The Origin of Hay Rakes: Making Hay the Old-Fashioned Way

The not-too-cushy method of making hay remembered.

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Prior to the 19th century, making hay took few tools: a scythe, wooden rake and a pitchfork. Farmers cut the hay, raked it into piles, then pitched it onto a wagon. On a good day, one man could make two acres of hay.

Early in the 19th century, horse-drawn sickle bar mowing machines came to the hayfield. Now a man could cut more acres of hay per day with the mowing machine. But he could still put up only about two acres a day. Even though the scythe had been put away, farmers still had to rake the hay into doodles (piles) and fork it onto wagons.

Inspired by horse-drawn mowing machines, it was not long before horse-drawn rakes made their appearance. These rakes had large wooden combs about 10 feet long with teeth about 2 feet long. The teeth were spaced 8-10 inches apart. Plow handles were attached to the frame. As the horse drew the rake across the field, the farmer used handles to manipulate the rake over rocks and around stumps. Grass gathered on top of the teeth, which ran on the ground. When the rake was full, the horse was stopped, the rake lifted and the hay shaken loose in a heap or windrow.

Soon the horse-drawn rake evolved into a revolving rake. It looked quite a bit like the original horse rake, except it had a second set of teeth to gather grass. When the first set of teeth filled with hay, the farmer lifted the handle. This caused the first set of teeth to catch in the ground and the beam to revolve. The teeth loaded with hay kicked under and back, and the entire rake raised up and revolved over the hay, which was left in a pile. At the same time, the second set of teeth revolved up and over and began to gather more hay. The revolving rake eliminated the need to stop the horse and lift the rake over the gathered hay and shake it loose. By 1870, the revolving rake was a standard implement throughout the Midwest.

Many early horse rakes were built by blacksmiths and carpenters. Through the process of trial and error, improvements were made. Soon there were as many different designs as there were manufacturers. Most of these designs were similar, although each was just a little different from each of the others. All of the rakes used a hardwood beam 8-12 feet long. These beams were then fitted with teeth roughly 45 inches long and still spaced 8-10 inches apart. Some teeth were round; others were square. Some used cast iron hinges and locks; other used steel.

In a testimonial for its wood revolving hay rake, the Huber Mfg. Co. claimed its rake was so simple to use that a 10-year-old boy could operate it. Other rake manufacturers made similar claims for the simplicity of rake operation. Perhaps 10-year-old boys of yesteryear were more adept at using such tools, but today it takes a fairly well-conditioned man just to demonstrate operation of one of these rakes.

In about 1850, manufacturers began adding seats to their hay rakes. In 1849, Calvin Delano of Maine patented his sulky rake. These early rakes had wooden teeth, which the operator raised with a lever. A lever extending from the rake head to the driver's seat let the operator "trip" the load when the rake was full. Teeth were tipped with iron to prolong their life. This sulky rake was a vast improvement in safety and comfort over the earlier walk-behind revolving rake.

Many of those old wood rakes have rotted away or were used as fuel on a cold winter day. Occasionally, one turns up on a family-owned farm nestled safely in a loft. Few are exhibited and even fewer are demonstrated at shows. However, when one is on display at a show, it attracts more than its fair share of visitors who will discuss the rake and try to figure out how it works. Most will not know. But now you will.

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