Our hay wasn’t seriously good hay. We knew by our early teens that real hay fields, like those in southern Montana, would easily put our hay to shame; but it was the only hay we had and when someone said, “Well, better make hay while the sun shines,” we certainly knew what they meant.
It was just tall, dry grass that grew possibly 10-14 inches long in just one small area of our lower pasture. It was long enough that it was worth the effort to cut and haul it to the barn for winter bedding or feed for the cattle.
Much of the hay went into the hay mow which is not pronounced like “mow the grass.” It’s pronounced like “How now, brown cow,” which was a familiar saying in our community, neither the genesis nor point of which was ever discovered. In a good year when the rains came strong in June, hay-cutting might happen sometime in July. The John Deere with the mower behind it would disappear over the ridge west of the farm yard about mid-morning. There certainly was seldom any need to be concerned about dew in those dry, dry prairie hills, but a little later start in the day was still the norm for hay-cutting.
Dad would take the winding track through the upper pasture about a half mile from the house following the path worn into the sod by machinery over the years, to where it twisted and turned down the western exposure of the dry bluff we called The Ridge (just beyond the Indian Rings) and then tracked along the now dry gullies. Only for a brief time in spring or following the occasional heavy rain would there be any water in those gully creekbeds, and today they are totally dry and somewhat dusty.
About 1/4 mile further on, the trail splits. Go left and you’ll arrive at the Juneberry trees, the chokecherry patch and a barbed wire gate that leads out to the scoria road that, 3 miles to the left, will take you to the highway just east of our little town. Go right and you get to the Creeping Jenny patch and the hayfields.
Like all invasive and unwelcome foliage, Creeping Jenny thrived best in the places where it was least welcome, interfering equally with spring wheat and with the hayfield, but when there was enough good long grass to justify “going haying” the Creeping Jenny just got mowed right along with it. Some days later, when the mowed hay was judged to be dry enough to rake, the hay rake would be hooked up to the John Deere and after several hours work,the hay would be laying in long rows and occasional piles which often contained the beautiful flowers of the prickly pear, still attached to the cactus pads. Then the tractor came back up that twisting pasture trail, across the high pasture east of The Ridge, past the dam, back into the farmyard where the rake would be unhooked.
The hay slings would be laid in the bottom of the hay rack with their sides extending up and over the sides of the hayrack, hanging straight down alongside. The total length of these slings when laid on the ground for examination and repair, if necessary, was about 25 feet. They lay in the hayrack in the “open” position. Once the hayrack is hooked up to the same tractor, back out through the barbed wire gate and we head back out to the hayfield.
Now extra hands and backs were brought along with tools that were simple: two or three pitch forks. A three tine fork for the girl and four or five tine forks for brother and Dad. Now I had four older brothers, but by the time I was old enough to help with this job, the older three were off in military service, two in the Navy and one in the Marines. My enthusiasm with a three-tined fork as I tried to prove I could keep up with my brother occasionally presented a certain threat to the physical safety of others on our little crew. The preparation for bringing in the hay also included quart jars of cold water from the cistern, and sandwiches and cookies in a lunch bucket that sat on the tractor until it was time for lunch.
On the way down to load hay, we helpers rode in the hay rack, standing toward the back and bracing ourselvs as we went bumping along. On the way back, we could stand in the same place (now with hay up to our waist) or simply sit on top of the hay and have a comfy ride.
After the rack was full, the edges of the hay sling would be brought back up over the hayrack to “meet in the middle” so that when we returned to the farm yard and the upper doors of the haymow were opened, the now-fastened sling would be attached to the ropes and pulleys that extended out from the inside of the haymow, running along just under the roof of the barn, 35 feet above our heads. Some skillful man would be up in the haymow managing the ropes and pulleys, raising the entire load of hay in one fell swoop out of the hayrack, straight up into the air until it was level with the yaw of the open haymow doors, and then it would “swoosh” horizontally into the barn. When it hit some kind of dead-end mechanism that was set in the pulleys up there at the right place, the “hit” would knock the hay sling’s closures apart and–voila!–the hay would drop as a complete pile–into the spot selected for it.
When this whole process had been done enough times, well shoot–you now have enough hay in the mow to slide down and play on all winter long–riding the ropes and using the pulleys to swing out over some open hole in the hay piles and dropping from the rope with a yell of delight and bravado. Once you launched, by the way, you knew you were going to go flying, because if you chickened out and didn’t let go of the rope, your fingers were going to be dragged through the pulley wheels at the other end of the haymow, mashed between the rope and the metal wheels with the weight of your body adding to the pain. So it was launch and fly. Always. If you’re not going to fly–you’d better not launch.
Over the winter months, the big hay piles developed holes and nooks and crannies where, come spring, a cat might drop a litter or some old broody hen would decide she was going to hatch a batch. She’d go to laying eggs in a private nest up there that no one knew about until the hay started peeping in April or May and we loved when that happened for the simple reason that Dad, for reasons I never totally understood, did not want that happening. It just tickled us that some rebel hen outfoxed him and produced her own little flock. I think he had sort of a grudging admiration for the determination of any hen that pulled it off: once we were aware of the new chicks, both they and mama hen were carefully cared for.
Now some of the hay brought back to the barn did not go into the haymow, but was stacked along the 75 foot long corral fence which was constructed of strong 2 X 6’s, the top of the top rail being about 6 feet off the ground. The west side of the corral, large enough to hold a hundred head of cattle in an emergency or when branding, was the barn itself.
The north side was a solid wall-fence about 8 feet high which kept the north winds from coming directly in if subzero temperatures had made it necessary to bring all the cattle in during a January storm. The east side was this wonderfully climbable fence that I have described. The top of it was about 2″ wide, perfect for youngsters illustrating their Corral-Fence-Walking skills, which was like tight-rope walking, but with hay on one side and manure [fresh or dry] on the other. This was definitely a competitive activity, with winners and losers each knowing who they were.
The south side of the corral had a mishmash of gates, stalls, ramps and such, within which were the mechanisms to restrain cattle for branding and other assorted procedures that young farm girls were not permitted to watch, and chutes for loading them into or unloading them from the trucks that brought them to the farm and took them away again. The branding I could be present for. The other things–no place for young ladies. So I was told.
One of my strongest summer memories of the haystacks by the corral had nothing to do with branding or fence-walking. The memory was created on the day I received a windup watch that was not a hand-me-down. It was My Own Watch and probably cost less than $2, but it was My Own Watch and when we got home from town that day, I could hardly wait to be alone with it. Such bestowments on farm girls in homes where electricity had just arrived last year and there was still not running water in the house were not made lightly. This was a milestone of Growing Up that needed savoring.
This was an event to be cherished, but it couldn’t be talked about because that would imply that the farm girl thought that having Her Own Watch required some response from others. Any farm girl worth her salt knew it certainly did not.
As fast as I can, I change out of my town clothes and take off across the yard, down toward the barn. Got around the east side of the barn, circled the haystack to get to the side that faces the corral where there is now a wide place to walk since much of the hay was fed to the cattle over the winter. I hurry into that wide open space on the west side of the haystack that is warm from the sunshine and still has a wonderful earth and grass smell to it, sit down against the haystack and just think.
Yesterday I did not have a watch. Today I do.