Marsden Ranch Hayrack
by Lloyd Marsden, P.E., of Sheridan, WY
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. Sometimes called a “basket rack,” it wasn’t glamorous, so few pictures exist. One from 1953 shows it in the farm yard and it still had its original wood wheels and running gear. By the 1990’s little remained. I was able to bring to my shop the front axle, hounds, sand beam, tongue and one wheel. Fortunately, I was able to get all 4 sets of skeins and boxings for the wheels.
James Marsden and his daughter Mildred first 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 Mitchell, SD farm to the new farm near Wall, SD in about 1910.
As I started to plan the re-building of the hayrack, I discovered that the construction was rather enigmatic, not consistent in its design. 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 3rd or 4th 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 basket rack style hayrack body may have been built from lumber at the farm according to designs the Marsden’s were familiar with.
I began re-building with a decision to use as much of the iron pieces that remained as possible. I was challenged by David Halaas, former Colorado Historian, 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 wagon. 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 need 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 own 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.
The iron pieces in the front running gear are blacksmith forged. Braces on the tongues T assembly were made from 3/4” round stock. The stock was heated, 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” 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” 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 5/16” diameter were oval and nearly 1/2”. 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.
The hayrack wheels ran on cast steel skeins. The skeins are 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” x 4-5/8” x 61” in length. The timbers were milled from oak trees cut on my cousin’s place in Minnesota, dried in my shop to 15% moisture. In order to shape the conical portion of the axle end (in the 1800’s there were carving machines for this operation), my Vicmarc lathe bed was extended by 13” 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. Each axle took about a full day to fit up to the skeins.
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”, 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.
As the wooden parts of the running gear were milled to size, they were temporarily assembled. To assure that all the parts properly fit together 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 rebuilt 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” steel was fabricated with brace arms extending to the sand beam/hounds/axle connection. Square holes were forged to accept carriage bolts.
To save setup time and tools, I had Calvin Gingerich of Wana Wheels make 4 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.
The entire running gear was pre-assembled 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” x 8” beams from a local mill were hand planed to thickness, then fit with the oak cross braces. The cross pieces, 4” x 4” old growth fir, are bolted to the frame beams with 1/2” bolts. Large decorative washers were cast in aluminum for each bolt. The uprights for the rack were made up from new ponderosa pine and some old growth fir. Cross boards are 1” x 6” 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” 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 1×12’s 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 new 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 hayrides, threshing bees and parades. Full sets of plans are available as well as the 3D model files.
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. Full sets of plans and instructions are available from the author. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously published in Farm Collector, www.farmcollector.com.