Friday, August 12, 2011

Making Hay While the Sun Shines: Farm Life in August

By: Garet Livermore, Vice President for Education

Summer Farm Scene, Old New England Illustrated

One of the realities of farming is that it is outdoor work requiring the farmer to work in conditions as varied as the blizzards of January and the heat of summer.  This is especially true during the hot, sunny days of July and August when farmers need to go out into their fields make the hay that will feed their animals throughout the year.  Even, like in the illustration above, the farmers’ cows have the good sense to find a cool shaded section of stream to stand in, the farmer and his family must toil in the sun and heat to cut, dry and gather the hay to store in the barn for colder weather.  Haymaking was demanding work that required whole families and communities to work together to successfully bring in the crop.

Cutting Hay, Old New England Illustrated

Despite the perception amongst some that cutting hay is simply a large mowing job, haymaking is a very critical process that requires much planning and knowledge of the crop and local weather conditions to be successful.  The old adage “making hay while the sun shines” was a vital fact of life for 19th century farmers.  They needed to cut whole fields of hay with scythes and allow for drying time.  Scything was best done in a group so that whole rows could be evenly cut at a time. Neighboring farmers helped out and competed with one another as to both the speed and the quality of the cutting.  Jared Van Wagenen described a typical 19th century cutting party in Schoharie County:
“Always they laughed and gossiped and chaffed a little .  Then the man whose turn it was to lead struck three sharp taps on his stone with his scythe, a sound that was both a signal and a challenge, and they were off.  If someone lagged in his stroke, the fellow literally at his heels cried out the jocular warning: “Get out of my way or I’ll cut your legs off.”
 A talented man with a scythe was hard to find and a valuable addition to the haying crews.  It was said that the best men could cut an acre of hay a day by hand.  This was soon superseded by the horse drawn mowers of the 19th century that could easily cut 15 or more acres per day.

Bringing in the hay, by Charles Fredrick Zabriskie (1848-1914), Cyanotype photograph, PH 19634.  Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York.

Cutting the hay was just the beginning of the process. The farmers then had to dry the hay before it could be put in the barn.  Hay needed to contain less than 22% moisture to avoid spoilage or, worse, causing a barn fire through spontaneous combustion. Drying was managed by raking the hay into long windrows and then periodically “tedding” or fluffing the hay with a rake or other device to completely dry the stalks in preparation for storing the hay in the barn.

Woman Driving Hay Rake, Unidentified photographer, ca. 1907-1915. F0014.2011(08). Plowline: Images of Rural New York.

In the 19th century, hay dried in the field then was brought in bulk on a haywagon to the barn for storage in the attic, or hayloft. This required forming a chain with many people moving the hay into the loft with pitch forks, a very labor intensive process in the heat. By the early 20th century new machinery had been invented that more efficiently compressed the hay into bales into the field which could then be stacked in the barn.

Gathering Hay for Storage, Pierstown, NY, by Charles Fredrick Zabriskie (1848-1914), black and white photograph, PH18830.  Fenimore Art Museum, Coopertown, New York. 

Midday meals brought out to the fields, called “dinner” in the rural Northeast until fairly recently, were a welcome respite from the hot, dusty work of haymaking.  Typically haymakers, wives, sisters and daughters brought hampers of cold meats, bread, cheese and pie to the fields and layed out blankets under nearby shade trees.  The favored drink of the season was switchel, a thirst quenching beverage made from cold well water, honey or maple syrup, apple cider vinegar and ground ginger. The taste of switchel has often been compared to a combination of lemonade and ginger-ale.  Here is a recipe to try on a hot day:

Switchel, or Haymaker’s Punch

1 cup Honey or Maple Syrup

1 cup Apple Cider Vinegar
1tablespoon ground ginger
2 quarts water
Mix together the evening previous store in the refrigerator and enjoy.
Chase hay Pressing, by Arthur J. Telfer (1859-1954), dry collodion negative, 5-07492.  Smith and Telfer Collection, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York. 

Hay Wagons on Main Street, by Arthur J. Telfer (1859-1954), dry collodion negative, C-508332.  Smith and Telfer Collection, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York.

1 comment:

JJ said...

Thank you Farmers Museum for the article. I started helping my Grandfather cut the yearly hay around the age of ten years and some of my fond memories are of Summer time hay cutting.

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