When the Scythe was the Cutting Edge

It's All Trew: A history of mowing before mowers.

Trew 072008

The photo above, dating to about 1900, features a 15-man haying crew in Pennsylvania ready to start work in the fields.

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The photo above, dating to about 1900, features a 15-man haying crew in Pennsylvania ready to start work in the fields. Each man has a scythe and several also have straiks (a wooden stick dipped first into tallow and then into sand to provide grit to grind the metal blade), which were used to sharpen blades. A water boy with his crock-jug is included along with the crew's cute little cheerleader.

This scene well predates the steady parade of farm equipment and harvest machines featured each issue in Farm Collector. However, the scythe is an important early tool among the many designs of farm equipment developed during the evolution of mechanized devices.

The scythe goes back to Old Testament times when Romans were mowing hay. Mysteriously, the Roman scythe disappeared during the Dark Ages to be reinvented 500 years later.

In about 1500 B.C., Egyptian slaves are pictured on temple walls using short-handled sickles and reaping hooks made of flint and bronze. The basic shape of the hook/blade changed little in the ensuing centuries and varied only according to the whims of the maker. Early handles were short and straight, but over time, crooks and nibs were added to facilitate balance and control.

Grass hay could be cut swiftly with almost any type of sickle or scythe. The crop was left scattered on the ground to facilitate drying before raking and stacking.

Grain crops required slow, careful cutting so as not to shatter the grain in the head. The common scythe was sometimes equipped with three or four 'fingers' to gather and hold the sheaves in small bunches before dropping them to the ground. Workers (mostly women) followed, gathering the sheaves into common-size bundles and using long stems of hay to tie each sheave together.

At first, scythes were sharpened with straiks. Later, both whet-rocks and metal files were developed as sharpening devices. Pebbles and rocks were the scythe's worst enemy.

Mechanical binders and reapers made the scythe obsolete and relegated the ancient tool to museum displays. Amazingly, a company in Tracy City, Tenn., still makes and sells scythes today.  FC


Delbert Trew is a freelance writer, retired rancher and supervisor of the Devil's Rope Museum in McLean, Texas. Contact him at Trew Ranch, Box A, Alanreed, TX 79002; (806) 779-3164; e-mail: trewblue@centramedia.net