Today, petroleum-based products are essential to farm operations. But for thousands of years, fodder – specifically, hay – was the most critical form of fuel on the farm. Up to the late 18th century, the process of making hay remained essentially unchanged. By the 1850s, though, the impact of the Industrial Revolution was unmistakable.
In this article, the final segment of a three-part series on hay equipment (see Part 1 and Part 2), the focus is on balers. Now commonplace, bales of hay were once an exotic luxury item. A growing nation’s need for fodder, however, jump-started the technology needed to package feed in a practical, convenient manner.
Memories of watching a stationary baler at work are clear in Duane Junck’s mind.
So when the retired Kingsley, Iowa, farmer had the opportunity to purchase a McCormick-Deering stationary baler dating to the late 1930s he didn’t hesitate to add it to his large collection of vintage equipment.
The McCormick baler line included models in various sizes. Duane’s, a mid-size unit, is belt-powered. “It took several men to operate it,” he explains. “One man pitched hay into the baler. Another man blocked the hay and one tied up the bales. It was always a real dirty job.”
For several years at the Plymouth County Fair in Le Mars, Iowa, Duane helped operate a baler similar to the one he bought. He and his crew took the baler to various events, including area threshing bees, where they demonstrated the baling process.
“Most of the younger people had never seen a stationary baler, so they were pretty fascinated by it,” Duane says. “Mine is in really good condition, considering that balers usually sat beside a hay or straw stack and collected a lot of dust and dirt while they were working. That’s hard on every part of the machine, including the paint.”
The unit’s controls allowed customized bales. “You could set the size of the bale, width and depth, however long you wanted it,” Duane says. “We made them about the same size as they still make small square bales now. When you stack them, they keep better if they’re made twice as long as they are wide. A good, tight stack sheds water better. If the bales get too heavy, they’re hard for a guy to stack.”
Storing loose hay
Small square bales are quickly becoming scarce on today’s farms. But while they seem out of place next to 1-ton bales, the small bales were a great improvement over the first bales introduced to the agriculture industry more than 100 years ago.
Before hay presses were developed, hay was stored loose in barn haymows or in the field, stacked so it would shed water. Storing hay in mows required a lot of space, and haystacks outside a barn were prone to destruction by wind or rain. Farmers who saw the need to compress hay to improve storage began experimenting with hay presses in the early 1800s. But lack of demand kept innovators from seriously pursuing a practical design until the mid-1800s.
One of the first hay presses was powered by horses walking on an inclined treadmill. As the horses walked on the leather-and-wood treadmill belt, their movement drove a shaft attached to a chain drive. Through a variety of sprockets, the chain drive pushed a plunger into the unit, compressing the hay. Hay was hauled to the press and forked into the bale chamber by hand. Once the bale reached the right size, wooden blocks were dropped into the chamber and wire or twine was threaded around the bale and tied by hand.
Growth spurs need for bales
By 1850, the need for compressed hay and better ways to transport it had grown urgent. At that time, the Ohio River was a main artery for settlers headed to the Northwest Territory. The river also served as a major means of shipping goods from west to east. Transportation systems powered by horses were thriving in river communities and hay was needed to fuel the system. As a result, hay became a vital cash crop in the Ohio Valley and much of the Midwest. It remained a staple crop of many Ohio Valley farms throughout the 19th century.
Indiana farmers whose land was especially well suited to producing hay were among the first to devise innovative ways to improve shipping the crop. Pressing hay into bales made it much easier to transport. Hundreds of barns along the Ohio and its tributaries housed large, stationary hay presses. In her book To the River: U.P. Schenk, Swiss Immigrant Entrepreneur, Shipping Magnate and Family Man, Carolyn Danner Beach wrote of Vevay, Ind., “hay king” U.P. Schenk, who recorded shipment of nearly 26,000 bales in one 10-month period in the 1850s.
In 1853, Albany, N.Y., manufacturer H.L. Emery developed an awkward, cumbersome machine that could produce five 250-pound bales per hour. It took two men and a horse to operate it, and the resulting bale measured 2-by-2-by-4 feet. In 1860, P.K. Dedrick, also of Albany, introduced an improved hay press (his earliest model was a stationary upright unit). By 1872, he improved on his own design with a perpetual press, one operating with a horizontal chamber.
After the George Ertel Co., Quincy, Ill., developed a vertical hay press in 1866, it was manufactured and sold in western states for several years.
Famous storms the market
The Famous Mfg. Co. was founded by Andrew Wickey in Chicago after he recognized rapid growth in the market for baled hay. The company’s portable Champion hay press, developed in 1881, was soon in wide use. The baler’s chamber was fitted with a pressure gauge that triggered a release once the bale reached full size. Bales were discharged out of the baler’s side.
Following the Champion’s commercial success, Wickey designed a second press (the Common Sense) in an upright pattern. The design was similar to the Champion, but it used a capstan power (more typically seen in ship construction) and dispensed with the side discharge.
In 1887, Famous introduced the belt-power press, the first steam-power press manufactured in the West. In 1888, the company produced a Champion 4-horse power press, available in both detached and attached options. Famous also found commercial success that year with its new Champion 2-horse full circle press constructed entirely of iron and steel.
Famous perfected the self-tying attachment on its baler in the fall of 1892. In his 1894 book American Agricultural Implements, author Robert Ardrey says the baler was “a radically new invention in the hay-press industry, and one that promises to have far-reaching results. It takes the wire from the coil, passes it around the bale and fastens the ends together, the entire operation being automatic, thus reducing the help required as also the cost of the wire.”
Early hay presses made a significant difference in the amount of labor needed to put up hay. But it still took plenty of work to generate compressed hay in tied, stackable bales. Two or three men were needed to operate the press, and the power source – whether it was horses or a steam engine – required a worker or two as well.
The small, box-type plunger press of the 1880s was operated by hand and powered by teams of horses walking in a circle, pulling a sweep-arm drive. Large presses, such as the Ypsilanti Wolverine and the Whitman Steel King, were mounted on a wagon-style chassis weighing up to 5,000 pounds. Large presses required a 5 hp steam engine and could kick out a bale each minute, keeping a tying crew hopping.
The idea of compacting and baling hay to make it easy to handle, ship and store continued to gain momentum – and bales became heavier. Before baling, a cubic foot of hay weighs about 5 pounds. The earliest balers made bales that weighed 15 to 30 pounds per cubic foot. By the late 1920s, the weight of a cubic foot of baled hay had increased to 40 pounds; average-size bales weighed 75 to 100 pounds.
The term “hay baler” was introduced in the late 1930s and early 1940s as portable, automatic pick-up balers completed the entire baling operation with just one operator. By then, the average farmer could afford tractor-powered balers that gathered, baled and tied hay on the move.
Duane Junck doesn’t expect to use his stationary baler on a regular basis. Being able to hang onto a piece of history is reason enough for him to keep and maintain the machine.
“It gives a guy a chance to reminisce,” he says. “It was a good thing when we used the baler all the time, took it from farm to farm and two or three guys got together to work. There’s something about that kind of work that brings people together, and you won’t ever replace that. This is one way to remind us of where we’ve been.” Miss the first two segments of this three-part series? Read “ Part 1: Evolving from Manual Mowing ” and “ Part 2: Rake Development Spurred by Mower Technology .” FC
For more information: Duane Junck, (712) 378-2330.
Loretta Sorensen is a lifelong resident of southeast South Dakota. She and her husband farm with Belgian draft horses and collect vintage farm equipment. E-mail her at email@example.com .
Click here to see a hay press in action on YouTube. You can also find the video by visiting Farm Collector's video index, clicking on the Featured in Farm Collector playlist and choosing “Baling Straw with 12 Horsepower Fuller & Johnson Engine.”