“Make hay while the sun shines,” the saying goes. For farmers everywhere, whether in modern times or bygone years, haying is and was a vital part of self-sufficient, profitable farming. Today’s haying is done with some pretty impressive farm equipment, but for my book that took place in the 1870s I needed to do research to learn about haymaking. What I discovered from the pages of a couple of old-time farming books loaned to me by a modern-day farmer, and from some online searches, surprised me, intrigued me, and impressed me with the ingenuity of farmers.
Actually, I was struck by two things — both stemming from the fact that farming is just plain hard work. The first was the physical aspects of haying for the farmer. Before machinery, farmers had to cut the hay by hand using a scythe — an implement with a long, curving blade attached to a handle that the farmer would swing back and forth. Think of the pictures of the Grim Reaper. (Sidenote: I’d always heard the word scythe pronounced “sigh”, as had my husband who had them on the farm where he grew up. But when I looked online, they said the “th” is actually pronounced. Huh. Although one site did say either pronunciation is correct. So, for what it’s worth, there you go.)
Vintage Farm Equipment
Anyway, back to haying in the 1870s. After cutting, they would rake the hay into windrows with a hand rake, and turn it with a pitchfork to ensure it dried. One of the books said some farmers made “haycocks”, conical stacks about six feet high for hay drying.
Once dry, the hay was loaded by hand into a wagon, again using pitchforks, then taken to the barn where the pitchforks came out once more to unload the wagon and stack the hay into the barn. Whew! All the while the farmers were undoubtedly praying the rain would hold off until their hay was safely under cover. (And probably hoping their wives weren’t praying for rain to water a thirsty garden.)
In The Christmas Cactus, Katie Jo and her siblings are excited to watch the haymaking. Katie Jo remarks, “Modern machinery is a farmer’s friend.” Although “modern” would be laughable today, it definitely was a huge step up from the days of the scythe. The three pieces of machinery I mentioned in my story were a sickle mower, a hay rake, and a hay tedder – all drawn by horses. The mower and tedder were described in detail.
The Sickle Mower
The sickle mower was an ingenious invention. A driver sat on a seat and guided the horse or horses. On one side of the machine, a bar jutted out (typically six to seven feet). Stationary “fingers” or guard plates were mounted on the bar. A channel ran along the length of the bar and held very sharp sickle sections — triangular blades — that matched up with the stationary “fingers”. As the horse pulled the mower, the turning of the wheels set the bar in motion, back and forth, causing the sharp edges of the sickle section blades to “scissor” with those stationary fingers. I watched a YouTube video of a horse-drawn sickle mower in action. As the horse walked along one side of the field, the mower cut a swathe of hay in no time. It looked so smooth and easy. A huge improvement from using a scythe!
Old-Fashioned Hay Rake
Maybe you’ve seen an old-fashioned hay rake sitting in a farmer’s field. I actually remember seeing a farmer use one, although he pulled it with a tractor. Hay rakes were first invented in 1825. Some called them “whoa-back” rakes because a farmer (who walked behind) had to stop the horse and back it up so he could dump the raked hay to form a windrow. Later, hay rakes were improved and the farmer could sit on a seat, guiding the horse. The curved rakes behind him dragged along the ground, picking up the cut hay. When they were full, the rake could be lifted to drop the hay into windrows.
Before I did research for The Christmas Cactus, I’d never heard of a hay tedder. But I’m glad I did and even more glad I included it in the book. Tedding was done after mowing but before raking into windrows. Its purpose was to cut down on drying time. Again, the driver sat on a seat and guided the horse. The tedder used moving forks at the back of the machine to aerate or “wuffle” the hay. When the driver pulled a lever, the forks began to move, lifting the hay and then letting it drop.
The first time I pulled up a YouTube video showing a farmer using a horse-drawn tedder, I burst into laughter. The forks moved so quickly, as little Hannah said in The Christmas Cactus, “They look like grasshopper’s legs!” I agree. And dancing, to boot. (There are different kinds of tedders and YouTube shows a variety. If you look them up, the one listed below had the kind that would have been used in The Christmas Cactus.)
Although the farmers in my story still had to load and unload the hay from the wagon to the barn by hand, the sickle mower, tedder, and rake made the first parts of their job “easier.”
Farmers Working Together
Another thing that struck me in my research on farming in the 1870s is the sense of camaraderie farmers derived from working together. In the other book a modern-day farmer loaned to me, the author David Grayson talks about a day of cutting hay with a friend, both of them using scythes.
“At first I thought the heat would be utterly unendurable, and, then, with dripping face and wet shoulders, I forgot all about it. Oh, there is something incomparable about such work — the long steady pull of willing and healthy muscles…the feeling of attainment through vigorous effort! It was the steady swing and swish, swish and swing!”Adventures of David Grayson, copyright 1925, page 238
After a morning of hard work, the two men returned to the farmhouse where a hearty meal was prepared for them: Baked beans, baked potatoes, homemade bread, fried chicken, and for dessert, raspberry shortcake.
They went back to the field to work the long, hot afternoon. When they’d finished, David Grayson continued.
“I wonder if you ever felt the joy of utter weariness: not exhaustion, but weariness… Such a moment is not painful, but quite the reverse — it is supremely pleasant… And I watched him [David’s friend] as he went down the lane with a pleasant, friendly feeling of companionship. We had done great things together.”Adventures of David Grayson, copyright 1925, page 244
In The Christmas Cactus, neighboring farmers came to help Jamie put up his hay. In return, he spent days at their farms helping them in the same way. Farmers working together provided a sense of camaraderie and satisfaction in a job well done. I wanted to convey this same camaraderie in The Christmas Cactus. The farmers got together to bring in their hay. They worked together, ate together, visited together. And in the case of Jamie Holcomb, taught an almost-thirteen-year-old boy what it meant to share that camaraderie and to savor the pride and sense of accomplishment after working hard at a backbreaking task, without quitting.
Here on my blog (and in my book Halstad House) I’ve lauded the hardworking women who diligently provided for their families by preserving produce from their gardens and orchards. I want to do the same for their counterparts, the tenacious farmers who tended and harvested crops, maintained equipment, and watched over animals, all to provide for their families and make their farms prosperous. Hats off to you, farmers, and may we learn from your example the true meaning of hard work, family, and friends.