Columnists
Let's Reminisce: Barns and hay storage
By Jerry Lincecum
Apr 16, 2019
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I enjoy hearing from readers (and writers) who have a different perspective from mine on something that played a prominent role in my childhood.  One of the writers in my current life story class at Grayson College, Carl Roegner, is fortunate to have reminiscences written by his father that included comments about barns he remembered from growing up in the Midwest.  Mr. Roegner (senior) wrote about living in his grandmother’s house in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, when there was an empty barn on the place that was a favorite playhouse.  It was a small barn with two stalls for milkcows and a loft for loose hay, which was just pitched up from the wagon with a pitchfork.  This was the most basic way of handling and storing hay.

More interesting to me was Mr. Roegner’s description of much larger barn he remembered from a different farm they lived on during the 1920s.  This barn had a better system for handling hay, and they grew two different kinds: alfalfa and timothy.  The alfalfa was considered best for the cows and timothy was for the horses.  About two-thirds of the barn’s first floor was partitioned off and equipped with stanchions for 30 milk cows.  The loft over it was for alfalfa hay, and it had two large double sliding doors that were opened when hay was brought in.  The smaller portion of the barn was left for the horses and their timothy hay.

The way the hay was unloaded and placed in the loft was fascinating for a child to watch.  They had a large “grab hook” hayfork shaped like a pair of claws, and it was forced into the pile of loose hay on the wagon.  Then a block-and-tackle arrangement lifted the forkload of hay to an overhead trolley that carried the alfalfa to the proper spot in the loft, where an operator dumped it.

A different system was used by one of their neighbors.  He used slings made of ropes and wooden slats.   A sling was placed on the wagon before it was loaded with loose hay, and the sling full of hay was pulled up to the loft with horsepower.  Then one end was released and the hay fell out.  The horses were then unhooked and the sling was guided by hand back on the haywagon.  Both of these systems for getting the hay into the barn were labor-saving practices.

A large amount of alfalfa was needed to feed 30 dairy cows, so it was cut two or three times a season.  When it was being cut, boys would enjoy the opportunity to hunt rabbits.  They loved to eat alfalfa and would nest in it because it was their favorite food.  Mr. Roegner remembered the way the mower would start going around the edge of the field, making the stand of alfalfa smaller and smaller until there was very little left.  As the mower made its final cuts, there would be bunnies running in all directions.

Carl Roegner and his sister Norma at play in their grandmother’s old barn. Photo by their father, Russell, who won a prize for it

The curing or drying of the hay was extremely important.  In the 1920s it was cut with a horse-drawn mower that had a sicklebar about five feet in length.  The hay was then allowed to dry for a couple of days before it was raked in rows to make it easier to load it on haywagons with pitchforks.  The old saying, “You had better make hay while the sun shines” was literally true, because it was essential for the hay to be thoroughly dry.  If it was placed in the barn with too much moisture content, spontaneous combustion could start a fire that would consume the entire barn.

Reading Mr. Roegner’s barn stories from the 1920s makes me appreciate the differences in the way hay was baled and handled in the 50s.  When I was a hayhauler, helping to place hundreds of small square bales into my grandfather’s large barn, more labor was required than is true today, when large round bales are hauled and stored.  No wonder we humans are always looking for more laborsaving devices and practices.

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories.  He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: jlincecum@me.com