From a photograph by Solomon D. Butcher of four daughters of rancher Joseph M. Chrisman, at their sod house in Custer County, Nebraska. From left to right, Harriet, Elizabeth, Lucie, and Ruth. Photographed in 1886.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Hayfields I Have Known

Meadows I've mowed


Around Christian County, KY, the first cutting of hay has been taken, and across the nation, many farmers and ranchers are making hay. If you pass a hayfield, you should slow down, open your window, and breathe in the sweet scent of fresh-cut, sun-warmed hay. Ahhh. Hay has smelled like that for thousands and thousands of years -- there's a nice thought to enjoy.

I grew up on a cattle ranch in some of the best hay-producing country in the world -- Rock County in the Nebraska Sandhills. Making hay was the main work of the ranch every summer. All of my family's energy and focus was directed toward harvesting enough hay to feed the cattle during the next winter.

I spent seven summers mowing in the hayfield. The first year, I had a little tractor with a six-foot bar. It broke down a lot, so the next year, my dad put me on a better tractor with a new mowing machine that had a nine-foot bar. Don Saar, a grown-up neighbor boy, ran the double-bar mowing machine, and I followed him -- together, we did the mowing. A few years later, my dad got a self-propelled windrower, and on it, I became the only mower of our haying crew.

This rig predates my mowing years.

Several areas of the ranch were primarily hay-lands, and we always hayed them in a set order. First we cut the Little Meadow. just east of our house. (I am capitalizing because this name was just as official as the Black Hills or the Platte River. We never called that meadow by any other name.)  We always made haystacks on the Little Meadow. In the fall, my dad moved the stacks to a "stack yard" (a fenced enclosure) near the house. He saved those stacks for feeding the cattle on the very worst days of winter, because they were closest to home.

"Under the 1785 [Federal land surveying] ordinance, section 16 of each township was set aside for school purposes, and as such was often called the school section. Section 36 was also subsequently added as a school section in western states. The various states and counties ignored, altered or amended this provision in their own ways, but the general (intended) effect was a guarantee that local schools would have an income and that the community schoolhouses would be centrally located for all children."  (Quoted from Wikipedia)
After we finished the Little Meadow, we moved the hay equipment across the ranch road to a piece of land we called the "School Section". (In the early 1960s, the State of Nebraska sold the school sections in Rock County, and my dad bought a tract of the local school section that he had previously leased. I think it was about a third of the section.) Bloody Creek ran through that piece of land, and it always produced a lot of hay.

When we were done making haystacks on the School Section, we stacked the Big Meadow, which adjoined the south end of the School Section. Then, we went to the west side of the ranch, and mowed the meadows along Skull Creek. I think we always baled (made hay bales on) the west side of Skull Creek, because the bridge was not wide enough to pull the stacker across.

And finally, we went back to the extreme east side of the ranch and baled the Long Quarter. The Long Quarter was so named because it was 1/4 of a mile wide and l mile long (a quarter section of land). We had to cross John Dearmont's long quarter to get to our Long Quarter, so we always waited until John had finished haying before taking our equipment across his meadow.

There, on the Long Quarter, was Bloody Creek again, somewhat bigger and wetter than it had been on the School Section. And there were the angriest bumblebees of all the meadows on the ranch! They had been building their nests and hoarding their honey all summer long, and they didn't appreciate any disturbances. Someone nearly always had a bad encounter with them!

This photo of my brother was probably taken before I was born.
It was always exciting to mow around the sloughs (or "wetlands" as people say now) of the Skull and the Bloody. The challenge was to mow as much lush grass as possible without getting your tractor stuck in the mud. There were no set boundaries for what could be mowed. It varied from year to year. Sometimes I got off the tractor and waded through the grass ahead to feel how wet the ground was. And I always watched the tractor tires. If water started dripping off them or they were muddy (bad news!), it was time to get back to higher ground! And another bad omen was when the ground beneath the tractor tires began to quiver. (The soil was so saturated just below the surface that it was like a huge pudding with a slightly hardened crust.)

My dad hated "streaks" -- narrow strips of grass left unmowed because the person on the mowing machine was being careless. I had plenty of time to think while I was driving my tractor around the endless patches of grass, but every time I let my attention wander too far, I left evidence. And once a streak has been left, it's quite difficult to back up, drop the mower bar into all that loose hay, and mow that little narrow strip. Mower bars like nothing better than clogging up in loose hay.

Looking back now at the summers I worked in the hayfield, I realize that was my first experience with work responsibilities. I particularly remember being disgusted one Saturday when I wanted to spend the day at the rodeo. It was good haying weather, and my dad didn't want to let me off my windrower. I had to mow as late as possible the night before and mow a while in the morning before I could leave. I hadn't thought my hayfield job was that essential -- but of course it was.

I understand it all much better now. Our very livelihood depended on the hay.

My dad welded the hydraulic arm that's
 lifting the hay -- and built the tractor cab too!
Related:  
Newport, Nebraska: Hay Town
Horse-drawn Hay Sweep Rake
Horse-drawn Hay Rake
The Hayfield 

Great photo of an old-time hay crew on Flickr

12 comments:

Wilbur Ash said...

Your "Hayfields" article was most interesting and brought back fond memories of Rock County and the smells and routine of hay fields. The John Dearmont you mentioned, I believe married Patricia Buell, daughter of Homer and Celia, who owned the Shovel Dot Ranch. My dad, Howard Ash,farmed "the Mills Place" and worked for Homer. My Mom, Gladys Ash, taught school at the Buell School. Our famlies visited often (hunted and fished too) and I well remember the hay fields along the Bloody and Skull Creeks. Thanks for the memories

Genevieve said...

Yes, you're absolutely right about the connection between the Dearmont and Buell families. I went to 4-H Club with both of John and Pat's sons and also with the four children of B.T. and Susan Buell. Homer and Celia Buell were by then retired and living in Bassett.

The meadows of the Bloody and Skull valleys always produced (and still do produce, I'm sure) an abundance of hay!

Anonymous said...

I swear that smell of hay is nearly as powerful as a lover's scent. What a wonderful trip back to the hayfield.

Thank you,

A Friend in Nevada

Collagemama said...

Nice writing describing the haying. Interesting, too, because so many students seem to have no family responsibilities or expectations.

Genevieve said...

Friend, you are just a sucker for those old Sandhill ranch stories -- admit it! Thanks for your kind words.

Genevieve said...

Hi, Collagemama. I wonder if the lack of assigned responsibilities for kids is an indirect result of America becoming a mostly urban rather than a mostly rural society? I mean, how would most modern parents really involve their children in the effort to make a living for the family? At most, the kids will have a few chores around the house that they are supposed to take care of.

Sammie Miles Rowse said...

How well I remember those days of working in the hayfield! Your recolection is just like mine. I too wanted to go to that rodeo and had to work. I used to watch and hope for a rain cloud. Raking was a much better job though as it moved faster and there usually was some breeze to cool you off. It could also be challenging to see how close you could get to the fence. Although my dad didn't get mad at us when we had to fix the fence or pull us out of the "slough", he may have a time or two at my brother Bart... I ended up with the sweep job and loved that. We didn't have an air conditioner at home when we went home to eat dinner or supper either but what a dinner it was! Thanks for the memories, Gennie!

Mike Schubert said...

Great story! I was just going down "memory lane" this week, seeing all the ranchers trying to get started haying. I wonder how it would be to hay with all the air condioning(sp) most have now. Also why does it take 150 hp. tractors to do the same job our dad's did with 40? Thanks again for your memories!

Genevieve said...

Mike, I'm sure you could tell a few hayfield stories of your own. Sammie, your comment about getting close to the fence reminded me of one time when I was cutting out a patch with a fence along one side of it. You know how first you drive the tractor along the fence with the mower bar sticking out on the patch side. Then, you turn around and go back, with the mower bar on the fence side.

Well, I was going along with my mower bar next to the fence and I got it over a bit too far between two fence posts, and I was in danger of hitting a fence post if I tried to swing back out. I wasn't very good at backing up the trail mower, and pretty soon, I had the mower completely on the other side of the fence and my tractor right up against the wires. Oh, I was praying that no one would come along and catch me, because I knew I'd never hear the end of it. I'm still not sure how I got out of there!

John Ruberry said...

My wife would build the stick supports for the haystacks on the collective farm she lived on in Latvia.

Genevieve said...

John, your wife should write a book about her life in Latvia and how she ended up in Illinois!

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for that article. In Eastern Kentucky when I was growing up, we worked in hay every summer but with wagon and horses. We used pitchforks to make hay stacks. We also filled the loft of the barn with the hay.
Once in the hay field while resting a few minutes, I sat down on a bumble bee. That was not a very pleasant break from work. LOL
God Bless You.

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CONTENTMENT: Keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry, live simply, expect little, give much, sing often, pray always, forget self, think of others and their feelings, fill your heart with love, scatter sunshine. These are the tried links in the golden chain of contentment.
(Author unknown)

IT IS STILL BEST to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasure; and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong.
(Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1867-1957)

Thanks for reading.