Horses to Tractors: Remembering the Final Days of Horse Farming

Larry Scheckel reminisces about his family's adaptation to mechanical farm equipment, and their final days of traditional horse farming.

Haying in the field

In a process that was hard work for both horses and farmers, the Scheckel clan put up hay "loose." It seemed to take all summer, Larry Scheckel recalls.

Illustration by Fred Weiner

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My earliest memories include Mom telling my brother, Phillip, and me to go out to the field and call Dad in for noon dinner. Dad would unhitch the team from the corn planter, reach down, pick us up and position us on the horses’ back. We would grasp the brass hames that set atop the horses’ collar and ride back to the farmhouse. What a great thrill to be riding so high!

Dad’s horses were named Prince, Dolly and Sam. Phillip rode Prince bareback with just a bridle “for steering.” Phillip would get Prince galloping at full speed over frozen ground as hard as concrete. I preferred the more docile Dolly.

The times were changing in the 1940s and ’50s, when I was one of nine kids on the 238-acre family farm. Dad’s first tractor was an Allis-Chalmers Model U on steel wheels, with chisel-like lugs on the back wheels to provide good traction.

I was 4 years old. In my mind’s eye, I can see dust, dirt and gravel being kicked up by the steel cleats, black smoke streaming from the exhaust pipe. When the tractor chugged along between fields, it would leave telltale indentations on Oak Grove Ridge road. Dad used the Model U to pull a McCormick-Deering 2-bottom plow and a 9-1/2-foot Moline tandem disc. Most all other farming was done with horses.

Two horses or three horses

A two-horse team could handle many farming operations. The sections of the Lindsay drag – used before sowing oats and planting corn – was pulled with two horses, as was the John Deere 999 corn planter, the McCormick-Deering No. 9 5-foot hay mower, the McCormick-Deering side rake, the New Idea loader trailing the hay wagon and the McCormick-Deering corn binder. Wagons hauling manure, oats, corn, hay and wood could be towed with a two-horse team.

Some jobs required a team of three horses. The Van Brunt 5-foot grain drill was big and heavy. Two horses could do the job if given frequent rests. Remember, we’re not talking about flat lands where county road maps show a waffle-like grid. We farmed in hill country in Crawford County. A southwest Wisconsin road map resembles a plate of spaghetti.

Our three horses pulled the McCormick-Deering 8-foot grain binder. That big bull wheel made all the mechanisms work, necessitating a three-horse system in the Scheckel oats fields.

The gentle sound of a lost era

Putting up hay with a team of horses was a quiet affair. The horses made little noise. When putting up loose hay, you’d hear songbirds, notice hawks soaring overhead searching for mice, and crows cawing in the distant woods.

The sickle mower, the loudest piece of machinery in the whole operation, made a rhythmic “click, click, click” as the sickle bar moved. The side rake was also quiet, producing just a swish as the big reel turned and a twanging noise when tines occasionally struck the ground. The hay loader’s parts, gears and drive chains emitted a bit of noise. But for the most part, haying was quiet, idyllic, slow-paced, steady and picturesque.

If short-handed on help, we draped the reins over the front boards of the hayrack. The Scheckel boy handling the hay in the front of the wagon could drive the horses and help with the load. The horses knew where they were going. They were smart enough to straddle the windrow of hay. The only time they needed “steering” was at the end of the row or a 90-degree turn, but I suspect they could pretty much do that on their own.

I recall a conversation at Sullivan’s tavern in Seneca. Dad took Phillip, Bob and me to Seneca to get groceries. Dad would buy a round of ice cream cones and then he’d go into Sully’s to have a beer and talk farming and politics. Often he’d have us come into the bar and sit on the stools.

“Alvin,” a friend asked, “did you hear about your neighbor, John O’Brien, out on Oak Grove Ridge?”

“No,” our dad said. “What happened?”

“Seems John was going home with the team of horses and wagon from the threshing crew. He likes to tip the bottle, you know, and the crew had a cache of beers for the boys when the machine shut down for the day.”

“Yeah,” Alvin asked, “well, what about John?”

 “John fell asleep or passed out on the way back to his place. Those big Belgians, Tony and Tom, turned into his road and stopped by his barn. His wife came out of the house and found John laying in the wagon.”

“Those are good horses,” Alvin said. “They know the way home.”

Putting up loose hay

The hay loader employed six long reciprocating arms with tines that brought hay up from the ground and tumbled it off the top apron and onto the wagon. When Dad deemed the load full, the hay loader was unhooked from the wagon and off we’d go to the big barn. The load was backed into the barn and the task of unloading began.

Most farmers who put up loose hay had a mechanical hay carrier to lift loose hay from the wagon and deliver it to the barn’s haymow. A trolley ran on a track fastened just under the highest part of the roof. This track and trolley ran the length of the haymow.

The trolley was positioned over the load of hay. A trip mechanism bolted on the track above the load was used to release a double-harpoon hayfork. The fork was lowered by pulley and rope onto the load of hay. The fork’s tines were about 30 inches long, spaced about 20 inches apart. A built-in sliding bar operated a “gripper” at the end of each tine. When that mechanism was set, the hay was kept in place and could be released by a trip rope. Dad pushed the harpoon fork into the load of hay and pulled up on the tine trip arm to set the grippers, one at a time.

The hay rope (3/4-inch manila rope, about 150 feet long) ran along the track through a series of heavy pulleys, one at the end of the barn, one on the cell near the corner of the barn and one on the base of the barn anchored by a post. The rope was attached to a single-tree pulled by one horse. Gentle Dolly was slow but strong, and glistened black when she sweated.

Dad yelled out, “Ok, go.” We led Dolly by a rope attached to the halter. “Giddy up,” and the slack was taken up; Dolly leaned into the load. The rope tightened; the pulleys strained. The harpoon fork went straight up with its load of hay. When the hayfork reached the trolley, a locking mechanism attached the pulley carrying the hayfork. The trolley was released from its center position and was free to travel down the track. The fork load of hay was delivered to one of three bins in the haymow.

Two or three of us mowed the hay, designating which bin to fill. Dad held onto the 1/4-inch trip rope as it threaded through his hands. He tugged on the trip rope and the load fell into the correct bin with a swoosh and a breeze of hay dust. Dad yelled, “whoa”; the boy leading the horse would stop Dolly’s forward movement and tension on the rope eased. The horse was turned around and another boy pulled the rope back so it would be in place for the next load.

Dad pulled the trolley back to the position above the load of hay, the hayfork lowered and Dad speared the load and set the lever. The process was repeated until all the hay was unloaded. It took about six lifts to unload the entire wagon.

Simple pleasures

When one of us reached 6 or 7 years of age, our job was to pull the rope back. When we reached age 10 or 11, we could lead the horse. At 13 or 14, we were in the haymow with a three-tine pitchfork, throwing the hay to the side of the barn. That was the hardest job of all. It might be 70 or 80 degrees outside, but up in the hayloft, you could easily add another 20 degrees.

Off to the windmill to get a cold drink of water. Cold, pure water, springing right out of Mother Earth, came up from 200 feet down. Man, that was a good drink! Several tin cups were hung on spikes attached to the legs of the windmill. Unhook the cup, remove the pipe from the wellhead and fill the cup with cold water.

Riding from field to barn atop a full load of loose hay was a blissful experience. A boy could feel like he was on top of the world with a fantastic view in every direction. A straw hat kept the sun off your face and neck. The blowing wind dried the sweat.

Another benefit to haying came in watching that haymow get fuller and fuller day after day. A full barn meant a stable barn. Mom and Dad worried when the barn was near empty, vulnerable to the wicked thunderstorms that moved across southwestern Wisconsin. We had neighbors who lost barns to those fierce winds. With a full barn comes a feeling of relief. A full barn of hay is as solid as an army tank.

Equine stars

Haying seemed to last all summer. I suspect the horses had a sense of what was going; they knew that their toil and hard labor was paying off. They were harvesting the food that would get them through the winter.

The horses grazed in the pasture after working hours. They were led to the water tank next to the corncrib and turned out to pasture. Down on all four legs, Prince, Dolly and Sam rolled in the dust. Sometimes we’d currycomb the horses. With harnesses removed, the currycomb was used to comb the horse’s coat, especially important in the spots where the collar rested. If not currycombed, horses could develop sores.

The Scheckel family did not own a television set but our Philco radio brought the outside world to our farm. The Lone Ranger rode Silver, Tonto mounted Scout. Gene Autry had Champion and Roy Rogers traveled with Trigger. Dale Evans owned Buttermilk. Sergeant Preston, a Canadian Mountie, patrolled the Yukon Territory atop a horse named Rex. Hopalong Cassidy went after the bad guys astride a white horse he called Topper.

B western movies with horses were plentiful. In addition to the aforementioned, John Wayne, Tex Ritter, Hoot Gibson and Tom Mix all mounted worthy steeds on the silver screen. I don’t ever recall seeing a Farmall, Allis-Chalmers, John Deere, Oliver or Minneapolis-Moline tractor star in a movie.

The marvelous Massey

There was great excitement on the Scheckel farm in May 1949. Dad traded in that black, smoke-belching Model U for a brand new bright red Massey-Harris 44. Our eyes followed the flatbed truck from Gays Mills, Wisconsin, as it moved slowly along the Oak Grove gravel road and turned into the Scheckel driveway.

The driver talked to Dad briefly, then backed the truck up to an embankment, unchained the shiny red machine, clambered aboard, started it up and drove that new tractor – with rubber tires mounted on yellow wheels – down a ramp.

It came with corn cultivators, a pulley to operate machinery and a PTO. The 44 did not have power steering or a hydraulic system, and the PTO was new to the Scheckel family. We were warned that special care and caution must be taken around that system. Farmers had been caught in the PTO and ended up missing an arm or leg. In some cases, it pretty much guaranteed a closed casket.

Eyewitness to a revolution

Farmers in Wisconsin were reluctant to let go of their horses. Prince, Dolly and Sam always started in 20-below-zero temperatures. Not so with the hand-cranked Allis, whose engine oil sometimes congealed to the viscosity of molasses.

Horses were members of the family; living, breathing creatures with distinct personalities. Tears were shed when a beloved farm horse died. There were no moist eyes or crying in beer when a tractor was replaced. You don’t see farmers patting their tractor on the rump or feeding it a sugar cube or small apple. For some bachelor farmers on Oak Grove Ridge, a favorite workhorse was the best friend they ever had.

The first big revolution in farming occurred when manual labor was replaced by oxen and horses beginning in the 1700s. As a boy in the early 1940s, I witnessed the second revolution in farming: mechanization. The Rural Electrification Act brought electricity to rural areas, as the light bulb took the place of the oil lamp. Hybrid seed and fertilizer multiplied crop yields many times. And tractors took on the work once done by teams of horses.

Instead of farmers feeding oats, shelled corn and hay to their gentle beasts of burden, they poured gasoline into a different kind of beast. In the 1940s and ’50s, farmers in Crawford County kept their mules, Percherons and Belgians. A tractor might be pulling the grain binder in one field while horses pulled the hay mower on another field.

The transition from horses to tractors was slow, deliberate and somewhat painful. The sweet, pungent smells of the horse barn – a combination of leather, sweat, manure and grain – faded. Familiar sights of horses grazing in the pasture, rolling in the dust, eating grain from the hand and leaning into the collar and harness on a long pull began to disappear.

Progress was inevitable. Farm boys left the farm, small farms merged into larger farms and some farms were abandoned altogether. Bigger, more powerful tractors could do so much more work in less time. Now, years later, I can’t exactly say whether my greatest affection was for Dolly, our faithful workhorse, or that bright red Massey-Harris 44. FC


Larry Scheckel grew up on a family farm in the hill country of southwestern Wisconsin. He and his wife, Ann, are retired teachers living in Tomah, Wisconsin. Contact him at 1113 Parkview Dr., Tomah, WI 54660; email: Lscheckel@charter.net; online at LarryScheckel.com.