"Hay fever" came early for a group of collectors who attended the first-ever Hay Tool Swap Meet and Show near Iowa City, Iowa, in early May. Held at the Weeber Homestead Farm, the event drew enthusiasts from across the Midwest, and showcased a wide variety of hay tools and equipment.
Hay trolleys (or carriers) snatched much of the event's focus, owing in large part to a world-class collection housed onsite. Collecting and restoring hay trolleys since 1999, Steve Weeber has built as fine a set of restored pieces as you'll find.
Introduced in the late 1850s, the hay trolley was used to move loads of hay from a wagon into the barn. With a team of horses doing the pulling, and a fork inserted into a pile of hay, the trolley lifted the load and drew it into the mow.
Today, collectors scour farm sales, online auctions, flea markets and swap meets in their quest for dozens of the relics. Others are satisfied with but a couple. "They may have just one or two, or maybe a family piece, and they're never going to be big collectors," Steve says. "People just want to know how the hay trolley works. Lots of people are fascinated by the mechanics of these little gizmos."
Though trolleys were widely used, only one was needed on most farms. By World War II, bale movers began to make the hay trolley obsolete. Thereafter, most were abandoned where they hung in aging barns. "And we all know what happens to old barns," Steve notes. "It's a finite thing."
Rare indeed is the hay trolley found with all components intact. "We do a lot of chasing around for parts," Steve says. "It's like hunting for mushrooms: They don't grow everywhere. "Some of the rarity is related to the difficulty of maintaining the devices, which roosted high in the barn. Take the Louden trolley. "Finding the small wheels for one of those is like finding hen's teeth," Steve says. "There was a little hole where you could oil the piece, but nobody was going to get all the way up there and oil it, so the thing ran until the wheels came off."
Today, common trolleys remain comparatively easy to find, though prices are rising. "What's sometimes overwhelming," Steve says, "is that there were so many different hay trolleys made. New collectors have no idea of what's hard to find, or what's easy to find. And sellers don't always know the value of what they have. We're at a very fun place in the hobby. We're where the cast iron seat people were 30 years ago."
Collectors sometimes back into a category. Dale Smithhisler, Ashland, Ohio, is a big fan of the F.E. Myers & Bro., manufacturers of pumps … and hay tools. "Anything that says 'Myers' on it, I pick it up," he says. "In general, pumps are my favorite. I don't specialize in hay trolleys, but I have about 35." His collection of more than 400 pieces also includes pumps, literature and books … and one very special piece: a salesman's sample hay trolley, in perfect condition. "I got it from a guy whose father-in-law worked for Myers, starting in 1913," Dale says.
Myers items are a logical choice for Dale, who lives in the same community where the company operated. He specializes in items produced from 1870-1960, the era when the Myers family owned the company. Originally, he collected Allis-Chalmers tractors. "But then a friend said: 'You ought to get in on this Myers stuff. Nobody else around here is doing that.' So I did, and I really like it."
Jim Moffet, Modesto, Ill., has been collecting antique farm equipment for 50 years. Corn shellers are his first love, but he has a definite interest in hay equipment: sling releases, hay knives and forks, grapples, rafter grabs and more.
Although he has plenty of hands-on experience haying, Jim came along too late to use any of the pieces he now collects. "We let it dry in the field and chopped it, then blew it up into the barn," he recalls. "My wife, Phyllis, was raised on a dairy farm, and they put up hay using slings. That's the thing about hay: It was a very diverse crop. Different parts of the country had different types of hay, and that created a need for different types of equipment."
The Jennings Horse Hay Fork, owned by the Prairie Land Heritage Museum in South Jacksonville, Ill., is an example of that. "It's a rather unusual design," Jim says. Eager to "build a better mousetrap," early manufacturers were quick to embrace new ideas. "There was a tremendous need for improvement in equipment all the time. But if the manufacturers had no marketing skills or access to transportation," Jim muses, "their great idea still wouldn't be a success."
New collectors can still track down hay forks and knives, literature, track, pulleys and trolleys. "But there's less and less of it all the time," Jim says. "There are fewer and fewer farm sales at farms where the family has been there for a long time. If the family was just there for the last 30 years, say, you probably won't find any old equipment there." Flea markets and antique shops are good sources, he says, "and you find more of this stuff in dairy country - Michigan, Wisconsin and New York. They've been haying longer."
One more tip from a pro: "Buy as good as you can get," Jim says. FC
For more information on hay collectibles or the 2007 Hay Tool Swap Meet and Show, contact Steve Weeber, email@example.com