The Labor Intensive Work of New-Mown Hay

The unending, labor intensive job of caring for new-mown hay

The McCormick-Deering Power Press (belted style – minus engine) ready for work.

The McCormick-Deering Power Press (belted style – minus engine) ready for work.

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One of farming's most "labor intensive" crops over the years has been hay. Oh, there were certain compensations. One might well savor the unforgettable and delightful aroma of new-mown hay, and a "romp in the hay" was not to be sneezed at either (no pun intended). The mere thought causes this octogenarian to chuckle under his breath, much to the vexation of his partner of some three score years.

Putting up hay seemed to be an unending job when I was growing up on Muddy Creek. Red Top had to be "caught" at just the right time, else it would "head out" and be worthless as feed, and could only be cut for seed. The teamsters in the oil field offered a good market for Timothy for horses, and mules seemed to prefer (and thrive) on this long-stem succulent grass. The Timothy harvest closely followed that of the early-maturing Red Top.

The procedure for harvesting most of the hays was much the same. First came the mowing, using the five-foot horse-drawn mower. Seldom was the day when a pitman rod was not snapped, or a sickle section popped out from the sickle bar, hitting a hidden sprout.

The hay was cured in the hot sun. Then came the raking with the dump rake, pulling the aromatic swaths into windrows and later into "doodles" (or piles).

Hay balers were not as yet common, so nearly all of the cuttings were handled as loose hay, being either stacked in the field, or else stowed away in the hay loft. For stacking, the site was first prepared by laying down a framework of fence rails. Then the 'doodles' would be dragged to the stack by hitching the team to a 20-foot long sapling that had been shoved under the pile of hay. A rope was stretched over the hay and half-hitched around the protuding pole.

Usually the team was guided by a boy – me – riding one horse with a bridle-mounted "gamble stick" guiding the other. When the doodle reached the stack, the rope was untied and the pole pulled out, and the ream returned for another load.

Stacking required a fair number of "hands." There was the doodle man, who used the boy rider to bring the hay to the stack, and, at the very least, two men were needed on top of the stack, and two or more for pitching the hay up to them.

The war effort that took the surplus men into the service hastened the development of at least three new farm implements, all designed to ease the load, or replace the non-existent "hay hand."

Several versions of commercial hay stackers came onto the market, but each required a second team to raise the arms on which the doodle had been placed and swing it to the top of the stack, where the stackers could easily reach and spread the hay around. Certainly these machines made the job easier, and speeded up the hay stacking, but the amount of labor saved was limited.

The invention that did save labor, as well as make the job lighter, was mechanical hay loaders. With it came the side delivery rake that bunched the mowed hay into continuous windrows that could be moved or turned, to hasten the curing when storm clouds began to build on the western horizon. The loader was designed to be pulled along behind the hay wagon and astraddle the windrows. It had two opposite turning reel-like forks, and shoved the windrowed hay onto a moving conveyor that carried it up some 12 feet, and then dumped it onto the wagon, where two hard-working men, using two-tine pitchforks, built a square and level load. Two-tine forks were preferred: Less effort was required to pull a two-tine fork from the entangled hay.

Dad bought the first big Titan tractor at about the same time as he did the loader, and it proved to be perfect for pulling the loader. With the low gear ratio of the tractor, the speed could be regulated according to the weight of the hay. In heavy going, the one-speed horse-drawn loader often literally 'covered up' the men on the load.

Dad purchased the loader from the Hill Hudson people in Olney. Surprisingly, it came already assembled. Most of the farm implements in those days - plows, harrows, discs and straw spreaders - had to be put together by the buyer.

I remember going with him to pick up the loader. We took a load of Red Top seed over to Schultz's Seed Company to sell, and I am sure he used that money to pay for the loader. The sales people helped hitch the machine behind the wagon, and, while the thing looked very ungainly and odd coming down the road, its steel wheels did roll along quite well on the partly graveled road. The only problem came from an occasional low-hung telephone line strung across the road. When we reached one of those, I would shinny up the step-like conveyor of the loader and hold up the wire until Dad could pull past.

The hay loader was put to good use for several years, both on our farm and on the neighbor's, until loose hay was replaced by the much easier-to-handle bales. It was then parked out along the Vanatta fence where, at one time, it served me well when Old Bull went on a rampage and kept me marooned atop that loader until a neighbor could be summoned on the party line, to call off their bulldog.

The hay loader joined the old Titan when it rolled proudly away in one of the first scrap drives of Hitler's War. FC 

Perry E. Piper's remembrances have appeared in various newspapers in Illinois and Indiana for the past 12 years. His columns are collected in two volumes: "Growing Up on Muddy Creek," and "The Muddy Creek Chronicles." For more information, contact Piper at 71 Concordia Drive, Paris, IL 61944.