When the Hay Tool Collectors’ Assn. and the Cast Iron Seat Collectors held a joint, two-day show in May, the cross-pollination was immediate. “Exchanging ideas is part of the fun,” says Barry Merenoff, an ardent hay trolley collector. “Collectors all have that special gene. There’s nothing you can do about it; it’s incurable.”
The event marked the 10th anniversary of the hay tool group, which returned to the site of its first meet at the Steve Weeber farm south of Iowa City, Iowa. For this occasion, the Cast Iron Seat Collectors were invited to join the fun. Picture-perfect spring weather accented the beautiful rural setting, allowing displays on the lawn as well as in a large shed and barn.
The joint show created a fascinating look at an era when the barn was the hub of activity on the farm. As is typical in small meets like this, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. The event was billed as a joint gathering of the cast iron seat group and the hay tool collectors, but displays strayed well beyond those lines, to the delight of some 200 visitors.
Lebert Baskett started his farming career at the age kids today start going to school. “When I was 6,” he recalls, “my dad put me on a horse-drawn cultivator. He’d line me up with the horses on a row a half-mile long, and when I got to the end, he’d be there to turn me around. By the time I was 7 or 8, he’d turned me loose with a team of horses.”
Experience like that gives Lebert significant credibility in the area of cast iron seats, which he collected for more than 30 years. “They were rough on your butt, that’s for sure,” he says. The earliest seats were made of cast iron, he says; later pieces were made of tin. “Tin has a little give,” he allows, “but there’s not a lot of give in cast iron. After a day on a cast iron seat, a farmer probably needed a sip of white lightning.”
Lebert hauled his entire collection of 115 seats to the Iowa show from his home in Lovington, New Mexico. At 81, he’d decided it was time to dispose of the collection, and he found a ready market at the meet. “I lost money on them,” he says with a smile, “but I had a lot of fun over the years.”
Fascinated by relics produced as early as the 1800s, Lebert gathered up seats at auctions and swap meets. Occasionally he’d find one still bolted to a cultivator. “Sometimes I had to buy the whole thing,” he says. After buying his first seat, he met an older man who offered his collection of some three dozen. Lebert bought them all and didn’t look back.
Over the years, Lebert restored most of the seats in his collection. He sandblasted and painted each one, using leftover paint from automotive projects to add colorful detail. Eventually, he added a room to his shop and hung seats on the walls.
Dennis McGrew, Lawrence, Michigan, was happily collecting cast iron grain drill ends and seed pot lids (and Cockshutt tractors and a lot of antique farm items) when a friend put him on to hay carriers. “I was at this show the second year it was held,” he recalls, “and I didn’t even know what a trolley was.” But he had the right resume. “I grew up on a dairy farm,” he says. “When I was a kid, our barn was still roped for hay trolleys, and we’d swing on the ropes.”
Dennis got off to a noteworthy start. The barn on the farm where he lives today had an original hay trolley, a rare Goshen built before 1900. “Mine and one like it in my neighbor’s barn are two of the only three known,” he says.
His display at the 10th anniversary show included hay trolleys, a singletree, trolley track hangers, sling pulleys and a very unusual double floor pulley – and all of it was enhanced by historical documentation.
“I’m really into literature,” Dennis says. Using computers and scanners, he has built an extensive library of catalogs, corporate letterhead and advertisements. “There is a lot to be learned from ads,” he says. “Who manufactured a given item, what the product line was, how a piece was used, all of that and more. Even auction ads contain a lot of information.”
The collectibles, too, tell a story. With repeated use, trolleys wore grooves in wooden track. Dennis has sections of wood track with grooves on the top and the bottom, the result of the track being turned over once one side was worn. “The old timers were enterprising,” he says with a smile.
Some people think big. Jay Hankee, Viroqua, Wisconsin, thinks small. Jay is the architect and builder of seven scale model barns. Each is a barn Jay remembers from his youth. “These are barns I know, barns I played in as a kid,” he says.
Barn building is a relatively new hobby for Jay, who has extensive experience as a restorer of antique carriages and sleighs. “I started in 2011,” he says. “It was on my bucket list.” Each is built according to what he refers to as “MY scale,” a somewhat random but carefully considered representation of reality. “I try to keep length and width in proportion,” he says. “I build them the same way the real ones are built. Round barns start with the silo, and then the foundation, and then go up from there. You know, I think I could build a real one.”
His oval dairy barn was built from nothing more than a 1977 Polaroid photo – and memory. “By the time I built it, I had nothing but that picture because the barn had already gone down,” he says. When he displayed the finished piece at a show in Baraboo, Wisconsin, Jay met the daughter of the former barn’s owner. She later sent Jay copies of the barn’s original plans. “I’ll use those to revise it,” he says. “I’ve got to make it true.”
Scale-model projects are marked by unique complexities. In the case of Jay’s barns, he wrangles with countless tiny items. “There are 1,852 shingles on the oval barn,” he says. “And it’s hard cutting little boards thin. I use a table saw to do that, and that’s dangerous.”
Jay builds his barns during the winter. “My shop has no clock and no phone. Men come and go all day long,” he says. Although he credits his wife for her support, goodwill goes only so far in this operation. “Women have to knock so we can decide who comes in,” he says with a grin. “And the nice thing about things made in a shop heated by a wood stove? You can burn your mistakes.”
A self-described “accumulator,” Steve Renz, Superior, Nebraska, has built a diverse collection of antique farm relics anchored by 300 antique cast iron tractor and implement seats. It’s a collection he’s drawn on as he worked toward a goal of building a portable display showing how cast iron seats were used.
“I grew up on a farm and there were always cast iron seats around,” he says. “My first one was a Fuller & Johnson implement seat.” Starting in about 1980, his collection grew rapidly. “If I went to an auction and there were no seats,” Steve says, “I’d buy other stuff. I always ended up with something.”
That random collection fell in place as he built his display. Artfully arranged on an A-frame built from old barn boards, the display includes implement toolboxes and trays, oil can holders, cast iron seats, planter row markers, a set of hames and even a rare horse harness and fly net holder. Copies of vintage ads and promotional lithographs directly related to collectibles on the display show horse-drawn implements on the job, helping viewers understand the big picture.
Seats are not a stand-alone item in Steve’s collection. “If I got the seat off an implement, I still have the implement,” he says, “because I want to keep things together.” While he admires the craftsmanship and artistry of the relics, ergonomics of the 1800s leave him shaking his head. “I can’t imagine using one of these seats,” he says. “But people back then didn’t know any better. That’s how things evolve.”
Ernie Thackery’s collection was sparked by one his dad started. “Dad collected cast iron seats,” says the Tomah, Wisconsin, man. “When I cleaned out his stuff, I found some steps, and I kind of liked them.” The portability of the display was an important consideration as well.
The steps were a common feature on wagons, carts and buggies in the late 1800s. “They’re often sold as buggy steps or carriage steps,” Ernie says. Some wagon boxes might have required two steps to access the bench. Wheel hubs sometimes had a step to relay the passenger to a second step.
In the process of building a collection, Ernie has learned a lot about antique equipment manufacturers. “When I started this, I really only knew the Studebaker and John Deere names,” he says. “But the Internet makes research somewhat easy. If you dig deep enough, you’ll find enough documents to make a conclusive identification.”
He’s also learning the law of supply and demand. The steps, which are getting harder to find, are also growing more expensive. FC
A new website launched in May will serve as a combination virtual clubhouse and reference resource for collectors of antique hay trolleys. The site, Hay Trolley Heaven, makes available a remarkable amount of hay trolley resources, including catalog illustrations, specifications, drawings, patent information and photos. Site visitors can also join the Hay Tool Collectors’ Assn., access newsletters produced by that group, participate in forums and order books.
“We want to make this group as inclusive as possible, and the website really supports that,” says Iowa City, Iowa, trolley collector Steve Weeber, who played an active role in creation of the site. “Information is critically important to collectors, and Hay Trolley Heaven will be an invaluable resource. Through this one site, collectors can conduct research, connect with other collectors and acquire specialized reference materials for their own libraries.”
Content will be added on an ongoing basis, but already includes a comprehensive listing of every hay trolley listed in an F.E. Myers & Bro. catalog. Spearheaded by Steve and fellow enthusiast Daniel Dibner, the site also had input from author/illustrator Barry Merenoff and Myers trolley collector Dale Smithhisler, among others.
–The Cast Iron Seat Collectors meet twice annually. For details on meets or membership, contact Charolette Traxler, 41323 231st Ave., Le Center, MN 56057; (507) 357-6142; or by email. Check them out on Facebook.
–The Hay Tool Collectors’ Assn. meets every spring. The 2016 meet will be held May 27-28 in Crofton, Nebraska. For details on that or membership, contact Doug de Shazer, 55005 897 Rd., Lot #8, Crofton, NE 68730; (402) 510-8845; via email or online at Hay Trolley Heaven.
Leslie C. McManus is the editor of Farm Collector. Contact her at via email.