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Technology Eased the Load on Farmers' Backs

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When I was a kid on the farm, dozens of everyday jobs required a strong back and a lot of muscle. This strenuous physical labor took a heavy toll on many farmers over the years. I remember a few of the old-timers around the neighborhood who were permanently bent almost double from a lifetime of punishing their bodies. Neither my father nor my uncle were large men, and probably never weighed as much as 150 pounds each, yet they, like so many others, did most of this hard work themselves, with the help of an occasional hired hand. I don't know that they ever did permanent damage to their backs, but I do remember periodic bouts with what we then called "lumbago."

One of the many back-breaking jobs on almost every farm was the annual struggle to get enough hay cured and stored to carry the livestock through the next winter. Until after the start of World War II, my father and uncle still made hay the same way my grandfather and great-grandfather had. The grass was cut with a 5-foot McCormick-Deering mowing machine behind a team of horses. After curing in the swath for a day, the hay was raked into long windrows with a dump rake. Usually, these windrows were then formed into individual small cocks, or hand-stacks, as we called them, with a pitchfork. Finally, a hay wagon was driven through the field and the hand-stacks were heaved onto it, again with a pitchfork, before being hauled to the barn. At the barn, more hand and back work, as the loads of hay were thrown up into the haymows, pitched and packed into position.

Sometime, probably during the late 1930s, Moore & Townsend (the partnership formed by my father and uncle) installed a barn hayfork track and carrier in our dairy barn. With that, a horse or a tractor on the end of a rope provided the power to lift the heavy hay from the wagon into the haymow.

Then, during the early 1940s, the partners wangled a government permit and bought a brand new side-delivery rake and hay loader. When these shiny new orange-and-green implements were delivered, we were ready to put up hay the easy way.

One of the earliest patents for a machine to load hay dates to 1848 (shown above). It shows a large wagon with two wooden rakes out in front and a system of ropes and levers. As the wagon was pulled across the mown hay, each rake was allowed to slide along the ground until full, when it was raised and dumped into the wagon by a rope and lever. This cumbersome outfit was never a success. In 1850, Benjamin Townsend of Quincy, Ill., patented a "hay raking and loading machine" that somewhat resembles the later slanted hay loaders with which most of us are familiar, except it's pulled in front of the wagon instead of behind.

Finally, in about 1875, Keystone Mfg. Co. of Sterling, Ill., perfected a successful hay loader in a design that was to be popular for many years. As the wagon and loader were pulled lengthwise along a windrow, the hay was gathered and lifted from the ground by a revolving cylinder with curved, spring teeth. The hay was deposited on a moving conveyor of ropes and wooden slats that carried it up an incline and dropped it onto the wagon. Later, a system of reciprocating rakes, or push bars, was substituted for the rope-and-slat conveyor. Upward angled teeth on the underside of those push bars carried the hay up a slanting deck. At the top of the deck, the hay was pushed off onto the wagon or hayrack, where a man with a pitchfork could build the load. Most later hay loaders featured a hinged, adjustable gate at the top of the deck that could be let down when starting the load so the hay didn't have as far to fall onto the wagon. This was especially useful on windy days to prevent the hay from being blown off the side of the wagon. As the load got higher, the gate was raised to give more elevating height.

There are many stories of the reaction of the man on the wagon when a rattlesnake happened to get caught up with the hay. I witnessed just such an event during what was probably the last year we put up loose hay. By that time we were pulling the loader behind an old flatbed Chevy truck that I was driving since I was too small to load much hay. My father was on top of the load when I suddenly heard a thud on the truck roof above my head. The next thing I saw was Dad bounding onto the truck hood and then leaping to the ground. He was in for a lot of teasing when we all discovered that it was only a harmless black snake that had spooked him so badly.

By the 1880s, most farm equipment manufacturers offered hay loaders, and they were widely used until pickup balers became popular after World War II. As the practice of putting up loose hay fell out of favor, unused hay loaders were usually abandoned in a fencerow, where the many parts made of wood, rope and light sheet metal soon deteriorated. Even though these machines undoubtedly saved many a farmer's back during their heyday, they have been pretty much forgotten, and it's a rare sight to see a restored hay loader at a show today.

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by e-mail at letstalkrustyiron@copper.net