Heritage Celebration: Making Hay in New Hampshire

Bradley family builds old iron tradition with annual hay days.

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Bill Mellett is partially responsible for resurrecting friend Parker Uhlman’s McCormick hay press once they pulled it out of a local barn.

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Making hay in the hot summer sun isn't everyone's idea of fun, but for the Bradley family of Thornton Gore, N.H., it's a tradition that's become an important part of an annual gathering. "We've been getting together like this for several years now," Lester Bradley explains, while helping hitch an old McCormick hay loader to a wagon. "It's a fun way to celebrate our heritage." Part tractor show, part family reunion, the Bradley family's event is all about making connections and having a good time.

Lester and his youngest brother, Ralph, first got folks together on their ancestral land because they were looking for an excuse to play with some of their old tractors and commemorate their deceased father's birthday. "Dad was more comfortable tending horses and mending harness than he was with tinkering on a tractor," Lester recalls. "But he would have really enjoyed this." That first get-together included Lester's siblings, most of his cousins and a few close friends. Last year's gathering, held Saturday, July 15, drew four generations to a country-style family reunion that was graciously shared with a passel of friends.

Figuring out the family

The Bradley hay day is held on what was once a piece of farmland purchased by Lester's father, Richard L. Bradley, from his cousin, Fred Gilman, in the 1940s. "Until that time all of dad's farming had been the steep side-hill variety," Lester says. "He wanted to see what it was like to have some bottomland." That piece of land, located on the outskirts of Woodstock, N.H., is now home to several of Lester's relatives, along with the campground that his dad first opened in 1955.

"The old Gilman farmhouse was split into two pieces and moved from across the road when the interstate (I-93) came through," Lester explains. "My uncle Bob and Virginia Mellett lived in the main part of the house and my cousin Bill Mellett still lives in the other part." Bob and Virginia have since passed away, but Doris (Mellett) and Dean Roth, members of the next generation, now call the farmhouse home.

Ironically, neither Lester nor any of his immediate family has ever lived on the Woodstock property. "My home is in Thornton Gore, which is where we Bradleys have lived since 1867, when my great-grandfather, Josiah Timothy Bradley, first arrived from Derby Line, Vt.," Lester says. "Mom still lives in the original house there." The original Bradley home is located just a couple miles up the road, though. Lester has vivid memories of the hard work and rewards that he and his siblings (Dave, Jack, Ralph and Louise) experienced at that lovely Woodstock bottomland location.

Farming with horses

"We did all of our haying in the early days with horses and an old homemade tractor," Lester recalls. "We never used the term 'doodlebug' to describe the tractor, although that is common around here." In those days, Bradley family members cut and raked hay, loaded it by hand onto racks and hoisted it loose into the mows of several local barns. In the winter, that provender came tumbling back to earth to feed the family's fine beef cattle herd. Eventually, they found another way. "Dad contracted with neighbors to rake and bale for us after we got tired of putting the hay up loose," Lester says. "That was a big relief to me since I was the kid who was always perched up beneath the barn's peak on the hottest of summer days.

"We got our first real tractor in 1956," he adds. "It was a secondhand Farmall Super C built in 1951." The Farmall's arrival on the farm created quite a bit of excitement in the family and left an indelible imprint on Lester, which explains his enduring love of old red tractors. Shortly after purchasing the Super C, Lester's dad added a 1949 John Deere B to the operation. "We used the John Deere for mowing and the Super C for raking," Lester says. "Our first baler (a Ford) arrived in 1961." That Ford baler was a pull-type model but it relied on a small mounted engine for power rather than the tractor's PTO. As of a couple of years ago, it was still on the job.

Lester's dad bought just two new tractors in his career: a 1973 Long 350 and an Economy, which family members still use to rake hay. "Dad bought the Economy for hauling manure and other chores around the stable," Lester says. "It has always been parked under cover, which explains its excellent condition today."

Modern times

The Bradley kids are now grown and have children of their own. Most have chosen careers off the farm, but none are far from it. Lester's oldest brother, Dave, is retired from the Army, where his experiences included two tours in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot. "Dave just lives a couple of miles from the campground," Lester says proudly. "He grows a big garden every year and helps with haying and other needs around the place." Jack, the next brother in line, spent his life teaching school and now helps out whenever he can. "My sister Louise (Roy) lives in Bath (N.H.) and has four sons who are all tuned into the agricultural scene," Lester says. "They help out here when they can - especially at our show." Lester's career took him into the woods as a forester for the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative, and Ralph looks after the family operation.

"Ralph runs the campground, logs, plows snow and has a firewood business," Lester says fondly. "He also looks after the hay business, runs the family sawmill and does a little back-hoe and dozer work when required." Long before he passed away, family patriarch Richard Bradley told his kids that he wanted to die broke, so he formed a corporation in 1973 that encompassed his timber, lumber and agricultural enterprises. "Dad gave the shares away to the five of us," Lester explains. "Ralph has the most shares because he is the one that does almost all of the work."

Friends and family

Since first holding their show in 2002, the Bradleys have seen the event more than double in size. Lester says friends from Maine, Connecticut, New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Vermont regularly make the trek to their lovely little Woodstock valley. "It's always a thrill to see the old stuff rolling in to be unloaded," Lester says. "I really appreciate the friends and family that help make the day a success year after year."

The Bradleys' old-iron gathering focuses on using vintage machines the way they once were. To that end, at the very minimum, the group gathers to make hay. "Cousin Bill Mellett, his son, Jeff, and his grandson, Zack, probably do more to make the show a success than anyone else," Lester says. "Bill cuts the hay and they all work at raking, loading and baling it." At the 2006 event, Jeff drove a 1951 Farmall H pulling Zack in the seat of a converted horse-drawn dump rake to form windrows. Zack says that he particularly likes that rake because it has a foot-operated dump mechanism rather than hand-lever.

Once raked neatly into windrows, the hay is loaded onto a rack using an old McCormick-Deering pull-type hay loader. Lester's longtime friend Steve Stocking supplied the power for that operation in the form of his wife's 1943 John Deere Model H tractor, which, along with the hay loader, he hauled in for the day from his place in Fairlee, Vt. Dean Roth, husband of Lester's cousin, Doris, manned one pitchfork on the wagon, while good friend Paul Fox took up the other.

When sufficient hay had been collected, Steve delivered it to a remarkably well-preserved McCormick stationary baler found in a nearby barn. "Folks remember the hay press working 60 or 70 years ago where it was used to bale out of a local barn," Lester explains. "They sold that hay for about a penny a pound." Today, the relic (which belongs to family friend Parker Uhlman) gets belted to Bill Mellett's 1948 Farmall Model H and Bill makes the hand-tied bales free of charge. "The first year we put the press back to work, I thought it might come apart," Bill says while threading a specially twisted bale-tying wire through the device. "We cleaned it up and tightened some things and it has worked just fine ever since."

Even as the Mellett men and their friends were making hay, across the field another activity was buzzing. Bryan Rineer had an old Wright (M. Wright & Son, Montpelier, Vt.) thickness planer belted to his 1939 Allis-Chalmers Model B tractor and, with a little help from his father-in-law, Ralph Bradley, and friend, Gary Thomas, demonstrated how to turn rough-cut white pine boards into finished lumber. The demonstration wasn't just for show. "We picked out some of the nicest white pines in our woods, felled the trees and sawed the boards with our 100-year-old Lane mill," Ralph explains. "Bryan and my daughter are building a new home, and this lumber will make a fine floor."

Showstopper

Every year, it seems, someone brings an item to the reunion that really stands out. Last year's showstopper award went to friend Richard Hallberg, Bridgewater, Vt., in honor of his beautifully restored 1925 Holt Caterpillar M-35 crawler. Dick, proprietor of Earth Inc., an excavating business, is fascinated by old machinery. He's especially fond of small crawlers. "The M-35 came out of Loomis, Calif., where it spent its life on a farm," Dick reports. "I got it home in the spring of 2005 and went to work."

Dick completely stripped the interesting little crawler and renewed or replaced pieces as he put it all back together. The M-35 is unusual in a number of regards, but its engine is unique. "The engine is an overhead-valve and overhead-cam design," Dick explains. "The oil pan is part of the tractor's frame, and the head bolts pass completely through the cylinder block and thread into the crankcase." The engine was in pretty good condition, so it didn't take much more than a thorough cleaning to get it going again. Dick was able to purchase new seals but had to make gaskets - he managed to reuse the unique head gasket.

As with most aged crawlers, the Holt's undercarriage required some work, including replacing bottom rollers (found in a salvage yard in Iowa), adding metal and resizing idlers, making new bushings and turning the track pins. Miraculously the steering clutches were still in good condition, but Dick had to reline the disc-type service clutch. Since the tractor spent its life in a relatively dry location, the sheet metal had plenty of surface rust, but it was not deeply pitted.

Dick bead-blasted individual parts while he had the tractor apart and applied finish coats after it went back together. "I wanted to finish the tractor in time for this show," Dick says. "This is its first time out and folks seem pretty interested in it."

Looking ahead

The Bradley clan plans another gathering this year although they aren't certain whether they will make an official family reunion out of it. What they do know is that they will once again get together in July with friends and extended family to celebrate their heritage and one another. "Dad loved working this land and spent much of his life doing just that," Lester says with pure affection. "We know how much he would enjoy knowing that we continue to celebrate the tradition." FC 

Oscar "Hank" Will III is now the Editor-in-Chief of GRIT magazine, one of Farm Collector's sister magazines. Contact him at hwill@grit.com