By Larry Scheckel
Haying season started in early June and just seemed to last all summer in the 1940s and 1950s on the Scheckel farm outside Seneca in the heart of Crawford County. In between first crop and second crop, we cut and shocked oats. After the second crop of hay, threshing was done. After threshing, we often put up a third crop of hay.
No hay baler on the Scheckel farm. Hay was cut with a No. 9 McCormick-Deering Enclosed Steel Gear Mower with a 5-foot sickle and pulled by two horses. Let it cure for a few days, then bring in the side-rake to windrow the hay, then the hay loader pulled behind a hay wagon. It was hard, dirty, back-breaking work, often in hot and humid weather.
Timing was everything in haying season. Ideally, cut clover, alfalfa, timothy close to full maturity. Cloudless, sunny, low-humidity days, with a gentle breeze, provided the best conditions for drying and curing of hay.
In my mind’s eye I can see that sickle moving back and forth. Hear the steady rapid chit-chit-chit sound, hay stalks falling back, horse heads bobbing slightly up and down, maintaining a steady gait. All haying was done with horses. The Massey Harris ’44 was idle during haying season.
The smell of fresh-cut hay, birds ahead rising up, killdeer running off with a fake broken wing, meadowlarks resting on fence posts, wind whipping the tops of the hay fields in undulating waves. Those sights and sounds stay with a farm boy forever.
One of the all-time great smells in this world is hay that is drying or curing. There is no better scent on planet Earth than alfalfa, clover, timothy and grass curing during a Wisconsin summer. If someone could make a perfume or ester of curing hay, they would make a mint.
Two or three days after cutting, hay was ready for raking with the McCormick-Deering side rake. After the dew was burned off by the summer sun, Sam and Prince were hitched to the rake.
Our McC-D rake had 2 large 3-4 foot steel wheels in front, 4 bars of tines that spun on a reel that was at an angle to direction of travel. The tumbling tines would gently kick and roll the hay into straight narrow rows, ready for hay wagon and hay loader. A smaller caster wheel turned in the back. The driver saw up quite high, unlike the hay mower. I like raking hay. I had a good view, breeze blowing, straw hat to keep the sun off, the wonderful smell of cured hay.
The hay mower cut a 5-foot swath. With a 5-foot sickle bar, we would rake two of the five-foot swaths into a single windrow with the side rake.
If the dry was not sufficiently dry, or “too green” as was the saying, heat would build up in the hay mow. A farmer could lose his barn to fire. Seems every summer, we heard of at least one barn in Crawford County going up in flames. The Scheckels put up hay that was “green” a few times. You could go up in the haymow a few hours or a day later, press your hand down in the hay and feel the heat. Dad would take a buckle of salt and sprinkle it on the hay. The salt would absorb the moisture and prevent heat buildup.
Like all farm machinery of the time, frequent greasing was necessary. The grease gun was a constant companion. You filled the grease gun from a big 5-gallon pail of grease, unthreading the body from the head, sticking the open-end body down into the grease, and pulling the small handle in the back. The gun filled with grease by suction.
The New Idea hay loader was an exquisite piece of equipment, standing about 10 feet off the ground and about 6 feet wide. The big wheels of the hay loader drove the mechanical parts. A wheel driven chain on the left side turned the rotary rake, and drove six rows of tines, three offset from the other three, that raised the hay up a sloping chute and into the hay wagon.
It took three people to run this operation. Dad took the hay coming from the hay loader and forked it forward. One of us boys built the hay load in the front area of the wagon and another boy drove the team. That was the desired job. No sweat equity here. It was like being in the wheelhouse on a Mississippi River steamboat. Sun beating down, blue sky with puffy white clouds, breeze blowing. It doesn’t get better than this!
Several times around the field to get a full load, depending on the size of the field. It was a matter of pride to build a good load. The hay wagon has boards on all four sides. Built up about 3 feet on the two sides, about 4 feet in the back, and the front was up about 3 feet, but had a 3 feet center that was raised. The reins of the horses could be tied to these boards.
If shorthanded on help, the reins were draped over the front boards of the hay rack. The Scheckel boy handling the hay in the front of the wagon could both drive the horses and help with the load. The horses knew where they were going. They were smart enough to straddle the windrow of hay. Sam and Prince made the 90-degree turn unaided. They had done it hundreds of times.
Putting up hay with a team of horses was a quiet affair, no motors or engines. One could hear songbirds, notice hawks soaring overhead searching for mice, crows cawing in the distant woods, cows mooing. Putting up hay loose was a chance to admire the patchwork of fields, woods and neighboring farmsteads. Haying was quiet, idyllic, slow-paced, steady, even picturesque.
Occasionally, a snake would come up the hay loader and onto the wagon. Oh, that was great excitement. The Scheckel boys did not like snakes. We took every opportunity to kill them. Typically, they were garter snakes and black snakes or what we called bull snakes. Those snakes were quite harmless and we were told they ate a lot of field mice. My brothers, Phillip and Bob, and I considered snakes to be one of God’s mistakes.
When Dad deemed the load was full, the hay loader was unhooked from the wagon, and off to the big barn we would go. The load of hay was backed into the barn and the task of unloading began.
Farmers who put up loose hay had a mechanical hay carrier to lift the loose hay from the wagon and deliver it into the barn’s haymow. A trolley ran on a track that was fastened to the very apex of the inside of the barn, just under the highest part of the roof. This track and trolley ran the length of the haymow.
The trolley would be positioned over the load of hay. A trip mechanism, bolted on the track above the load, would release a double harpoon hayfork, and the hayfork would be lowered by pulley and rope, onto the load of hay. The tines of the hayfork were about 30 inches long and spaced about 20 inches apart. Each tine had a little built-in sliding bar to operate a “gripper” at the end of each tine. When this mechanism was set, the hay was kept in place and could be released by a trip rope. Dad would push the harpoon fork into the load of hay. Then he would pull up on the tine trip arm to set the grippers, one at a time.
A 150-foot 3/4-inch manila rope ran along the track, through a series of heavy pulleys. The rope was attached to a single tree pulled by one horse. Dad would yell out “OK, go.” We led Dolly by a rope attached to the halter. “Giddy up,” and slack was taken up. Dolly would lean into the load. The rope tightened. The pulleys strained. Straight up went the harpoon fork with its load of hay. When the hayfork reached the trolley, a locking mechanism attached the pulley carrying the hayfork and the trolley was released from its center position and free to travel down the track. The fork load of hay would be delivered to bin 1, bin 2, or bin 3 in the haymow.
Two or three of us mowed the hay. We would designate which bin to drop the hay. Dad held onto the 1/4-inch trip rope as it threaded through his hands, Dad would tug on the small trip rope and the load of hay fell into the correct bin with a swoosh and a breeze and hay dust. Dad would yell “Whoa,” and the kid leading the horse would stop the forward movement of Dolly. Tension on the rope eased. The horse was turned around, with another kid pulling the rope back so it would be in place for the next load.
Dad pulled the trolley back to the position above the load of hay, the hayfork would lower and Dad would stick it into the load, set the lever, and the process was repeated until all the hay was unloaded. I’m guessing it took about six lifts to unload the entire wagon.
When we were 6 or 7 years old, our job was to pull the rope back. When you reached ages 10 or 11, you could lead the horse. When 13 or 14, you were in the haymow with a three-tine pitch fork, throwing the hay to the side of the barn. That was the hardest job of all. It might be 70 or 80 degrees outside, but up in the hayloft, you could easily add another 20 degrees, and not exaggerate. This was hard, dirty, sweaty work.
Off to the windmill to get a cold drink of water. Cold pure water coming up from 200 feet down right out of Mother Earth. Man, that was a good drink! Several tin cups were hung on spikes attached to the legs of the windmill. Unhook the cup, remove the pipe from the well head, and fill the cup with cold water. Even let some run down your neck and back. You were already wet from sweat.
Haying season seemed to run all summer. It didn’t, of course, it just seemed to. The end of any haying day was not the end of the working day. There were still chores to attend to. Feed the chickens, gather eggs, slop the hogs, milk cows, tend to the bull and the horses.
While haying is work and toil in hot weather, there is some delight to behold. Riding from field to barn atop a full load of loose hay was a joyful experience. A boy can feel like he’s on top of the world. What a fantastic view in every direction. A straw hat kept the sun off our face and neck. The blowing wind dried the sweat. With that load of hay coming out of the field, riding up high, a kid could think he was king of the hill, feeling on top of the world.
There was another benefit to haying; watching that haymow get fuller day by day. A filled barn meant a stable barn. Mom and Dad worried when the barn was near empty, vulnerable to the wicked storms that moved across southwestern Wisconsin. Some of those winds were fierce and an empty barn could be blown down. There was a feeling of relief because a full barn of hay is more stable than an Army tank.
After a long day of haying, the horses were unharnessed and led by halter to the water tank. We would run a curry comb through Sam, Prince and Dolly’s coats, tending especially to areas where the collar rested on the huge beasts. Fed oats in a bucket, they would be turned out to pasture, awaiting another day of toil on the Seneca farm.
Haying invokes Genesis 3:19: “Ye shall earn thy bread by the sweat of thy brow.”