by William Castle of Shropshire, UK
When making hay with a single horse, turning and tedding the hay as described in part one of this series were definitely the easy part. Mowing presented me with a greater challenge, but with suitable equipment hard to find and little spare money, in the beginning I was happy to enjoy doing what I could do with the horse and not worry too much about the things I was unable to do. But as each year passed, my desire to mow with my horse increased, not only because the horse would get more work, but also so I had more control of the process. Of the stages in the hay making process I always think that cutting the hay is the least important thing to be able to do yourself, because unlike baling or turning, if you can’t get it cut one day the grass is not going to deteriorate if left, though being able to choose when to cut does give a better chance of making the most of the weather. My other reason for wanting to mow was that even the smaller contractors around here have now switched to mowers of 10 foot or more in width, which my horse drawn turner or tedder would be unable to tackle satisfactorily.
In my search for a solution to mowing with a single horse I had a number of options. The first was to find an old single horse mower, which were probably more common in Britain than America, but even though I have seen quite a few, only once in the last twenty years have I seen a usable example for sale, and even then, if just one part broke the chances of getting a replacement would be minimal. A further complication is that the single horse mowers cut a swath of three foot or three foot six, which would not match the working widths of my turner or tedder.
The second option was to find an old two-horse mower, but with any British made mower the parts problem is the same as with the single horse machines. Keeping other less complicated machinery working showed me how difficult it is to be reliant on old parts, but with a mower this would be more critical. To give myself a chance of being able to mow with a single horse I needed a mower in tip top condition, so because of the lack of parts, I ruled out using a British mower. The parts situation for some American made mowers, however, is completely different, and although any parts would need to be imported from America, that was still a possibility.
Another option was to use a mower with a more modern cutter bar. At the time I was looking, the new I and J mower with double reciprocating knives was not available, but I did know about the older Busatis cutter bars, which also have two reciprocating knives, but unlike the cutter bar on the I and J, the sections on both top and bottom knives have the same spacing. This cutter bar was what the late Charlie Pinney used with his hitch carts, and although I only ever saw pictures of Charlie’s mower, I have seen a Busatis cutter bar on a homemade horse drawn mower when I visited Joe Godderidge, a horse farmer from Norfolk.
On Joe’s machine the Busatis cutter bar is mounted in the middle of the two axle mower, using the axles from an old dumper truck. The powered axle is at the back, and via the dumper’s gearbox, turns a shaft running forward to the pto connection for the belt drive to the cutter bar. The front wheels, which were originally the steered rear wheels of the dumper, have the Ackerman steering connected to the pole between the horses, the front axle eliminating any side draught on the horses. The 6 foot cutter bar is lifted by a battery powered hydraulic pump. With this mower Joe can cut two acres an hour, but he does use three horses, which is just fine for him; but it was not really a model for me and my single horse, because even if I built the whole thing proportionally lighter, it would cut a very narrow swath. A mower using the same cutter bar, but driven with a small engine would have been another possibility, but although I am happy enough cutting and welding, I did not fancy the precision metalwork necessary to build such a machine, or the cost of an engine for an experimental mower.
The last option was to buy a motorized forecart to use with a tractor mower, but the expense would be considerable, and although in theory I have nothing against using engines with horses it was not something I wanted to do if I could avoid it.
Weighing up the options, in the end I decided on an old American two horse mower. For the availability of parts, the choice was between John Deere and McCormick Deering, but John Deere mowers were never imported into Britain as far as I know, so that only left McCormick Deering, who exported horse drawn mowers until the Second World War. From 1939 the trade switched to tractors and machines to go with them, so the No. 9 mowers, which started rolling off the production line that same year, probably never made it across the Atlantic. This left me with just the No. 7, which do turn up from time to time, and in due course the friend who found me the side delivery rake sold me his mower which he had bought a few years earlier, but he had only used it occasionally as a topper behind a tractor.
My original intention with this mower was to completely rebuild it, to put it in the best possible working condition to use it with my horse. Although I was still unsure whether this would be too much for her, at least I did not pay very much for the mower, and if necessary I could always make the cutter bar shorter, or even disengage the clutch mechanism and mount a small petrol [gasoline] engine to run a belt to the pitman wheel. Once the mower was back at home I cleaned everything up so I could see what work needed doing. The frame, wheels and gearbox looked OK, but the cutter bar really needed rebuilding with new guards, wear plates etc. In addition there were also a number of other missing or worn parts, including the draft bracket which had been discarded, suggesting the mower may have had a hard existence being dragged behind a tractor. Although these problems weren’t insurmountable, when I inquired about the cost of two new knives, a complete set of guards, ledger plates, grassboard, pitman, oil seals, seat, draft bracket and all the other odds and ends, it added up to not much less than the cost of a reconditioned mower, which would probably be a better mower than my first attempt at restoring a less than ideal candidate. So the mower rebuild was put on hold while I reviewed my options, the new option being to import a reconditioned mower from America.
Once this idea was in my head, it offered some new possibilities. I would no longer be confined to having a No. 7, and the No. 9 perhaps had some advantages. From reading the Small Farmers Journal, I knew that some people are equally happy with either model, but because McCormick Deering had gone to the trouble of developing the No. 9, it suggests they could see that there were improvements to be made on the No. 7. Even if the improvement was small, with a single horse any improvement was likely to increase my chance of success. It also seemed to make sense that the two stage gearbox of the No. 9 would use less power than the three stage gearbox of the No. 7, and the gearbox being behind the axle would also help in reducing the weight on the horse.
Another advantage in getting a reconditioned mower was that I could specify inflatable rubber tyres rather than cast wheels, which should also reduce the draught. Although some people prefer solid wheels over inflatable tyres, the two comparative tests I have seen, one made with a two wheeled tip cart [dump cart] by Reading University in 1937 [*1], the other by Tillers International in 2001, both showed a reduction in draught when using inflatable rubber tyres. Depending on the surface the wheels are running on, the difference varies, but on hay sod the Tillers study [*2] showed that rubber tyres reduce the draught of a wheeled vehicle by 45%. Obviously with a mower, there is more happening than just pulling it along out of gear as if it were a cart, but Tillers also did draught tests on McD No. 7 mowers. [*3] With a 5 ft cutter bar the rolling resistance [the amount of force needed to pull the mower when out of gear] was 94 lb, the mechanical resistance [the force needed to make the whole machine work] was 74 lb, and the force used in cutting the crop was 152 lb, making a total of 320 lb.