Putting Hay Away the Old-Fashioned Way

Haymow forks fascinate Pennsylvania collector


| November 2005



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This screw-style haymow fork is based on James T. Hall’s patented improvement of John F. Pierce’s hay elevator patented in 1866. This model is unusual in that the looped piece of steel seen beneath the device’s hook attachment eye (top center) actually forms a pair of pawls that engage the teeth of the ratchet wheel to keep the screw from turning backwards. Once the hay was in position, a small line attached to the pawls and threaded over the small sheaf beneath the eye was pulled, which lifted the pawls from the ratchet and allowed gravity to unscrew the load of hay.

Did you ever stop to think about how loose hay was loaded into the multi-level mows of 19th century barns, long before the advent of stationary hay presses and conventional elevators? Can you imagine the amount of labor associated with raising that provender high in the loft to make feeding it to the cattle the following winter less of a chore? Retired Thomasville, Pa., farmer Robert Rauhauser thinks about these questions, and finds fascination with early tools designed to lighten the heavy work of hay handling. "I am really interested in all kinds of loose hay tools," he says. "The horse-powered forks used to lift the hay are my main focus."

In 1956, about the same time Robert started farming on his own, he often found himself at sales looking for good used equipment. The offerings at those auctions were the inspiration for Robert's collection of primitive farm tools. Fifty years later, he has amassed a truly overwhelming number of items, and knowledge about them. "When I get into a new area of collecting, I try to learn as much as I can about the manufacturers and inventors," Robert explains. For example, at one time he was crazy about hog oilers - a passion that drove him to publish a book (now out of print) on the category. Demand remains so great that he is now working on a revised and updated version. Perhaps one day he will put together a book on haymow forks.

Forking it over

"I call the horse-powered hay forks haymow forks," Robert says as he opens a corrugated-steel grain bin literally stacked floor to ceiling with more than 125 variations of the device. "I stopped calling them hay forks because people were expecting to see old wooden pitchforks."

Hay hoisting devices were identified in many ways. "Different parts of the country and different inventors used different names for the haymow fork," he explains with a chuckle. "I have found patent documents calling them horse hay forks, hay harpoons, hay spears, hay hooks, hay grapples, hay slings, hay elevators or just hay forks."

That there were so many different names for hay lifting tools gives an indication that there were many different methods for getting hold of the loose forage in order to lift it to the mow. For example, the grapple fork was lowered into a wagonload of hay with its jaws opened wide. Once engaged with the hay, the grapple's teeth were drawn together and the works was lifted - taking a bite, quite literally, out of the load.

The spear- or harpoon-type haymow forks often employed a hollow or slotted cylindrical body with a solid point at the end and hinged barbs to skewer a load. The spear (or harpoon) was lowered to the wagon with its barb(s) retracted and then plunged into the loaded wagon. Extending the barbs prior to lifting retained a surprising amount of hay on the fork. Other designs offered different methods to retain the hay for lifting, but they were similar in the job they performed.