Someone recently asked how barn hayfork pulley systems were set up.
He said he had talked to many old-timers about how the ropes ran and they remember using them, but not how they were rigged. (Read a step-by-step process for a center drive barn: “How to Rig Barn Pulleys: Setting Up a Hayfork Pulley System.”)
Before barn hayforks, one man pitched hay off a wagon into the mow and one or two others distributed it in the mow and tramped it down. In the middle of summer, in an airless haymow, this wasn’t much fun. However, in the middle of the 19th century, mechanical means of placing hay in barns began to be developed.
The first barn forks resembled extra-large pitchforks with a heavy handle, a ring for a lifting rope and folding tines held in place by a latch. A rope and pulley hung over the haymow. One end of the rope was tied to the fork and the other ran outside to a singletree for a horse. The man on the load of hay stuck the fork into the hay and, using the fork handle, maneuvered the load over the mow as the horse lifted the load. The man then yanked on a light rope that released the latch and the fork tines folded down, dropping the hay. While it was an improvement over the pitchfork, this type of barn fork was awkward and not quite the answer.
Running on rail
Hayfork carriers that ran on tracks soon became available. Early tracks made of 4-by-4 lumber were suspended the length of the barn just under the ridgepole. As the price of steel dropped, its lighter weight, smaller size and easier operation soon made it the standard for track. Carriers with flanged wheels ran on the track and supported the load, while two or three rope pulleys (as well as locks for the rope and carrier) were also part of the setup. The lower carrier pulley wasn’t attached to the carrier and had a swivel hook for the hayfork, along with a means of tripping the locks in the carrier. A trip (or release block) was attached to the track directly over the wagon location. This device locked the carrier in position while the load was being raised.
One end of a 3/4- to 1-inch draft rope was secured to one side of the carrier. The other end ran down and around the lower pulley and back up over the rope pulley at the other side of the carrier. The rope then paralleled the track to a draft pulley at the end of the track, turning it downward and then through as many pulleys as necessary to get it outside the barn where it could be hitched to a horse or other motive power.
With the carrier locked to the track in the loading position, the lower pulley and attached fork were released to descend onto the loaded wagon. The operator set the fork into the hay and held the fork release rope. At a signal, the horse moved forward, the forkful of hay rose straight up until the lower pulley entered the carrier. That tripped the carrier mechanism, locking the lower pulley to the carrier to prevent the load from dropping.
At the same time, the lock that held the carrier in position was released and the carrier, along with the forkful of hay, rolled horizontally down the track. When the carrier reached the desired point, the operator on the wagon yanked the fork release rope and the hay dropped into the mow. At that point, the horse was stopped and backed, and the carrier was pulled back along the track and over the wagon, either by means of a rope and weight, or by the wagon man pulling on the fork release rope. When the carrier reached the trip block, it again locked onto the track and released the lower pulley, allowing the fork to fall back onto the wagon ready for another load.
Variations on a theme
Barns were constructed in different ways and each required a different track layout. A single end-hoist barn (a barn with only one end opening through which hay could be loaded) allowed hay to be taken into the mow at only one end of the barn, through a large door in the peak of the gable. A variation had a door in each gable. The hay carrier track ran 3 or 4 feet outside the end of the barn where it was supported by an extension to the ridgepole.
The vast majority of Midwest barns had a driveway running through the middle between two mows. Hay was lifted from a wagon in the driveway and carried to either the right or left mow as desired. A few barns were round or octagonal (supposedly, to prevent the devil from cornering a person inside) and required special track equipment.
Different styles of forks lifted larger loads of hay. Single- and double-harpoon forks were pushed into the hay and short spurs near each harpoon point were folded out and latched. These spurs held the hay on the harpoons until the load was over the mow when they were unlatched, dropping the hay. Harpoon forks worked well in long hay but not in short hay, so grapple hooks were developed. These had four or six curved and pointed arms joined at the top by a flexible, latching joint. The arms were spread wide and forced into the hay. As the fork was raised, the weight of the load caused the arms to hold it tightly until over the mow, where the latch was tripped, the arms flew apart and the load dropped.
Working with slings
Short hay and grain bundles could also be handled by using hay slings. A hay sling was a combination of ropes and cross-sticks with a ring at each end that attached to the fork carrier and a latch in the center holding the halves together. Usually, three slings were used; the first sling was spread on the wagon floor and one-third of the load was put on. The next sling was laid over that and the second one-third loaded, and so on until the full load was reached.
At the barn, a special hay carrier with two lower pulleys (each with its own hook) was required. As these pulleys were brought over the wagon, they were pulled apart and one hooked to each end of the topmost sling. As the rope was pulled up, the weight of the load caused the ends of the sling to draw together and the load became a large bundle. When the sling was positioned over the mow, a pull on a rope released the center latch, the sling halves fell away and the bundle fell, flattening as it did so.
In the days when huge amounts of loose hay were put up each year, labor-saving devices such as hay carriers, forks and slings came into almost universal use. Virtually every barn built during the late 19th and early 20th centuries was equipped with a hay carrier track. I know that we always put our hay into the second of our two barns, the one with a hayfork.
Read a step-by-step process for a rigging hayfork system in a center drive barn: “How to Rig Barn Pulleys: Setting Up a Hayfork Pulley System.”
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