For Dennis Krzyzowski, collecting antique hay carriers and implement seats isn't just a rustic hobby fit for a history buff, but rather a conduit to a simpler, pleasant time in his youth.
"I don't have a huge background in farming," he says. "I'm originally from the Detroit [Michigan] area. I kind of bounced around when I was growing up, and the childhood memories I have that were the best actually related to farming – hauling hay and things of that nature – and that's what attracted me to the hay carriers at first."
Today, at his home just outside San Antonio, Texas, Dennis has built a collection of about 150 hay carriers (also known as hay trolleys). "I have the largest collection of hay carriers in Texas," he says. "The wooden carriers were the ones first produced – in the late 1860s and early 1870s – and then they moved on to cast iron carriers that ran on wooden beams, and then on steel rails, in the early 1900s.
"You look at something as simple as a hay carrier, and look at the mechanics of it, and how they were engineered, and it's fun. I'll usually tear them down and clean them up, and you get to see how they actually work," he says. "It's also interesting to look up old patent drawings and research old materials on the pieces."
As a high school student, Dennis lived with a farm family in Honey Grove, Texas, where he had his first experience working on a John Deere tractor. But after an incident where Dennis plowed the wrong field, his foster dad decided the youth needed learn the lay of the land the old-fashioned way.
"I met him back at the barn," Dennis recalls. "He gave me a hoe and a bucket of water, and for the next few months I went to every field he had and hoed sunflowers out. That quickly taught me what every field's name was."
After that, he put in some time on a 1940s-vintage Farmall. "I think this is where I kind of relate to some of the seats (in his collection)," he says, "because the Farmall, of course, was not cabbed, it didn't have an air conditioner and there was no radio."
Old iron on display
Dennis joined the military after graduating from high school. He served 26 years in the U.S. Air Force before retiring in 2012. He currently works as a consultant on commercial building projects across the country. Soon after retiring from the Air Force, he became interested in old iron.
He displays his collection of hay carriers and implement seats on the walls of his garage and home office. His favorite hay carriers are those manufactured by Hunt, Helm, Ferris and Co., Harvard, Illinois. His favorite implement seat is one produced by Peerless Reaper Co., Canton, Ohio.
Thanks to unusual mounts, his display has unusual flair. "A friend of mine in northern Missouri, Bill Anderson, made an ingenious display bracket for my wall that actually kind of swivels 360 degrees," he says. "I can angle the pieces so you can see them from any angle in the room, and he's making me more."
Branching into related collectibles
Dennis' passion for hay carriers led him to implement seats, and to a lesser extent, drill ends and toolboxes. He also began networking with other collectors and joined the Cast Iron Seat Collectors Assn.
"Those people kind of reminded me a lot of the farmers I lived with and of my aunt and uncle," he says, "so you kind of feel a bond toward them." Through those connections, he began learning about various farm implements and manufacturer's histories. Today, he's refining his collection.
"I'm weaning myself off of carriers and starting to collect seats, but none of them are particularly rare," he says. He has 23 implement seats, mainly from the 1860s-70s, from corn planters, mowers and plows. "Most cast iron seats never went on a tractor," he says, "only on implements. They stopped making the cast iron seats when tractors became more popular and the horse-drawn implements began to be phased out."
It's all about the connections
Dennis visits the Midwest once a year to meet with other collectors and hunt for pieces to add to his collection. "I go picking and shop on eBay," he says. "Texas doesn't have the farming history the Midwest has, and there weren't as many settlers down here when those implements were being used, so I have the most luck finding things through my trips up north, and through making contacts. There's a beauty to getting a piece in person; that piece doesn't come alive online."
Prices for hay carriers and implement seats are all over the board. "A friend of mine recently found a carrier that's never been found before, and it sold for $4,000," he says. "But there are plenty of mass-produced pieces that you could probably pick up for $30-40. The price just depends on how common the piece is. I attended an auction in Chicago last March, and there was a round cast iron seat from a corn planter that sold for $8,400."
Dennis says the bond he's formed with other collectors is worth more to him than the seats themselves. "They tend to be really down-to-earth, blue-collar people like myself," he says. "I like the people associated with seat collecting more so than the seats themselves."
Repairs tell a story
Dennis goes to great lengths to restore hay carriers and implement seats to their original condition. "Everybody's got their opinion on how to restore something, and I hate to sandblast a piece and put brand new paint on it," he says. "I try to preserve it just as it was. I have quite a few pieces that have some beautiful, old original paint on them, and those are my favorite pieces."
He begins by giving the piece a gentle cleaning, using hot, soapy water and a toothbrush, trying to uncover as much of the original paint as possible. He brings out color with oil, then wax. And he's not troubled by imperfections.
"Most collectors, if they find something that's broken or been repaired by some farmer in the field, they tend to try to replace those pieces," he says. "When I find something that has an old farmer's fix on it, I highlight it. I don't try to hide it, because to me, it really does tell a story. Back in the day, a carrier was a pretty big investment for some of these farmers, and it's not like they could afford to go out and buy a new part or an entire, new hay carrier. They went out there and fixed them to make them work."
Advice for the novice
Dennis founded the Facebook group Hay Trolley Purgatory as a way of networking with collectors to offer insights into pricing, restoration and where to buy the carriers. He said the biggest piece of advice he gives to new collectors is to make well-educated purchases.
"The biggest thing is containing your excitement when you first start, so you don't buy too much at first and overpay," he says. "Try to learn a little something about values and rarity before you jump in head first."
He also recommends the book Cast Iron Seats of the World VI produced by the Cast Iron Seat Collectors Assn. "It shows every known seat and gives a rating of rarity," he says. "That helps not only the beginner, but also the more experienced collector."
For now, Dennis continues to build his collection. But at the end of the day, it's all about the people, not the relics. "What's really important to me, for beginners or more experienced collectors, is to treat it as a hobby," he says, "and really value the relationships you build while building the collection." FC
For more information: Contact Dennis Krzyzowski on Facebook at Hay Trolley Purgatory. Facebook: Cast Iron Seat Collectors Assn. Cast Iron Seats of the World VI, available through the Cast Iron Seat Collectors Assn., John Catchings, 3524 Jefferson Township Pkwy., Marietta, GA 30066. Sara Jordan-Heintz is an award-winning writer, editor and historian. She is the features writer for the Times-Republican in Marshalltown, Iowa. Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/SaraEliz90 or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.