Thursday, May 14, 2009

Newport, Nebraska: Hay Town

The Gilg family's hay shipping heritage

In the pioneer days of Nebraska, many villages formed and (with luck)  flourished. Many of the little prairie towns had distinct personalities. Farm towns were centers where farmers bought and sold. Cow towns developed along the railroads, as shipping centers for the cattle of the Great Plains. And hay towns were shipping centers for Nebraska's great natural resource, the wild hay of the prairies.

Newport, Nebraska was established by the railroad as a hay town in the early 1880s. Located in the heart of northern Nebraska's hay country, Newport became the largest hay-shipping center in the world within a few years, a distinction noted in various books of the period:

... [A] little northwestern town, Newport, ships more hay than is marketed from any one other point in the world. (Source: The Strategy of Great Railroads (p. 206) by Frank Hamilton Spearman. Published by C. Scribner's Sons, 1904)

As an example of the quality of the lands, Rock County actually ships more hay to market via The North-Western Line from the town of Newport than is shipped to market from any other one point anywhere in the world... (Source: The Open Door to Independence: Making Money From the Soil (p. 129), by Thomas E Hill. Published by Hill Standard Book Co., 1915)

Nebraska is the first State in the Union in the production of prairie hay and grass. The largest hay-shipping station in the world is within her borders — Newport, Rock County. (Source: The Encyclopedia Americana: A Library of Universal Knowledge (p. 25), published by Encyclopedia Americana Corp., 1919.

When prairie hay was marketed, it was tightly packed and tied into square bales that stacked nicely in a boxcar or warehouse. Hay shipping offices weighed the hay and coordinated the supply with the demand. The photo at right, provided by Bob and Elaine Gilg of Newport, NE, shows horse-drawn hay trailers ("hay racks") of baled hay waiting for the train in Newport.

The Gilg family operated a hay shipping business and later, a lumber yard in Newport for over 80 years. Joseph Gilg, hay shipper, is mentioned by Keith Terry in his book Nebraska's Cowboy Trail, A User's Guide (p.67) The hay business was purchased by Mr. Gilg in 1915, a time when Newport was busy with hay nearly every day of the year.

The image below shows the office of Newport Lumber (in earlier days, the hay shipping office) when it was sold at auction several years ago. Elaine wrote that the office interior remains today much the same as it appears in the vintage photos at the end of this article.

Hay was a vital commodity because hay-eating animals -- horses, mules, and oxen -- performed much of the nation's work and provided much of the transportation until automobiles and tractors came into widespread use. The marketing of hay was an important industry, and investors studied the hay market much as they might watch the price of crude oil today.

The vast meadows between O'Neill and Bassett, Nebraska, were (and still are!) some of the most productive grasslands in the world. Today, much of the hay is used and sold locally for cattle on area ranches. Some hay is still shipped to distant buyers, but it is transported by trucks. The railroad line that served Newport has been closed since my childhood.

The Gilg hay office in Newport, Nebraska

Thanks for sharing these images, Bob and Elaine. I should add that the photos were of particular interest to me because I grew up in Rock County, Nebraska, where Newport is located. Elaine is a cousin's cousin to me, through the Davis family. My great-aunt Goldie Clark Davis and Elaine's uncle Paul Davis (of Ainsworth, Nebraska) were husband and wife.

Related articles in the Prairie Bluestem archives:
Before Cars, The Importance of Hay
Reports of Prairie Fires and Wolves
The Hayfield
Remembering Pony Lake School

Credit: Map of Newport's location from Wikipedia.


ptg said...

Great post, Genevieve. And very interesting pictures.

Baling hay, I can't think of an itchier job. My Dad tells how his father used to stop the hay rack by a local lake at the end of the day so Dad and the hired men could take a dip. There weren't any 'hay fever' pills then.

Genevieve said...

About the only thing itchier than handling bales all day would be making haystacks with a pitchfork.

I think the early Nebraska haymakers probably used a stationary hay press, something like the one described in an Albertan website. They were powered by horses on a treadmill or horses that walked in a circle. The hay was brought to the machine on wagons and pitched into it by hand. That should have been an itchy job too.

The hay press method is somewhat similar to the way I've seen Amish farmers make hay bales. They will put a stationary motor on a hay baler. They bring the hay to the baler with a horse-drawn wagon and pitch it in by hand.

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