Small Farmer’s Journal friend and contributor Paul Schmit, of Schaff mat Päerd, is helping organize an online symposium exploring the future of animal powered farming. He asked if we would share with the SFJ community his “Call for Papers,” an invitation to submit your ideas and apply to be a presenter. I think there are a lot of valuable stories and experiences amongst you that are reading this Home & Shop Companion – you should do it!
Please contact email@example.com if you are interested.
Rural Ramblings – Fall 1981
Ralph C. Miller
I’m aware that by the time you read this it will be late summer, but I can’t help that. Right now here in Oregon it is haying time – has been for a while. What summer we have had showed up by fits and starts and well mixed with cold, rain or worse. It grew a lot of hay but folks found trouble making it. Sunshine one or two days out of five doesn’t qualify as good haying weather.
This isn’t the first time I’ve raked over hay or haying but if you’ll bear with me I’ll try to lead us down a little different path. Actually this idea started hatching way back there last winter in Florida. I’ve been aware for some time that there are new ways of making hay these days. (New to this old Rambler, at any rate.) On J.R. Wainright’s place and again in several places on the way down to Ocala I was seeing those big round bales.
Toward Ocala most of it was being newly made but J.R. had a field full of the bales that had been there for some time. I guess I remember seeing hay wound up that way in recent past but the question of why never hit me. Square bales stack better and I happen to know he’s got square bales in his barn. Why the round bales there scattered around the field when hay and pasture were so tight and why did they sit upright on the round side of the bale instead of lying flat???
I’m a little slow sometimes but I don’t have to have a bale fall on me to figure answers. For the same reason we used to leave hay in stacks or cocks to feed it later right in the pasture, the big round bales will stay there until they are needed and the tight wrapped shape will shed water like a roof. When the bales are broken open for feeding only a very small weather loss will be found.
So now we’ve come to it. Shedding water and weather. Not only Small Farmers but a lot of folks used to repeat a couple of old saws to express the struggle for survival – along with ‘keeping the wolf from the door,’ the good provider spoke of ‘keeping a roof over our heads.’ Sheltering one’s family and stock was a number one priority then as today.
I suppose the urge goes back to earliest times. In the beginning man would have been just another animal at the mercy of the elements. I think I mentioned once visiting one cave in Spain where carbon dating had placed people living at least 16,000 years ago. Undoubtedly cave dwelling goes back many, many times that far. When there got to be too many people for the number of caves man had to improvise.
In the woods he found shade and some shelter from the wind but when it rained the roof leaked. Out on open grasslands he didn’t have even that protection but somewhere along the line he discovered that enough matted grass stems helped turn water. They also provided some insulation from the cold. It may be that early man gathered hay for the grazing herd and found by trial and error that he needed to round the top up so water would drain off. Or perhaps he emulated birds and small animals burrowing nests in straw and haystacks and thatched roofs followed naturally.
During their heyday (should that be hayday?) thatched roofs enjoyed widespread use. I don’t think there were too many in what is now the United States but I believe they were more prevalent in Canada. In Victoria on Vancouver Island there is an Elizabethan English style village with a replica of Anne Hathaway’s cottage complete with an authentic thatch. It’s my impression that they went to some pains to plant the appropriate grasses, then had to import a man to lay it just right. I have peeked into that attic to see how he tied them in but doubt if I would know how to even start.
There were quite a few temporary buildings roofed with hay even in my lifetime. Trouble was, most hay or straw soon got soggy or rotted away. I’ve mentioned my grandfather cutting marsh hay. It grew fairly fine, tending to flat wiry stems and possibly because of the water or wet ground where it grew it made a fairly long-lasting thatch.
Only thing was, grandpa wasn’t an experienced thatcher. He would throw up a pole shed with the horizontal roof members running parallel to the eaves in the approved fashion but then he just spread the hay on with a fork and lay some saplings over it to hold it down. Didn’t last too long or make a tight roof that way.
I think one reason thatch never caught on more than it did in this country was a matter of pride. America was the natural haven for those nonconformists not about to be stereotyped as to class. Anything that smacked of European peasant beginnings was quickly discarded. (Grandpa went along with the crowd mostly as far as roofs went. His hand-split shakes were acceptable.)
I’m not sure if the buffalo grass of the Great Plains would have made good thatch or not but it might have. Most prairie settlers wouldn’t have been too proud to thatch if they had known how but they had another method to use the tough, thick grass… the sod house or roof.
I believe the true soddy was indigenous to the American West but I’m not an expert. Some of the members of our family migrated to the prairies of South Dakota (Dakota Territory at that time) and started life there in a sod house. Soddies weren’t palaces and probably few today would care to put up with them. They were dark, dusty, attracted bugs, spiders and snakes, plus things were often falling from the ceiling – chunks of dirt or maybe an occasional worm.
No, they weren’t much for looks or comfort, but they did have certain advantages. Any framework was willow or cottonwood poles cut along the creek bank and the sod came right from the prairie; the price was right. Sod is a good insulator and such houses tended to be warmer in winter and cooler in summer than the board shells erected by the more fastidious or affluent.
There was no decorating problem. Sod cut at the proper time and watered by occasional rains would grow and blend right in with the landscape. Apocryphal or not, I have heard tales of sod houses cut into banks (as most of them were) where cattle wandered onto the roof and fell through. Not exactly a plus, but in a land of tornadoes being below the storm line would be a comfort, I guess.
Man sheltered himself by other natural things besides hay and sod. Aside from the lumber and shingles of the present day we have used trees and tree products since earliest times. When it comes to makeshift shelters the lean-to of boughs must rank near the top.
Speaking of lean-tos, one of my earliest recollections concerns a little stroll when I was about 2½ years old. Mother had gone back to teaching school temporarily to fill a vacancy. Dad was trying to keep an eye on my sister and me while getting chores and winter maintenance done on the farm. Sis was 4 and had looked after me since the cradle.
Rather hesitantly, Dad decided he would have to leave us alone in the house for a couple of hours in the middle of the day while he got in a little necessary wood cutting in the woodlot not quite a quarter of a mile away. Although it had been cloudy earlier, the sun came out brightly soon after he left the house. My sister decided that we two intrepid adventurers would go see what Daddy was doing (I was probably bugging her about our being left alone but I don’t remember that part).
She got us dressed after a fashion and we started. It wasn’t far and although we couldn’t see him, we could hear Dad’s axe and follow his tracks through the foot of snow. Short legs tire quickly in deep snow and we made slow progress. The clouds were back and it was spitting snow before we got there. We were very cold, very nervous and both crying when he saw us coming. I think it must have been a scare for him, too.
I remember being wrapped in his big coat at once and probably no lean-to ever went up quicker than the one he built of pine branches in front of his fire. On a bed of boughs with the coat over us we napped the weariness away until it was time to leave. Dad never tried leaving us alone again but the lean-to stood in that clump of trees for several years and was always good for a ‘remember when?’
Another roofing material often used in early times in this country was bark. The huge old trees of the virgin forest had bark inches thick which could be flaked off in big chunks, especially when a tree was dead or had been down for a while. That may be hard to visualize for some who are not familiar with them, but I have fir stumps here on my place some of which measure 4 to 6 feet across and although those trees have been gone for more than 50 years and the stumps are rotted, you can still pick off slabs of bark 2 or 3 feet square which are solid as if they were still growing.
Along with that of conifers, the bark of the birch was often used. Indians employed birch bark first, of course, not only for canoes but for complete structures as well. I imagine there were white birch trees large enough to yield big tough pieces originally although I can’t remember seeing any of those. I do recall one grove of virgin timber with some yellow birch we estimated to be 120 feet tall with the first branches nearly 100 feet from the ground. They were 3 or 4 feet through the butt and one of them would surely have roofed more than one house. The bark was much thicker than white birch.
* * * * *
I have to take time out here for a small side trip. It really isn’t as much of a digression as it may seem. I had to interrupt my writing to take care of a small problem – a little difference of opinion actually between me and one of my tenants. He doesn’t like to think of himself in just that way of course; he’s convinced that he is the resident engineer – my beaver, I mean.
He has never forgotten or quite forgiven me for the time two summers ago when the dam was in trouble and the pond went down so low as a consequence. Then when we had the dam reinforced the water became so muddy it took more than two months to clear.
Now, although we try to respect each others rights, we can’t seem to agree on the overflow from the pond. Every night he builds a small dam across it and nearly every day I tear it out. Sticks, moss (algae) and mud; he tries to stop the creek and I take out enough so the water will stay below the roadway across the top of the dam.
I said I wasn’t really changing the subject – you see, his home is in the bank across the pond, and the entry is through a hole somewhat lower than that. When the water went so low the hole was completely exposed and he moved away for a while. All he’s trying to do now is to make sure the water stays higher than that entry… ‘keeping a roof (even a wet one) over his head.’
* * * * *
Well, we started out by talking of the water-shedding propensities of hay or straw and may have wandered a little far afield. If we chose we might find it difficult to get back to thatched roofs. I know that as a rule these grasses are not the native ones we use for forage, but they do belong to the same general classification. There is a definite relationship between that field you just mowed and the ‘Little grass shack of Kealakekua, Hawaii.’ Likewise with your Western straw, the Panama hat and the rain cape of the Philippine peasants. Straw mats keep out weather while admitting some air in many of the hot countries of the world.
Wood is a renewable resource but we are definitely using up cedar faster than we can grow it. I doubt if we will run out of clay for the tiles soon but the cost of that type of overhead is ‘going through the roof.’ Asbestos products are in ill repute and the amount of asphaltum is certainly finite although it is the most widely used today.
If there be any point to this ramble, it may lie in a half-formed hope that if the day ever comes when it is necessary we will be able to resurrect the disappearing art of the thatcher and locate the proper strains so that once again the Small Farmers of the world can grow the grasses to ‘keep a roof over our heads.’