Let's Talk Rusty Iron

Harvesting Wild Hay

| August 2005

Montana ranchers perfect the hay slide

Located at the southwestern corner of Montana, Beaverhead County snuggles into the curve made by the Continental Divide as it forms the boundary between the eastern panhandle of Idaho and Big Sky Country. A maze of mountains and river valleys, the Beaverhead area was the land of the Shoshone Indians and is rich in history. On their 1805 trek to explore the then-new Louisiana Purchase, explorers Lewis and Clark were led by a Shoshone woman, Sacajawea, through the Beaverhead area. In 1877, the U.S. Army was defeated by Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce Indians at the battle of Big Hole.

Containing the rich valleys of the Big Hole and Beaverhead rivers with their abundant native shortgrass, Beaverhead County is one of Montana's top cattle- and hay-producing regions. Ranchers in Beaverhead County raise cattle, along with some horses to help tend the cows, and they harvest wild hay every summer to feed their cattle through the long, hard Montana winters. No other crops are grown, and virtually no tillage is practiced, except for a fall top dressing of fertilizer on the meadows from time to time.

The wild hay grown in Beaverhead County and other prairie areas is nutritious and a good source of protein and energy. However, a lot of it must be fed to maintain cattle during the winter when pastures aren't available. There's no way the huge amounts of hay required could be stored indoors, so most of it is, and always has been, stacked in the field. In the interest of economy, these stacks must be big.

Obviously, building big haystacks is difficult with a 6-foot man wielding a pitchfork with a 5-foot handle. During the late 1800s, several devices were developed to allow the loose hay to be piled high. One was a bipod made of two tall poles joined at the top by a cross pole. A rope from a hay sling was run through a pulley fastened to the center of the cross pole. A team of horses hitched to the rope lifted the sling full of hay and the bipod was allowed to tilt over the stack where the sling was released, dumping the hay. These derricks were time-consuming to set up and slow, and certainly don't look very safe. Overshot stackers and Mormon derricks were used as well, but couldn't reach the heights required for really large stacks.

In about 1907, a couple of Big Hole valley ranchers named Armitage and Stephens built the first hay slide. It consisted of an inclined platform made of peeled saplings. The outside pole on either side was twice as long and supported pulleys for cables that raised a basket up the incline. The basket looked like a buck rake lying on its back with the teeth at right angles to the slide. In use, the basket was lowered until its teeth lay flat on the ground. A sweep rake pushed by a team of horses bucked a load of hay onto the basket's teeth. Another team pulled the basketful of hay up the slide, where it was dumped over the top. Four men with pitchforks built the stack and tramped down the hay, rounding off the top to shed water.

Armitage and Stephens called the contraption the Beaverhead County Slide Stacker when they applied for a patent in 1910, but over the years, the name has contracted and the machines are now known as beaver slides, or just hay slides.