Back in days gone by, before Christmas trees were a major crop, bailing hay in the summer was a back breaking process. Most men of a certain age and more than a few women remember it well. Walking behind a large truck or a farm tractor with a trailer, over steep terrain and loading the bails by hand. When the truck was full, a trip to the barn was in store. This usually meant a short ride and a quick stop for a water break. Then the bales were transferred from the truck and stacked in the barn. This would go on for ten or twelve hours.
In the early ’80s a new way started making its way into the high country. The round baler. This innovation eliminated the need for so many people to put up the hay and also made feeding in winter much simpler. One or two people could now do the work of six or eight.
This prelude leads us to today’s offering of “stacking hay”. Before tractors and balers, hay was stacked in the field. The tall ripe grass was cut with a horse drawn mowing machine. The mowing sickle was not much different than today only it was powered by the turning wheels of the mower. As a young boy I spent many hours riding the necks of Spence’s mules while cutting hay. It was a slow process but still faster than cutting by hand with a scythe.
After two or three days of drying in the sun the loose hay would be gathered by a horse drawn rake. The rake had large semi circular tines mounted in a row between two steel wheels. The tines were raised and lowered by a long lever mounted beside the seat. As the rake was pulled along the tines would fill with hay. The lever would be lifted and the process stared over again.
The loose rolls would be reshaped into small mounds 4 or 5 feet in diameter and maybe three feet high called “shocks”. These shocks had to be hand carried to the stack. This was accomplished by two long smooth shock poles. The poles were slid beneath the shock and two people would lift them up and carry them away. Over a large meadow, this was repeated a few hundred times. Several adult neighbors and their children who were at least eight or ten years older than me would come to help. My grandmother and grandfather would return the help with labor in kind.
As the hay was being raked, a long sturdy pole was placed in the ground standing over 12 feet high. The hay would be stacked around it. As the first shocks arrived they would be spread evenly in a circle about 15 or 16 feet in diameter. As more shocks were brought in, they were spread on top of this circle and packed very tightly by someone walking around and around. This was usually my grandmother Hester. As the stack gained height, a pitch fork was used to lift the hay, a special stacking fork with a small head and an eight foot handle. The small amounts of hay could be packed tighter and the length of the handle made it easier to make the stack as tall as needed.
Anyone can imagine how hot and thirsty everyone would be. The remedy was the water bucket. A peck bucket made from aluminum filled with cool spring water and ice. We didn’t have paper cups we used a community dipper. Water from a dipper is always colder and better than any other water in the world.
Keep in mind I was very young at this time, maybe 4 or 5 years old. Being small, the guys carrying the shocks would let me ride on top as long as I didn’t tip the shock over. While I enjoyed the rides and water, everyone else was hard at work. Hester was climbing the ever higher haystack. Great care had to be taken to pack the grass tightly, to shed water and evenly so the stack wouldn’t topple over during a heavy wind. My grandmother was in great demand among the neighbors as she was very skilled at making perfect haystacks. She was small in stature, (five foot nothing and maybe a hundred pounds) but feisty and worked like a man. When the stack was finished, Hester would slide down and land soft and easy like a cat. A rail fence would be quickly built around the haystack to keep cattle away until winter.
At the end of harvest 5 or 6 six stacks would be in two separate meadows. Another portion of the hay was hauled to the barn on a sled to be used as feed during milking. When winter came, a fence would be dismantled and the cows and mules given access. As the livestock ate toward the center the stack would look something like a huge mushroom before it slid down the pole to be devoured. It was a lot of work during the summer but made the winter feeding much easier.
I was fortunate to find several of these old tools and implements in the grannery below my brothers house. Photos of several of these, while not related to the story, were just to good not to include: A set of old stirrups, a barbed wire stretcher used to build fence, a yoke for a team of oxen minus the bows and a small single yoke for training a young steer. I hope someone in the audience might have a haystack photo to share as I couldn’t find one in my moms old pictures.
Until next time you’all have a goode’n!