Baling Hay in the 1940s: Hay Baler Earned Its Vicious Reputation

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A baler similar to the one used by the author’s dad, spotted in a mountain meadow near Ft. Collins, Colo. This baler was smaller and was fed by a man standing on the ground, rather than on a platform surrounding the opening.
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Demonstration of a stationary hay baler at a central Iowa show.
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Stacking hay, September 1940, Ouray County, Colo.
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Stacking hay, September 1940, Ouray County, Colo.
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Stacking hay, September 1940, Ouray County, Colo.
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Stacking hay, September 1940, Ouray County, Colo.
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Stacking hay, September 1940, Ouray County, Colo.
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Homemade tractor, used to stack hay, September 1940, Ouray County, Colo.
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Father and son keep a close eye on the stacker in operation. September 1940, Ouray County, Colo.

My father owned a hay baler that was a marvelous machine ahead of its time.

However, as a boy watching it in action, I always felt a tingle of potential danger.

We baled our own hay and helped the neighbors as well. When the alfalfa had been cut and cured in the sun and raked into rows or individual piles with a dump rake, the hay crew went to work.

Stacking with a sweep

Some farmers drove sweeps that resembled huge forks with long, wooden tines that slid along the ground and gathered the hay. Instead of two horses side-by-side in a team, one horse was harnessed at either side of the wide fork.

When hay was being stacked, the driver pulled his sweep full of hay up to the stacking machine and meshed the teeth of his sweep with the long, wooden teeth of the stacking rig. Those polished poles had blunt metal barbs on the ends so the sweep man, backing his team away, left the hay caught on the stacker teeth.

That rig was like a huge, framed catapult. A team of horses pulled a heavy rope through a series of pulleys, lifting the hay pile from the ground. As the load rose in the air, the thick, wooden beams of the stacker telescoped upward, extending and pushing high beyond vertical, until the pile of hay slid and fell with a swoosh of air and dust onto the stack. At full extension, the whole frame shuddered and wavered, rocking as if it might come down with a crash. No wonder farmers were serious as they used sledgehammers to drive long, heavy metal pins into the ground to hold the frame in place.

A dangerous job

At the stationary baler, the sweeps came sliding along the ground carrying mounds of hay. The sweep man simply backed away, leaving the baler. Men with pitchforks threw the hay up on a platform around the plunger. From a young boy’s perspective, that plunger looked like an instrument of danger.

Today, whenever I pass a weed-filled farm lot full of ancient machinery, I look for a stationary baler to relive this memory and check my dimensions. I’ve never found one like the one from my youth. The plunger on my dad’s was 3 or 4 feet long with serrated wooden teeth. As my father shoved hay under it, the plunger came driving down, smashing the hay into a hole in the center of the baler. The head went methodically up and down, like a huge beaked bird, powered by a belt from a tractor.

My dad stood on the platform next to the hole, everything shivering, shaking and vibrating, the floor slick from the polishing of thousands of tons of hay. One little mistake – a slip on the shiny floor, a sleeve caught on a bolt on the plunger head – and my dad would be smashed down into that hole.

Sometimes, when everyone was gone, I climbed up and looked down to where the great driving hay-packing shaft jammed forward, pushing the hay through the bale chute and compacting green stems into rectangular bales. Even standing quietly on the polished platform beside the silent plunger gave me a chill, and I stepped back from the hole.

No margin for error

When the baler was running, two men sat on either side of the long bale chute. One, the blocker, placed grooved wooden blocks into a frame. He rammed the block and frame into the bale chute in the brief interval while the horizontal packer arm was withdrawn, waiting to be fed another clump of hay from above. The block was slammed in at the proper time to make a good size bale: too soon and a silly little bale resulted, too late and the bale was so long no wires could reach around it and the hay spilled loose onto the ground outside the tail of the chute. Up on the platform, my dad would frown and mutter.

The same man who shoved in the blocks also poked wires. A bundle of long straight wires lay on the bale beside his seat. One end of each wire was twisted into a loop. The wooden blocks were slotted so the ends of the two wires could be poked through to the tie man on the other side. He grabbed the first two ends, one coming from each of the separator blocks to his right and left. He pulled the two together and quickly ran one end through the loop and tied it off and reached for the other two. No sooner had he finished one bale than someone yelled “Block!” again, the block was slammed home and four more wire ends came shooting through to greet him.

The slots on the wooden blocks were open. As pressure relaxed on the emerging bale and it expanded inside the tied wires, the wires came free of the blocks, allowing each block to be grabbed and used again. That was good, in theory. Sometimes the block was splintered or a wire caught deep in a groove in the wood and clung to a bale as it emerged.

That was emergency time. Jump up from the blocker’s seat, run back, wrestle, pry and kick the block loose just in time to fly back and ram it home while Dad watched with limited confidence.

Stepping up to the plate

Did I ever do those things? I’ll never forget the first time. We had a deep belly hunger as kids – not only for meat and gravy and potatoes, but for anything, anything that would mark us as ready to be men.

When I was asked as a young teenager to take one of those seats at the side of the baler, I didn’t hesitate. I was tying wires! I was determined to do it, and do it well. I’d watched others, so why not me?

There was no pause between being asked and sitting down. The wires came sliding through the blocks; I grabbed and pulled and tied, and did it again and again until my hands felt hot and sticky. Looking down, I saw my skin torn and bloody. The wires had sharp ends where the machine-made loops ended. The wire itself, if handled barehanded long enough, could cut.

I’d never owned a good pair of leather gloves, an absolute must for a tie man. In my enthusiasm to do a man’s work, I didn’t think of gloves. I went away bloody and shamed, but proud to have been there. FC

Dale Geise is a retired educator who grew up on a farm near Underwood in southwest Iowa. Contact him at 1051 X Ave., Boone, IA 50036; (515) 292-5533; e-mail:
Reprinted with permission from the September 1998 issue of Looking Back magazine, House of White Birches publishers, Berne, IN 46711.
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