Last week, the Spencer family set out to Spencer Branch to stack hay. They had just arrived at the homeplace farm where Coy, Virgie, and Mary were ready and waiting to help. Coy had already harnessed Pete and Kate, and the time had come to hit the hayfield…
Daddy and Paw led the little band of farmers through the crooked gate. Although Pam and Libby brought up the rear, everyone waited for them to catch up for one very important reason. “Me first, Daddy! Me first!” Libby ran on ahead of Pam. Daddy gingerly lifted Libby up onto barebacked Kate, the more relaxed of the two horses. She took hold of the collar horn and floated along on Kate’s gentle gait as she ambled toward the hayfield.
Daddy entwined his fingers and bent low enough that Pam could use them as a stirrup to mount Pete. She immediately took hold of the collar horn as Pete pranced lightly in place. Daddy would hold Pete’s bridle on the walk up to the hayfield just to be on the safe side. Pete was quite gentle but did not always like someone on his back. Now old enough to hold her own with the work in the field, this would be Pam’s only ride today. She would dismount as soon as they got to the field. Libby, on the other hand, was not quite old enough help much with the work. When the time came, her job would be to guide Kate back and forth between the rising stack of hay and the shocks in the field. Not even Pam had the heart to tell her sister that Kate, just as Pete did, knew the way all by herself.
They all headed toward the hayfield now, the horses dragging the long poles behind them that would be driven underneath the shocks, and the adults carrying a set of post hole diggers and an assortment of pitchforks, including a long-handled one to fork hay to the top of the haystack. They soon arrived in the field on the side of the hill. Pam looked at the endless long windrows, She knew it would be a long day, a long hot day. Everyone else knew, too.
And so the ragtag group set in to work. Daddy maneuvered the post hole digger with practiced precision as he dug the hole for the center pole deeper and deeper. He raised the digger high and then used his full strength as he drove it down into the soil. Pulling the handles apart, he lifted the shovels full of dirt out of the hole, releasing it onto the dirt pile that grew larger by the minute. He continued to dig until the hole was a good 2 ½ feet deep. As Daddy stood back and swiped his handkerchief across his sweaty face, he said to no one in particular, “I think that’s about got it,” and then to Paw and Coy, “Bring the pole on over.”.
Paw and Coy lifted the pole that had once been a young, slim tree with leaves that shimmied in the wind in the woods just above the hay field. It had not had the opportunity to grow any larger, but it had been and would continue to be an integral part of farm life. Straight up the men held it as they lowered it in Daddy’s hole, and then Daddy filled in dirt around it, tamping it down with the full of his weight, until the pole stood straight and true on its own.
As the men worked with the center pole, Maw, Virgie, Mary, and Pam put their pitchforks to work, piling the new hay from the windrows into shocks. The men joined them just as soon as the center pole was solidly in place. Twelve year old Pam had graduated from Kate’ s back only last year to help with the hay, so she still wasn’t nearly as proficient as the others, but she was learning. Picking up as much of the fresh smelling hay as she could with her pitchfork, she threw it on the shock. She always thought of these five feet high mounds of hay as baby haystacks, and through the course of the day, they would build dozens upon dozens of them.
About half way through, everyone except Virgie rested a few minutes under the shade of the trees at the top of the hill. Virgie had another mission to accomplish. She walked down the hill and toward the house, fanning her face with her hat the whole way. She would be the most popular person in the group in just a few minutes.
Virgie stopped by the house long enough to pick up a well-worn milk bucket and a just as worn dipper. She really didn’t mind being the one to come for water because it meant that she could spend a few precious minutes inside the spring house, the always cool spring house with the cold rock slab that made the floor. She simply stood there, completely alone in the almost dark, save for the sunlight filtering through the cracks in the boards. Feeling much more refreshed than those she left in the shade, she bent down, dipping the bucket in and allowing the clear, clean water to rush into it. She let the dipper fill next and then poured it into her mouth slowly allowing the wonderful wet cold to slide down her parched throat.
She could have stayed in the spring house for an hour, but she knew the others were patiently waiting for her water. She picked up the bucket and dipper and reluctantly stepped out into the already hot day. In just a few minutes, the thirsty group eagerly welcomed her back. They all gathered around the bucket of water, each drinking from the dipper in turn. After everyone had their fill, Daddy cupped his hands in the water, then splashed it straight on his face. Paw and Coy did the same.
Ready now to get back to work, they all moved from the shade trees into the shock-filled hayfield. By late morning, the windrows had disappeared, and shocks now dotted the hill. They were ready to start stacking, but they would break for lunch first. They would have to return to the field shortly, but for now they needed to take time to refuel and refresh just a little. Everyone, including Coy, Virgie, and Mary would go to Maw and Paw’s house for dinner.
Maw, knowing what today would hold, had more or less prepared dinner yesterday. She and Pam took everything out of the refrigerator and heated what needed to be heated. As usual, there was enough food to feed them all three times over because Maw couldn’t bear the thoughts of anyone going hungry. Everyone ate until they all were all as full as ticks, and within an hour, they were back on the road to Spencer Branch. They felt fortified, and everyone was ready to start again.
Daddy lifted Libby up onto Kate’s back, “Now, you hold on tight, Pun’kin Eater,” Daddy instructed Libby as he led both Kate and Pete out into the field. Everyone else picked up a pitchfork and spread out. Nobody there was new to this rodeo, and no one needed to be told what job to do. Everyone,Including Pam, knew exactly where to be. Daddy would be the tromper, working the hay around the center pole, Paw and Coy would receive the shocks of hay and fork them onto the growing haystack, Maw and Pam would form a team with Kate, and Virgie and Mary would work Pete. Together they worked the hayfield with strength and confidence.
As Libby used the reins to “guide” Kate to the first shock where Maw “geed” and “hawed” her until she was in just the right spot. “Whoa, now,” Maw said softly, and Kate complied. As strong as most men, Maw picked up the pole attached to Kate’s harness with a heavy rope. A ring large enough to fit over the opposite end of the pole caught against another ring on the front end of the pole, thus preventing the pole from coming free of Kate’s harness.
Pam stood on the opposite side of the shock ready to do her job. She watched Maw as she stood between Kate and the shock of hay. Maw surely had to trust the horse to do this job, for Kate’s hind quarters were certainly close enough to kick anyone behind her. But Maw knew Kate, and Kate knew Maw, and they understood one another. Straddling the pole, Maw bent over, picked the front end up and began to shove the other end, which had been cut into a spear like point, underneath the shock. The pole didn’t make it all the way through to the other side of the shock on her first try, so Maw pulled back on the pole just a bit and then gave it another strong shove, this time driving it all the way under and out the other end. Pam watched as the spear end appeared in front of her.
“Maw?” Pam asked curiously, “How did y’all figure out how to do all this?”
As Maw raised up, she said, “We never had to figger it out. It’s jist always been done like this.” She picked the rope up and gave it a toss across the top of the hay shock. Pam picked it up as soon as it landed, and then Maw and she worked together to place it as near across the center as possible. The rope lay like a snake over the shock, and after Pam slid the ring over the spear end of the pole, Maw and she adjusted it again in hopes that it would carry the shock to the haystack intact. Finally, Maw nodded at Libby and said, “Take ‘er on in.”
Thrilled with her job, Libby said loudly and brightly, “Giddy up! Giddy up, Kate!” and Kate, really not needing to be told what to do, took a few slow steps. As she did, the rope pulled tighter and tighter down on the shock. As it did this, Maw worked some last minute adjustments to keep it in the center of the hay. Pam wasn’t allowed to do this yet because it was quite easy to get your fingers caught underneath the rope as it tightened. Kate walked on, and the rope tightened down even more. Finally, the hay shock began to move. Now, Kate dragged the shock toward the center pole, stopping only when she got there. Maw watched approvingly..
Coy removed the ring from the spear end of the pole, and again Libby commanded, “Giddy up, Kate,” and Kate started back out into the field for her next load. The pole slid neatly from underneath the shock, and Coy started pitching the hay from the shock toward the center pole. Daddy worked it around and around until it formed an almost perfectly symmetrical circle around the pole. Pete came in right behind Kate, and again, Paw and Coy forked the tender new hay onto the haystack.
Everyone settled into a rhythm as they worked. Maw and Virgie drove those spearheaded poles under the shocks. Pam and Mary helped secure the rope, and both women in each team worked to make sure the rope rode on the middle of the top of the shocks. Pete and Kate pulled the shocks to the haystack, and Daddy rose ever higher as he tromped down pitchforks full of hay. This process continued for the next several hours, with occasional breaks for everyone to drink from that same dipper as another bucket of water made its way around.
And then, Pete dragged the last shock to the haystack. The hayfield was clean of shocks, and two large haystacks stood straight and tall with only about two feet of the center pole sticking up out of the top of each. The worn out crew dragged their feet as they left the hayfield, and the sweet smell of the new hay combined with the distinctive odor or the horses’ sweat went a long way in drowning out the not so sweet smell of everyone else. Even the horses walked with their heads hanging, but they, like everyone else would have time to eat, rest, and regain their fortitude before going on to the next field in a few days.
Maw, Paw, and Daddy fell into the cab of the red truck with the white top and the mirrors that stuck out too far, and Pam and Libby crawled into the bed. Both were content to sit again with their backs against the cab.They were too tired to stand this time. Just as soon as Daddy dropped Paw and Maw off at their house, they started their other farm chores, and Maw was more than thankful that they would have cold leftovers for supper.
Daddy, Libby, and Pam went on up the hill. The girls perked up a little when Daddy brought them a 7-Up to drink out of its green bottle. Pam usually had supper on the table when Mom got home, but she knew she had earned a pass today. Daddy sat down in his chair and turned on the TV.
Mom arrived home from work sometime later to find all three of them asleep, Daddy in his chair and both her girls on the couch. She looked at the trio and decided not to wake them for supper. She would have something ready for them when they woke up…