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Getting the Hay Into the Barn

Updated: Aug 10, 2020

How it was done in the 1930s on the Cooley Farm in Randolph Center.

By Charles Cooley

Stuart Phillips driving Ned and Jerry, Cooley Farm, Randolph Center, Vermont.

A typical crew for hauling hay consisted of three men who could skillfully handle loose hay with a pitchfork. On our farm, there were almost always several children of various ages who went to the field with the men. There usually was at least one who could drive the horses to move about the field so that the tumbles of hay would not have to be carried too far to get them to the wagon.

With the hay all tumbled, or enough of it tumbled to start hauling, the horses were harnessed and hitched to the hay rack—this was what we called the wagon used for hauling hay. It might be several hundred yards or more from the barn where the preparations occurred to the hayfield where the tumbles of hay were. When everything was ready to go, the men and anyone else would get on the wagon to ride to the field.

Our wagon was fairly typical for the time. It rolled on heavy wooden wheels (four) rimmed with an iron band. There were no springs or shock absorbers. The horses didn’t go fast enough to really need such refinements, although they were used on cars and trucks by that time. The actual “rack” part of the wagon sat on top of the chassis and was a nearly flat platform about fourteen or sixteen feet long and half as wide. Most hay wagons had the long edges tipped up a bit to discourage the hay from slipping off the edge of the platform. At the front and rear edges, there was a ladderlike structure to hold the hay from spilling over the ends of the rack.

One soon learned that the wagon was quite uncomfortable to sit on while it was in motion without a cushion or springs. After making that discovery most people would stand, so that their legs could serve as shock absorbers for the rest of their body. If we had trouble maintaining our balance on the moving wagon we could hold onto the ladders at the front or rear.

There was an unofficial "crew leader,” who drove the horses to the field, deciding what route to use and how fast to go, although the horses usually could overule his decision if it placed too many demands on them. Horses were the only source of power other than people on our farm at that time. One had to respect their limitations in order to get much work done with them. Once in the field, everyone dismounted except for the crew chief and usually a kid to drive the horses while the load was being pitched on.

Pitching on took some skill. The object was to pick up the tumbles of hay, one at a time, carry each tumble to the edge of the wagon, and place it where the loader could take it to place it in the pattern that he used to build his load. When carrying the hay, it was usual to raise the tumble over your head like an umbrella and sort of “wipe” it off the pitchfork at the edge of the wagon.

Loading was done by the crew chief and required the most skill. There was nothing on either side of the wagon to hold the hay from spilling over the edge. Yet, if a suitable amount of hay was to be carried to the barn, the sides needed to be build up vertically, so that the load would be somewhat of a rectangular solid block of hay and not just a mound with sloping sides. The loader would place a forkful or tumble of hay on one edge and then another on the opposite edge and then fill in the middle to “bind on” the edges. This pattern would be continued from one end of the wagon to the other, resulting in a layer of hay. The loader would walk on each forkful to pack it in place. If there was a child driving the horses, he or she would stay just behind the front ladder and have the horses move the wagon from time to time to keep it near the tumbles that were being pitched on. There was always a small remnant of hay left after a tumble had been picked up to pitch it on. A youngster could use a fork or a rake to gather the remnant and put it on top of the tumble next to it. It was a good way to develop some ability to handle hay with a fork.

Layer after layer of hay was added to the load, until the top of the load was as much as ten feet above the ground. An important factor in making the load was to keep it centered laterally. The ladders gave the loader a reference to do that, but sometimes an unskilled loader might build his load too far to one side. If it was too extreme, it could result in the load tipping to one side and sliding off.

When the loader decided that he had enough, he would put a little more along the center of the top from front to rear and announce that it was enough. If the field was far enough from the barn to make the climb up to the top of the load worth it, the rest of the crew, including the children, would climb onto the load and ride to the barn. The hay now provided a cushion, so that one could comfortably set or lie down to ride. Sometimes the ride to the barn would pass between rows of trees whose branches shaded the road. When the wagon was loaded with a ton or more of hay, the top of the load was near the overhanging branches, and the riders could pick leaves as they rode along.


Excerpted from "Haying," an essay first published in 2008 on a family blog edited by Dan Cooley. Korongo will publish a collection of Charles's essays and stories later this year.


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