Century-old Hayrack gets New Lease on Life

Painstaking restoration preserves important part of American ranching tradition.

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by Lloyd Marsden
The finished hayrack is a fine legacy for the family ranch.

Hayracks were an essential part of farming and ranching operations until combines replaced threshing machines and hay was switched to bales. The tall ladder-like ends and low sides are designed for ease of loading by hand and large volume capacity. A hayrack saw nearly constant duty.

In mid-summer, it was used to transport hay from field to barn. By later summer, it carried grain bundles from field to thresher. Throughout the winter. it carried hay from storage to winter pasture to feed cattle.

The Marsden hayrack was likely built in the early 20th century and was used in various forms until the mid-60’s. It wasn’t glamorous, so few pictures exist. One from 1953 shows it in the farm yard; it still had its original wood wheels and running gear. By the 1990’s, little remained. I got the front axle, hounds, sand beam, tongue and one wheel to my shop. Fortunately, I was also able to get all four sets of skeins and boxings for the wheels.

James Marsden and his daughter Mildred homesteaded the Marsden Ranch location. James’s son, Gordon Marsden, bought out his father and sister and was on the ranch until 1973. His son, Robert Marsden, operated the ranch from 1948 until 1978. James Marsden probably brought the hayrack from his farm in Mitchell, South Dakota, to the new farm near Wall, South Dakota, in about 1910.

Mysteries surround design and construction

As I started to plan re-building the hayrack, I discovered that the construction was rather enigmatic and the design was inconsistent. The wheels have offset spokes, which give the wheels a very high load-carrying capacity. At the same time, the front running gear is rather light in construction.

The hounds are parallel to the reach, and there is no tilt stabilizer. The tongue is connected as a T rather than the more common Y used with angled hounds. The hayrack body was farm-built with dimension lumber and was probably a third- or fourth-generation from the original. The rear running gear was completely gone. The rack, while similar to many hayracks of the era, is unique in its construction details.

I concluded that the hayrack was assembled on the farm. The running gear must have been built in a small shop using purchased boxings and skeins. The wood was a mixture of oak, maple and other hardwood, likely what was at hand. The gear was designed and built by the wagon shop. The hayrack body may have been built from lumber at the farm according to designs the Marsdens were familiar with.

Keeping it real, as much as possible

I began re-building determined to use as much of the remaining original iron as possible. I was challenged by former Colorado historian David Halaas to restore, rather than replace, the worn-out pieces. I was using the old rotten pieces to find sizes and fits. It was obvious that my grandfather had gotten the last mile out of the hayrack. All the wood was worn or rotten; the bolt holes wallowed out much larger than the original.

It was apparent that making the parts was going to require more than sketches on scraps of paper. For proper fit-up, a set of plans was necessary. Using SolidWorks, a 3D solid modeling program, each part was drawn. From the 3D models of each part, 2-dimensional plans were generated and printed. By the end of the project, every piece had its drawing.

By using the old wood and the iron braces, it was possible to accurately determine the original dimensions. In some cases, the wood was missing and the thickness came from the distance between two rusted nuts on a bolt. Two old pictures aided in finding the original configuration.

Rode hard, put away wet

The iron pieces in the front running gear are blacksmith-forged. Braces on the tongue’s T assembly were made from 3/4-inch round stock. The stock was heated and bent into a shallow Z shape. It was again heated and flattened, then rolled into eyes for the queen bolt, then forge- and anvil-welded.

The other end of the braces flattened in the other direction to fit against the side of the pole. The 5/8-inch queen bolt was re-used with some repair to one threaded end. Braces under the axle and the diagonal braces on the hound are flat iron, 1/4- and 3/8-inch thick.

The hayrack had seen so many rough roads and so little maintenance that all the pieces in the assembly were loose from wear. Holes originally measuring 5/16-inch in diameter were oval and nearly 1/2-inch in diameter. One piece must have been scavenged from another piece of machinery and was simply broken off at a bolt hole to the needed length.

The holes in the iron were repaired by using round graphite rod. The appropriately sized rod was centered in the enlarged hole. Then a welder was used to weld all around the rod on both sides.  Since the steel in the weld does not stick to graphite, the rods could be removed to reveal a perfectly sized and located hole.

The rear running gear was completely gone, so the new one was built to match the track width of the front and is similar to other gear of that era. The rear axle skeins had end pieces of the original diagonal braces and provided the size of that component, as well as the U-bolts that fastened them to the axle.

Dealing with worn skeins

The hayrack wheels ran on cast steel skeins. Each skein is a hollow cone in shape. To prevent rotation on the wooden axle, the skeins expand to an oval shape on the inner side. The axles are oak, 3-1/2 inches by 4 5/8 inches by 61 inches in length. The timbers were milled from oak trees cut on my cousin’s place in Minnesota, dried in my shop to 15 percent moisture.

In order to shape the conical portion of the axle end (in the 1800’s, carving machines were used for this operation), my Vicmarc lathe bed was extended by 13 inches to accommodate the axle length. After turning the cone on the lathe, the axles were hand-fit to the skeins using marker paint to find the high spots and rasps to remove wood. The skeins are held in place by friction with a long lag bolt as extra insurance.

Like the rest of the parts, the skeins were well worn. The outer ends were worn on the bottom and the inner end at the top. The wear was on the order of 3/16-inch, so the worn areas were built up with the MIG welder. It was successful since the material was a cast steel. The shape of the skein made turning the area smooth on a lathe impractical. It was shaped with a grinder and belt sander to an acceptable size and fit.

Test-driving fit of wooden components

As the wooden parts of the running gear were milled to size, they were temporarily assembled. To assure that all the parts fit properly, the holes in the primary part were laid out and drilled. Then the parts were clamped in alignment and the secondary holes were drilled using the primary ones as a template. The iron parts that had been re-built had to fit the assembly as well.  Some tweaking was involved.

The original fifth wheel plate was light and nearly worn through. A new plate of 1/2-inch steel was fabricated with brace arms extending to the sand beam/hounds/axle connection. Square holes were forged to accept carriage bolts.

To save set-up time and tools, I had Calvin Gingerich of Wana Wheels make four new wheels to duplicate the offset spoke wheels originally on the running gear. The front wheels have 12 spokes and the rears 14 spokes. The hubs were bound with original steel bands reclaimed from the remains of the hayrack. The original boxings were pressed into the new wheel hubs.

Sourcing wood for restored hayrack

The entire running gear was pre-assembled, and then taken apart for painting. I am convinced that the linseed oil/metal-drier based paints of the 1800’s and early 1900’s did not last very long in the weather. For the hayrack, we used a high-quality gloss enamel with the addition of an isocyanate hardener. This combination reduced paint runs, increased hardness, improved the gloss and will improve the longevity.

The rack is assembled from the frame up (outside as there was not enough shop space for its size). Fir 3- by 8-inch beams from a local mill were hand-planed to thickness, then fitted with the oak cross-braces. The cross pieces (4-inch by 4-inch old-growth fir) were bolted to the frame beams with 1/2-inch bolts. Large decorative washers were cast in aluminum for each bolt. The uprights for the rack were made from new ponderosa pine and some old-growth fir.

Cross-boards are 1- by 6-inch burr oak harvested in the Black Hills. Each cross-board is reinforced against splitting with tall, shallow “C” brackets formed from 1/8- x 1-inch strap. The original rack featured this type of bracket.  Like the running gear, the rack was disassembled and painted.

Floor boards are Black Hills Ponderosa pine 1- by 12-inch boards planed and finished with spar varnish.

Hardware for the hayrack is all square-head bolts and nuts of the original pattern. Some original hardware was used. Steel rivets are used in many instances where they were originally. The large washers for the frame and the reach plates were made in my foundry. I made patterns for each, molded with green sand and cast in aluminum.

The hayrack made its debut in the Sheridan, Wyoming, Rodeo Parade in July 2019, pulled by a pair of black workhorses. It was featured in the Sheridan Press Destination Magazine in July 2019. It is now available for hay-rides, threshing bees and parades. Full sets of plans are available as well as the 3D model files. FC

Lloyd Marsden grew up on a ranch in western South Dakota. In addition to the hayrack, he has also restored his granddad’s grain wagon. A graduate of South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, he enjoys building things (including furniture and guitars), travel, backpacking and gardening. Contact him at marsdenguitars@bresnan.net; phone (307) 752-748

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