Making Hay by a kid from the 1920s

Making Hay (by a kid from the 1920s)

by Bernice N. Fishpaw of DeLand, FL

“WHOA!!” My father’s voice booms from deep inside the barn.

“WHOA!” I shout in my 7 going on 8 voice. I pull back on the lines and the horses obey my signal and stop. Fannie and Jenny are two strong workhorses. Fannie is a bay. She is brown with black socks and black mane and tail. Jenny is a sorrel. Her coat is red and she has a blond mane and tail. In size I’m hardly more significant to them than one of the annoying flies they flick away with their tails, but they do as I command with both my voice and the leather lines I hold in my hands.

It is haying time on our farm in Wisconsin. I have an important part to play in the ongoing process of producing and harvesting that makes up our daily lives.

I am perched on a two wheeled cart made from the front axle and tongue of a farm wagon that has been retired. The metal seat is salvaged from some worn out piece of farm machinery. The axle has a one inch thick, hemp rope tied to it. The rope runs to a pulley at the foundation of the barn, up to a small door on the side of the barn near the roof and into the hay mow. Tons and tons of fresh, fragrant hay are being stored to feed our cows and horses during the winter when snow covers the pastures.

Through a series of pulleys, the rope runs to a trolley and ends up attached to a big grapple fork. It is like a huge four pronged tong. Once the hay is released, my grandfather pulls the empty fork along the track inside the barn, through the big, gaping hay mow door near the peak of the gable and down to the wagon with a smaller rope. Grandpa sets the four tines of the fork deep into the mound of hay on the wagon that stands at the end of the barn.

By now, I have turned my team around and returned to the side of the barn. Fannie, Jenny and I are ready to haul up the next forkful of hay. At the signal from Grandpa, I cluck the order, “Gidup.” Fannie and Jenny lean into their padded collars. Strong muscles in their back legs and rumps bulge. The leather tugs that connect the horses to the cart stretch tight. Slowly we go forward. Five hundred pounds of hay lift from the wagon. Swinging gently, the hay rises to the peak of the roof, connects with the trolley and glides along the track. It reaches the place inside, my dad and brother wait to spread it evenly in the cavernous part of the barn we call the hay mow. A shout by Pa and a jerk of the trip rope by Grandpa and the hay falls to the floor.

Once again my grandfather pulls the empty fork along the track inside the barn, back to the wagon with the smaller trip rope.

Over and over we do this until the hay wagon is empty. I am a key part of the team as we harvest the bounty of our farm. It feels good to be important.

I am free now to play on my swing until the next load of hay has been gathered. Fannie and Jenny are not so lucky. They are hitched to the hay wagon to go back to the field for more hay.

Making hay is farmer language for harvesting. It includes cutting, curing, gathering and storing of green crops such as grass or legumes.

On our farm our hay was alfalfa, a legume which is rich in nitrogen and vitamins. It is also a desirable crop because its roots take nitrogen from the air and return it to enrich the soil for other crops.

It is very important when putting loose hay in a barn that it be dry. Wet hay will start to ferment and become very hot. Because there is air available, when it gets hot enough, it will burst into flames. This is called spontaneous combustion. In the 1920’s, before silos and baling hay became common, it was not unusual for two or three big dairy barns in the county to be lost each year, especially if there had been a lot of rain.

That is why it was so important to get the hay dried and in the barn after it was cut and before it rained. That is how the expression, “Make hay while the sun shines,” became a part of our language.