can you imagine the labor it took for an early farmer to put up hay? First, he cut the hay with a scythe, then forked it into piles to dry. Next, he forked the hay onto a wagon and hauled it to the barn, where he forked it off the wagon onto a stack, or into his barn. Later, he'd fork the hay out of the stack into mangers to feed his livestock. Some of it would inevitably be pulled out, dropped onto the floor, walked on and turned into manure. In the spring, he forked the manure off the floor onto a wagon, where it was hauled to the field to be forked onto the ground. It is little wonder farmers welcomed mechanization!

When horses were the main power source on the farm, farmers had to harvest enough grain and forage to feed their animals during those long winter months. Horses and other livestock needed an ample supply of quality hay to survive. Farmers found it convenient to have feed handy so there would be no need to haul it from the storage area to the feeding area. In the Midwest, most dry hay was stored in the barn's haymow, a large space above the first floor.

To get hay into the mow, it was necessary to have some type of hoisting and carrying system. These systems comprised a series of ropes and pulleys to hoist the hay - as much as a half-ton at a time - to the peak of the barn, then move it along a track to be released in the proper place. It was then spread and tamped into place. Power was furnished by a horse (or a team of horses) hitched to the outer end of the rope, which ran through a system of pulleys. It was somewhat dangerous work, even for the boy who drove the team that hoisted the hay. A broken rope or shattered pulley could be a disaster.

Tim Pefley, an avid hay trolley collector from Antwerp, Ohio, often thinks about the work needed to get hay from the field to the barn, then into the barn for storage. Although he collects lots of equipment used in storing hay, he concentrates primarily on what he calls "haymow" trolleys (or hay carriers).

At one time, Tim says, some 115 hay trolley manufacturers produced at least 2,100 different models. That may seem like overkill, but each manufacturer had to be careful not to infringe on the proprietary rights of another producer's patent.

Among the biggest producers of hay trolleys were the Louden Machinery Co., Fairfield, Iowa, and F.E. Myers & Bro., Ashland, Ohio. Since both Montgomery Ward & Co. and Sears & Roebuck listed trolleys in their farm catalogs, they too had wide distribution for their products.

Large manufacturers of haying equipment such as mowing machines, hay rakes and hay loaders did not want to spend time, resources or space to make small haying tools. This left the field wide open for a host of small and successful businessmen to manufacture the pulleys, haymow forks, hay trolleys, tracks or rails and slings farmers needed to store hay in the mow.

Hay trolleys became an important element in the hay delivery system. To get the trolley at the right height, a number of manufacturers worked directly with the farmer to help design a system - based on their product, of course - for hoisting hay. All manufacturers used some type of rail upon which the trolley could ride. Rafter cleats (brackets) were nailed at the barn's peak on every rafter over the floor, and every other rafter over the bays. J-hooks through the track and into the cleats held the track in place. If the barn were designed with the opening in the center of the barn, the trolley would work either way, by changing the end pulley to the other end of the barn, carrying the rope with it. Most early tracks consisted of 4-by-4-inch wood beams. (Often, two 2-by-4-inch boards were nailed together to form the 4-by-4-inch.) Later tracks were made of steel angle iron units connected in a variety of designs.

Hay trolleys, too, were made differently for the wood track and steel track. When wood track was used, the opening had to be much deeper than it would be for steel track units. This was a period of learning and improvement. Trolleys were made with either hardwood or steel rollers. Hay trolleys with hardwood rollers worked satisfactorily because the rollers did not wear the wood track. After long, hard use, however, steel-wheeled trolleys would wear grooves 1/2-inch to 1-inch deep in the wood track. Steel rollers on steel track worked very well.

Maintenance was low for these systems. Farmers had only to occasionally oil the wheels, rollers and pulleys. Wood pulleys had to be replaced from time to time, as did the rope. For the most part, hay-hoisting systems were reliable and trouble-free.

Every hay trolley manufacturer, Tim says, designed the trolley locking system to use registering heads that attached to their haymow fork's selflocking pulley. As the load was hoisted up to the trolley, the registering head aligned the pulley in the trolley's locking mechanism. The locked head held fast as the trolley traveled along the track to its destination. Locked in place, the entire contraption prevented accidental dumping of the load. Some manufacturers used the same type of registering head and locking mechanism. If that were not so, all 115 manufacturers would have had to devise and patent their own locking mechanisms.

Tim has accumulated a large collection of specifications, advertisements and literature from many early hay trolley manufacturers. When he restores any of his trolleys for show purposes, he tries to duplicate each manufacturer's colors. The hours he spends researching each new hay trolley is time well spent when he finally finishes the trolley and places it in his show trailer. His trailer is constructed to resemble a barn, complete with a peak, so he can even install trolley rails as one might see them in an actual barn.

For more information: 

- Tim Pefley, 6630 U.S. 24, Antwerp, OH 45813.

James N. Boblenz grew up on a farm near New Bloomington, Ohio. He now lives in Marion, Ohio, and is interested in antique farm equipment, particularly rare and lesser-known tractors and related items. Email him at Jboblenz@aol.com