On the Job Training: Boys and Bale Hooks

Four-man hay baler and manual stacking with hay hooks kept farm boys hopping.

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Several loads of hay ready to be unloaded on the Boblenz farm.

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Bill Boblenz was one lucky farmer during World War II. He had a whole barnyard full of boys to help on the farm, while most farmers struggled for help. All the young, healthy men and boys had been called to service. Bill's five sons were too young to serve, and some were too young to help much on the farm. But he had a labor force.

During the spring of 1943, Bill brought home a new McCormick-Deering Model 15 four-man baler. Essentially, this was a stationary baler powered by a small 1-cylinder International Harvester engine belted to the plunger and compression ram. The baler's pick-up was chain-driven from the inside rear wheel.

The two-wire unit made a bale 15 inches wide by 19 inches high by 38 to 40 inches long, and weighing between 70 and 100 pounds, depending on moisture content and type of hay. The baler was so wide that it had to be "trucked" when it was moved from field to field or over the road. That meant disconnecting the pick-up unit, hitching it to the rear of the baler and towing it along behind.

How did the Boblenzes get such a machine during wartime, when most farmers could not get new machinery or even rubber tires for farm equipment? By default. No one else wanted it, especially at a time when help was hard to find. It took four people to run the thing: a tractor driver, a feeder, a wire tyer (a word coined by International Harvester) and a wire poker. Bill had five sons, so he figured he had adequate manpower to use the baler for years to come. In fact, the family used that baler from 1943 until about 1954, and did a lot of custom baling for neighbors as well.

A job for everyone

Bill was the owner, baler-master and feeder. Billie, his oldest son, was the tyer. Second son Bob drove the tractor. Younger son Jim started by poking wires. When Billie graduated from high school and moved on, younger son John was promoted to the tractor-driving position and Bob became the tyer. When Bob graduated from high school and married, the tyer's position was vacant. Bill's youngest son, Jerry, then got that job. Those four - Bill, Jim, John and Jerry - comprised the crew from 1948 until the baler was finally put out to pasture in 1954.

Storing the baled hay was another task performed by the Boblenz boys, who were all young and small when the baler came to the farm. The baler did not have a loading chute, so bales were dropped on the ground. At the end of the day, after the hay became too tough to bale, the crew started gathering bales onto a wagon. They used three or four flatbed wagons during hay-making season. Usually one person would drive the tractor while one person walked along each side of the wagon and bucked the bale onto the wagon. Meanwhile another person on the wagon stacked the bales as high as possible so as to get a full load, but not so high as to lose the load on the way to the barn. At night, they covered the loaded wagons with tarpaulins. Then, the next morning after chores were done, the boys unloaded the wagons and mowed the hay.

They loaded wagons two bales wide, nine to 10 on the bottom row, and five (but usually six) bales high with one down the middle to tie the load together. They could get 100 to 120 bales on a wagon. Each bale weighed an average of 70-100 pounds, for a total of 3.5 to 4.25 tons per load. That was a big load for those wagons. The crew had to be very careful taking those loads from the field to the barn so as not to upset one.

Tools of the trade

Bale hooks were the most important tools used to lift and stack bales. Bill used a short, cross-handled 7-inch hook that served dual purpose as a "hog hook" to scald hogs at butchering time. John and the other boys used a store-bought hook with a wood D-handle.

Jim and Jerry soon decided they needed something longer to get more leverage to buck bales higher. At 10 to 12 inches long, a standard hay hook was simply too short for the boys to get enough leverage to buck bales seven high. So, they had longer hay hooks custom-made, giving them more reach and, consequently, more leverage.

In those early days, the Boblenz operation did not have an elevator to move bales from the wagon to the haymow. The boys found that they could unload a wagon faster by just bucking the bales into the mow instead of using the traditional grapple hayfork. Those last few bales from the lowest row of bales on the wagon floor were hardest to get into the mow. The boys had the strength but not the height to throw those bales over their heads. They needed something better.

Jerry moved first, getting a hay hook made by the local blacksmith, Vern Pfeiffer. It was made of 5/8-inch stock. The hook was thick, heavy and hard to handle. And, it was not bent quite right to release quickly from the bale, many times it would stick and Jerry would just have to let go of the hook. Then he had to climb up the load to retrieve it, or, if mowing hay, have the person in the mow pull the hook loose from the bale and toss it back down on the wagon. He surely did not want to hang onto the hook if it stuck in the bale when it was in its upswing going above his head.

Jerry and Jim decided to have new hay hooks made using 1/2-inch stock. These hooks were 14 inches from handle to bend. Jerry's had a rounded curve at the hook end, while Jim's had a more squared curve. Both were curved near the handle so all one had to do was press down firmly and the hook would pop right out of the bale. Using these hooks increased the boys' ability to hoist bales higher. Jerry, never quite satisfied, had yet another hay hook made by Pfeiffer. This one also was of 1/2-inch stock, but it was nearly 18 inches long. With that hook, Jerry could load a wagon seven bales high with one down the middle.

Time marches on

By about 1954, Bill's labor force had dried up. Both Billie and Bob had married and were farming on their own. Jim and John had graduated from high school. Jim and Jerry joined the Army and left the farm. Bill's five sons were gone and he was left alone on the farm. Bob bought an automatic one-man New Holland baler and started baling his Dad's hay.

The old McCormick-Deering baler was parked under the old apple tree, left for the next man who had his own labor force. And all those bale hooks? They're now in the author's collection.

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. E-mail him at Jboblenz@aol.com