Makin' Hay

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A wagon awaits the trolley

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Dad's favorite team of sorrel work-horses, Molly and Dolly, patiently waited as he adjusted their tugs and neck yoke. Their fly nets swayed and their heads tossed when they occasionally raised a leg to drive off the pesky, ever-present flies. They were already sweaty from pulling a John Deere side-delivery rake earlier that day.

We had time to get a load before lunch, so Dad hooked them to the hay wagon. My sister, Shirley, the oldest of us kids and the only one with experience driving a team, came running from the house. She loved the outdoors and especially horses, so she always took the chance to drive. I was too young to drive, but I went along to learn.

Dad stuck the reins through the boards of the front standard for Shirley. Then he jumped on the wagon, took the reins and 'chirped' to Molly and Dolly. A flick of the lines and we were on our way. The front standard was about 7 foot high, composed of two oak 2-by-4-inch wooden studs for upright support, and 1-by-6-inch boards were spaced laterally about 8 inches apart. Two slings hung over the top of the 2-by-4s, extending a few inches above the top board. The back standard was only about 3 feet high, composed of just a couple boards. One sling stretched over the bed of the empty wagon, secured by a metal ring on each wagon corner where the long ropes came together. Two-by-2-inch wooden slats about 4 feet apart held the ropes in place, and at the very center of the sling, the ropes came together, locked in place by a metal trip. The trip mechanism was attached to a long, slender rope that ran to the side of the wagon and hung over the edge. The hay was pulled up into the mow by this mechanism.

Heading down the lane, I realized in retrospect why the days seemed so long. Farmers work long, hard hours, and few moments existed for silent contemplation. The horses walked quietly down the sandy, grassy tracks in the center of the lane. Dad didn't trot them since they'd already finished three or four hours of work, but the dull thud of the horses' hooves in unison, the wagon's jangled tugs and creaks gave me a sense that time stood still. Dad's bib overalls and summer straw hat, his long-sleeved shirt rolled up to the elbows, the reins held loosely in one hand burn a permanent image in my mind. Shirley and I stood on each side of the wagon, hung onto the front standard and looked at the horses as orange-and-black meadowlarks flew overhead and Lassie trotted alongside our wagon.

When we arrived in the hay field, Dad guided the team and wagon back to the hay loader. That awkward-shaped machine was a marvel of ingenuity. It towered above the wagon's front standard, and it had two large steel wheels that carried all its weight and two small wheels that swiveled and balanced the loader's weight.

The loader used a very short tongue, so it rode almost against the back of the wagon. A big, round group of bars was positioned low to the ground with a row of tines extending forward, which picked up the windrow of hay. As the hay passed up and then down a short chute onto the wagon, the chute was adjusted so the hay fell down onto the empty part of the wagon. As the load got higher, Dad raised it until the top of the hay load was pushing against the chute. The windrow of hay fascinated me because it stayed in exactly the same shape as it lay on the ground after it was picked up and carried to the top of the loader. Not until Dad's three-tined pitchfork moved it around the wagon did the windrow finally lose its shape.

Soon after Dad began to collect the windrows, Shirley and I adjusted the front standard to avoid being covered with hay. Dad moved large forkfuls of hay expertly around the wagon as we rolled slowly across the field. When a third of the wagon was full, Dad yelled 'whoa!' We stopped while Dad grabbed another sling, swung it around the edge of the front standard and spread it out across the loose hay. It was critical that this was done carefully since lifting the big slings of hay toward the barn roof and safely through the big mow door depended on the sling's placement.

Shirley had driven a team of horses and hay loader since she was 4. Now - at 12 years old -she guided the team around the corners of the field so perfectly that the loader still followed the center of the windrow as it made the turn. To do this, she guided the team outside the windrow as they started into the turn. She knew exactly how far the team had to go to center the loader.

By the time Dad put all the hay on top, Shirley and I were almost hidden from his view. We were against the front standard still, but Dad had surrounded us with hay until it loomed over our heads and behind us. Our necks were full of chaff by then, and it worked itself down inside our shirts. From somewhere up on top, we heard Dad's 'whoa!' He then slid down the back of the load, hanging onto the loader as he unhooked it. Then he came around to the front, climbed the standard and seated himself on the top of the load, his feet resting on the very top board. Shirley and I stayed where we were. We knew it was safe there, even if the jiggling of the wagon over the ground sent fresh cascades of chaff down the back of our necks.

There was never much conversation. Dad usually had a stem of hay he chewed on, and I'd try to imitate him by carefully picking myself out a stem of Timothy. With a rein in each hand, he guided us slowly through the gates, the load so wide it brushed the posts on each side. Dad parked that big wagon of hay right below the door of our horse barn. Different varieties of hay went into different barns, depending on the animals in each barn.

After dinner, we unloaded the hay. It seemed such a long way up to that 10-foot by 12-foot door at the very peak of the barn's end. A metal track ran the length of the barn and extended out about 6 feet. A 'car' with four metal wheels sat at one end. A rope extended down from a pulley with two large hooks. The rope ran all the way back to the other end of the pulley, then to another pulley outside the barn, and then finally back the length of the barn, staked to our Dodge truck by a clevis attached to the front bumper. This heavy, thick rope pulled the slings up the barn to the loft door and into the mow.

After the hay was deposited, Dad gave the rope some slack so it came back down and rested on the hay. One hook went into each end of the sling and then into the iron rings. Dad put the big truck in reverse and then started back. By hooking the rope to the front bumper, Dad was able to watch everything that happened as he pulled the sling up into the barn. Shirley and I stood a safe distance back in case the rope broke. Dad was never a hugs-and-kisses person, but our safety was his top priority because the farm was a dangerous place for kids.

As Dad moved the truck backward, the two ends of the sling drew together, gradually making a big ball of hay. Once they met, the sling started its ascent upward. The rope creaked as the heavy hay load stretched it tight. As the pulley and hooks attached to the sling and bumped the 'car,' it released the sling brake, swaying it back and forth, and disappeared into the barn. On rare occasions, the sling was accidentally tripped as it lay on the wagon, and the two ends of the sling slid out from underneath the hay and started up the rope empty. If this happened, Dad had to pitch off some hay by hand and hope the next sling could take a little extra weight as it was pulled up.

I followed Dad up the loft ladder to watch him trip the sling. I don't know how many pounds of hay a sling could hold, but I know it was enough to crush us. There was no way to lower it once the car started rolling into the barn.

Two small ropes were tied to each end of the car, which allowed Dad to position the hay wherever he wanted: way back at the far end or just inside the big door. Dad took his three-tined fork and stuck one tine through the ring at the end of the trip rope. A twist of the fork, and he was ready. When the mow was partly full, he jerked, and the hay came crashing down and spread back out as it was on the wagon. The two halves of the sling, still attached at the car, swung wildly for a moment. If we were just starting, as we were that day, Dad positioned the hay toward one side of the wide barn or the other. He pulled gently on the trip rope to make the big sling sway wider and wider, then, at its furthest point, he jerked the rope.

When I got old enough to work in the mow, Dad let me trip the sling. As I jerked and ran, the hay falling behind me created a small gale of wind and chaff that swept over me. That was fun, but then I spent a good 15 minutes hand-pitching the packed hay to the outside of the mow. It was hot up there! Our shirts were wet when we climbed down to hoist up the next load.

On this particular day, while Dad was in the mow, Shirley and I pulled on the rope together to garner enough speed so the car would catch and lock in place at the very end of the rail. Then we carefully lowered the empty slings onto the wagon. Our other job was to pull the long, heavy rope back to the front of the truck, and ready it for the next pull. We did this first so we had enough slack to lower the slings.

It sounds slow and complicated all these years later, but it went remarkably smooth. Dad took good care of all his tools and equipment, and at different times of the year we greased and oiled the hay car, the windmill, etc. There was always a grease gun in the tractor toolbox and a handy oil can ready to do the job.

By my mid-teens, we baled all our hay and straw. An elevator moved the bales into the mows. The hay cars sat unused on the track, and cobwebs slowly settled on them. The hay loader was hauled to the woods and parked. Somehow, its shape always reminds me of a giant grasshopper, sitting ready at any instant to hop into the air. FC

- Harry Macomber lived on a Michigan farm until he was 24. He now resides in Watertown, Tenn., and works in the printing and publishing industry.

When we arrived in the hay field, Dad guided the team and wagon back to the hay loader. That awkward-shaped machine was a marvel of ingenuity. It towered above the wagon's front standard, and it had two large steel wheels that carried all its weight and two small wheels that swiveled and balanced the loader's weight.