Sweep Rake Eased Strenuous Task

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by Richard Whiteman

By the time you read this column, all my property and other “stuff” in Ohio will have gone under the auctioneer’s hammer and I’ll be embarking on a new chapter of my life in Salt Lake City, Utah, where my daughter and son-in-law live. It’s been a little more than 21 years since the first Let’s Talk Rusty Iron column appeared in Farm Collector magazine, and this will be the last regular one I’ll pen, as most of my reference material will be disposed of as well. It’s been fun; I’ve learned a lot and met many great folks along the way.

“Buck rake” and “bull rake” are a couple of the more common names for an implement officially known as a sweep rake. Developed during the latter half of the 19th century, the first ones were called “hay-gatherers”; the sweep rake was designed to speed up the collection and transportation of loose hay over short distances.

It was hard, hot work putting up loose hay. Horse-drawn mowing machines had replaced sickles and scythes to make cutting the stuff easier. Hand-raking had been superseded by rollover and dump rakes, also pulled by horses. Men with pitchforks, however, still had to lift the hay from the windrow or haycock (we called them “hand-stacks” on the western Pennsylvania farm of my youth) and throw it onto a cart, wagon, or sled to transport the crop to a barn or stack.

An improvement in hay-gatherers

Someone once said that a lazy man is a good inventor, and lazy farmers, tired of pitching hay, looked for ways to lessen the drudgery. In 1861, F.F. Fowler of Wyandot County, Ohio, patented what he described as “a new and useful Improvement in Hay-Gatherers … to gather and transport to the stack the hay which has previously been raked into a windrow.”

Fowler’s machine looked like half of a walk-behind, rollover rake with high sides and a tongue out in front. The operator walked behind the rake, controlling it by the two rear handles, as he proceeded lengthwise down a windrow. When the rake was full, the operator held down on the handles and drove to the barn or stacks with the load riding on the teeth and held in place by the high sides. To dump the load, the handles were raised, the points of the teeth caught and the rake rotated up and over, leaving the load behind.

Sweep rake marked by simple design

Other variations were tried, but by the start of the 20th century, the sweep rake had reached the form it maintained until the small, automatic pickup baler made putting up loose hay obsolete.

The sweep rake consists of a rake head, usually 12 feet wide, to the bottom of which are bolted 13 7- or 8-foot-long wooden teeth set a foot apart. The teeth are tapered and usually have a turned-up metal tip that allows them to slide over the ground without digging in. A vertical fence, 3 or 4 feet high, at the rear of the teeth catches and holds the hay.

An optional movable auxiliary fence is sometimes attached just ahead of the rear fence. Called a “push-off,” this auxiliary fence has hinged legs that catch in the ground when the buck rake is backed up and pushes a load of hay off the rake teeth.

Horse-powered rakes were supported on two, three, or four wheels and were either pulled by a horse hitched along each side, or were pushed by a team hitched behind the rake. There was a seat for the operator, and a lever to lift the teeth a few inches clear of the ground for transporting the load of hay.

Buck rakes worked with dizzying speed

When light farm tractors became popular, it wasn’t long before sweep rakes were adapted for tractor use. Farmers who put up a lot of hay often built buck rakes and mounted them on the front or rear of an old car or truck to speed up the collection and transportation of the crop. Such machines, built on 1-ton truck chassis turned around to run backward, are still in use today in areas of the West where wild prairie hay is cut and put into large stacks for winter cattle feed.

Shortly after the end of World War II, my father and my uncle each got buck rakes for their Ford tractors and retired the New Idea hayloader we’d been using. These 12-foot-wide buck rakes could run swiftly down a windrow, gather a large load of hay and, without stopping, run it onto the barn floor, drop the teeth, back out from under the hay and be off to the field for another load.

As I recall, my uncle’s rake was a Ferguson, while Dad’s was from a short-line implement manufacturer whose name has been long forgotten. At that time, we were still cutting our grain with a binder, shocking it, and then threshing in the field. The threshing machine was set up in the center of a large field and the sheaves of grain in the shocks in that and nearby fields were pitched onto wagons and hauled to the thresher.

Keeping teeth in inventory

The buck rakes sped up this operation dramatically. With our two rakes, plus those of two neighbors, it was no trick at all to keep the men who fed the thresher busy. It was my job to run one of the rakes and I was proud to be entrusted with such an important task.

One disadvantage of having a young boy such as myself operating a buck rake was that a ready supply of spare teeth was a necessity. Many times, while speeding through a field picking up hay or grain shocks, I managed to snap off one of the wooden teeth. I’m sure that my uncle, who operated his rake himself, didn’t break nearly as many as I did.

Many of today’s farmers have probably never heard of the implement, but during its heyday, the buck rake was a real labor saver, while at the same time speeding up the haying operation. FC

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements, and related items. Contact Sam by email at letstalkrustyiron@att.net.

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