Details surrounding hay carriers, slings, pulleys and track – hay tools common to yesterday’s barns – are little known today.
Doug de Shazer is among a handful of collectors gathering what’s left of these historic trappings. His enthusiasm for antique hay tools, and desire to educate others about them, led him to create the Lewis & Clark Pulley Museum on his property near Crofton just south of the Nebraska/South Dakota border.
The main focus of his collection is hay carriers and barn pulleys, commonly manufactured from the 1860s to the 1950s. A century ago, nearly every farm operation revolved around the barn. Animals were housed, fed, milked and otherwise cared for in what was generally the largest structure on the farm. Haymows were the primary storehouse for grain and loose stacks of prairie hay harvested every year. Hay carriers were used to move loads of hay (held by a sling or fork) from a wagon into the barn for storage. The carriers traveled along track: first wood beams and then, beginning in the 1890s, steel rail. And every carrier depended on a pulley to raise and lower the load.
The advent of mechanized farm equipment, like tractors, balers and conveyor systems, has made those early tools obsolete. “A lot of them have already been buried in a pile, along with the barns they were used in,” Doug says. “But many are still intact in the barns that remain and they’ve been pretty much unnoticed all these years.”
Historical documentation on hay tools is less common than that available for antique tractors or engines. But the determined collector still has several good resources. Antique books and catalogs, often available at antique shops and flea markets, are one place to start. For instance, Louden Machinery Co., Fairfield, Iowa, was a leading manufacturer of hay tools and barn-related equipment. Collectors particularly favor decades-old hardcover Louden’s catalogs, treasure troves of information on hay tools and barn equipment.
The U.S. Patent Office offers another solid resource for the collector. As Doug began searching for information on hay carriers and pulleys, through patent searches and other study, he learned that some 200 U.S. manufacturers produced as many as 500 different hay carriers. “All of these items are heavy and shipping them very far would have been fairly costly,” he explains. “That’s why so many companies made them. When they were shipped, they were usually carried by train because of the weight involved.”
Other collectors also fill in the gaps, but they compose a fairly small group. “There aren’t a lot of collectors out there,” Doug says, “maybe 40 to 75 who are serious.” He hopes to pull that community even closer together: This winter he began a newsletter for hay tool collectors. The newsletter is available by e-mail only; eventually, he hopes to make that information available online as well.
Doug’s collection was launched seven years ago in a flea market, where he found his first pulley. “The friend who was with me that day decided to buy that first one for me,” he says. “By the time I left the flea market, I was hauling about 18 of them around.”
Today, his collection includes about 90 unique hay carriers and several hundred pulleys. They range from the small to the enormous, like a wood pulley that measures 5 feet across. Salvaged from the water plant in Grinnell, Iowa, “it was still being used when it broke in 2003,” Doug says. “It ended up on the Internet and the guy who owned it was just about ready to burn it as trash when I came across it.”
Rare pieces include carriers designed for use on wooden beams. “They had a slider that worked without wheels,” Doug says. Steel-track carriers were developed in the 1890s. They were generally smaller, lighter and easier to return to position.
New acquisitions come from other collectors, auctions and flea markets. “Not too long ago, I waited all day to get a carrier at an auction,” he recalls. “It was mixed in with a pile of junk and if anyone else knew what it was, they didn’t have any interest in it. On the first round, the pile of junk brought $300. I was puzzled about who was bidding and what they wanted out of that pile. Turns out there were some original International Harvester fenders in the pile. The guy who bid it up took the fenders and they started bidding on the pile again. I got the carrier for $10.”
Restoration of pieces in Doug’s collection runs the gamut. Some need little more than cleaning; others are sandblasted and painted with detailed lettering. He’s also picked up other hay tools, like an 1890s vintage hay press, scythes and forks.
This year, Doug plans construction of a second building, expanding display of his collection. The new 16-by-20-foot building will house approximately 400 carriers and several hundred barn pulleys, as well as hay forks and other hay equipment. “I have at least 5,000 pounds in carriers and pulleys in here now,” he says. Visitors are astounded. “Most people have no idea there were so many different types of hay carriers and pulleys,” he says.
Some visitors offer leads on hay tools; others share memories and knowledge. “I’ve learned so much about hay carriers and pulleys through conversations with farmers,” Doug says. “Many of them remember using these items daily and there’s a wealth of information in those discussions.”
Information flows both ways. When Doug displays pieces from his collection at shows, he’s able to share what he’s learned. “I have one model I use to demonstrate how the hay slings were used to put hay in the barn,” he says. “Once people see that, all the pulleys and tracks make more sense to them.”
Whether he’s at a show or giving tours in his museum, his goal is to keep the past alive. “I’m doing this so that the history surrounding these tools can be preserved,” he says. “I just want people to be able to come and view them and enjoy them.” FCFor more information: Doug de Shazer, Lewis & Clark Museum, 55005 897 Rd., Crofton, NE 68730; (402) 510-8845; e-mail: email@example.com. Museum open by appointment only; no charge for admission. Loretta Sorensen is a lifelong resident of southeast South Dakota. She and her husband farm with Belgian draft horses and collect vintage farm equipment. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.