My Forty Years Scribblin's
Personal Memories
Making Hay While The Sun Shines

This account was written in 1996 and published in the September-October 1996 issue of The Montana Journal. Horse-drawn haying was marginally better than the hand scythe and rake.

Some author of long ago found poetry in the hay field. "Maude Muller on a summer's day, raked a field of new mown hay..." (she did it with a handmade rake because there was no other way.) The man who swung the scythe probably felt no such poetic vibrations, since those were the days when the combined efforts of the family were required to store enough fodder to winter a team of horses, a few sheep for their wool, and the family cow. Maude could not have foreseen the advent of the horse-drawn mowing machine and the horse-powered dump rake that made commercial haying operations possible. Nor could she have imagined the stationary wire-tie balers that allowed the rancher to bale out of the stack any time of the year. Two men were required to feed wires into the machine while one or more fed hay into the voracious brute with a pitch fork. The bales were so tight and so heavy that it took the proverbial "two men and a small boy" to handle them. My mother, I am told, took a man's place driving a four horse team from Evaro to deliver loads to the livery stables and feed dealers in Missoula, a 30-mile round trip. The horses were harnessed by lantern light, and she reached home long after dark. She once saw a mountain lion cross the road in front of her horses in the moonlight. What a day for a 16-year-old girl! But those were the good old days when everything was done the hard way.

Haying has always been a race with the weather. The crop came before human comfort, so men keeled over in the field from sun stroke and heat prostration. The water boy with his demijohn or wet canvas water bags was a popular fixture, sometimes on foot, sometimes on a pony. But he often got chewed out because he didn't make his rounds often enough. When the heat was too much for man or beast, the crew worked in the morning and again in the evening, be it Sunday, weekday, or the Fourth of July, for if a prolonged rainy spell set in, the hay crop, the basis of the ranchers' economy, could rot in the field.

The old horse-drawn mower was a huge leap for agriculture, but it had to be watched and coddled a bit. The sickle made frequent trips to the grindstone, and a change of sound could signal a problem. It refused to operate without grease, and a can of axle grease was nailed on the tongue with a smearing stick for handy application. A rock or stump hidden in the tall grass could unseat an inexperienced driver, break the sickle bar or the pitman rod, or incite a runaway. Destruction of hidden ground-nesting birds was unavoidable, and destruction of nests of skunks was unprintable!

But the machine spanned several stages of progress in other areas while the rancher strove for greater efficiency, fashioning such implements as hay boats and slings, the buck rake, sweep rake, beaver slide, and over-shot stacker and the Jackson fork, the elevator. Some of these are still in use.

All phases presented their dangers. As a small girl, my family and I watched in horror when my grandfather was caught in a runaway on a mowing machine. The unleashed power of those fear-crazed animals out of control was awesome. He braced himself, gripped the reins, and "rode 'er out!" I shudder still to think what would have happened had he been thrown in front of that screaming, pulverizing sickle.

Ranchers were often obliged to harness an unbroken or "green broke" bronco with a trained one, which was sure to cause a lot of excitement and danger to life and limb. I've been told of riders being put out, their job to catch rampaging horses and prevent what damage they could.

Then tractors came, and the baler went to the field. A boy with a strong back and a will to work could find a job "bucking bales." But those jobs faded out, taken over by the bale wagon.

In our small operation we had good success with buck rakes and the overshot stacker. I didn't mind the buck rake, but then they did me a favor. I drew the stacker team. Between loads, the horses fought deer flies, horse flies, gnats, and mosquitoes. I fought the horses. They thought the smart thing to do was to leave that place. Along with the horses. I took on the same hoards of bugs plus the scorching heat of the sun. I pulled my shirt tail out to allow some air circulation. but the grandaddy spiders crawled up my bare back so I discontinued that. Standing waiting for a load, I was treated to a fork full of hay on top of my head. I came out pawing for air and yelped, "What'd I ever do to you?" My father-in-law on the stack answered.

"You threw a snake up to me, darn ya!"

Well, it wasn't all bad. Once initiated, it is impossible to forget the smell of new mown hay. We kids would run half a mile to get a short ride on the hay wagon. We could take a couple of blankets or one of Granny's quilts and make us a nest to sleep in the hay mow. At mealtime, the tables wobbled under the weight of the marvelous food, and cold drinks disappeared like pouring water down a gopher hole. If only everyone could have such memories.