Bailing Hay: a City Kid on the Farm

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The scene depicted on this vintage postcard is typical of the haying experiences John Cole recalls.
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Ervin Luebke (John Cole’s father-in-law) was bailing hay long before the city kid "volunteered" for weekend duty. Luebke on the Farmall; Lila Mae Luebke (the future Mrs. John Cole, seated); and hired man Milo Peterson atop the combine.
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Minnesota map.

I had always been a city kid. My closest
experience with farming came when “the farmer’s daughter” became my
wife, and I helped with baling hay.

As a young man, my regular job took me to St. Paul, Minn., each
day to do construction work, so when the weekend came, that was “my
day.” My wife’s only brother always went racing on weekends and the
first year we were married, Lila volunteered me to help “Dad.”

I usually slept in on Saturdays but getting up early was not a
problem. I arrived on the farm at 7 a.m., and Erwin already had the
tractor hooked to the baler. He also had pulled two other wagons
out to the field and left them there, then walked back. Because I
had experience using construction equipment, I asked him if he
wanted me to drive. “When you own the equipment,” he said, “you
drive the equipment.”

Upon arriving at the field, I had no trouble hooking the empty
hay wagon to the back of the baler. I was quite proud of myself
after we had completed almost one round. When the tractor stopped,
I had hay bales stacked on both sides with a walkway down the center.
Erwin got on the wagon and explained that the bales had to be
arranged a certain way, working from the back to the front. It
seems he used a bale fork that would pick up, I think, 10 bales at
a time. He also told me that we wouldn’t ever get done if he had to
stop all the time.

I got pretty good at stacking. On the corners, it seemed, that’s
when the bales would drop to the ground because I couldn’t reach
them. I became skilled at jumping off and retrieving the bales
before another one came. Having worked with my hands, I didn’t use
gloves. The twine didn’t bother my hands at all. I had never owned
a long-sleeved shirt, so by evening my arms looked like I had
measles.

Changing to the second wagon, I noticed a board on the floor was
broken. I mentioned to my father-in-law that in St. Paul, OSHA
(Occupational Safety and Health Administration) would “red tag” the
wagon and it wouldn’t move until it had been fixed. Erwin told me
that if I stepped into the hole, I would know that it was there. He
was right. I think it took three weeks for the scabs (which were as
high up as my groin) to fall off my leg.

We pulled both wagons with the second tractor to the barn. I was
given a rope and told to pull it until the bale fork appeared, then
pull the fork to the wagon. Erwin would arrange the bale fork and
set the forks into the bales. He controlled an electric power winch
with another rope. When he pulled it, the bales went up in the air
until they got to the track and were moved away into the barn. This
was much easier than using a conveyor, the previous practice. In
addition, I didn’t have to get into a hot barn.

When the hay load got to the other end of the barn, I would pull
the rope and trip the fork, which would drop the bales. Then I
would pull the forks back for another load of hay. The second wagon
went real smooth until I realized that I was stepping on the trip
rope, and halfway into the barn the load tripped. The next weekend
we spent the day replacing 2-by-10s in the haymow floor.

At noon, my mother-in-law came out to the field with lunch, and
I was starved. I figured we had about two more wagon-loads and then
I could go home and take a well-deserved nap, as I was beat. After
unloading those two loads, I was surprised when Erwin said we were
going to bale ditches next. Let me tell you, there isn’t a ride at
the county fair that’s as exciting as baling a ditch full of hay. I
spent four years in the U.S. Navy and rode out two typhoons, but
this was worse than any of that!

We finished at about 7 that night and had everything unloaded.
Erwin had a thing about himself that I really liked: He didn’t work
on Sundays. It had crossed my mind that if he did, I might have to
take up racing, too. Sunday morning I didn’t think I could get out
of bed, and I didn’t until 10 a.m., getting to church for the late
service.

As the years went by, I got better and better at haying until my
father-in-law didn’t bale anymore and dropped out of the cattle
business. One Sunday, when he was at my house for dinner, we
reminisced about my career as a farmer. “For all the times you
helped me bale,” he asked, “how come you never used a bale hook?”
“Bale hook?” I asked. “What’s a bale hook?”


John Cole is a postcard collector and dealer from Minnesota.
His memoir was originally published in the
Goodhue
(Minn.) County Ag Reporter.

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