They Don't Make Hay The Way They Used To
A SADNESS prevails as I drive our Maine countryside in haying time and watch the lads disport. It is not now as it hath been of yore, as the poet puts it, and trucks are loaded by forklifts to race pell-mell to the barn and be unloaded by elevators. The charm of haymaking has certainly evaporated.
In my time, he who built load pitched off at the barn - he had to dispose each forkful of hay so the load would be balanced and wouldn't slide apart halfway to the barn. He thus knew how things were layered and pitched off accordingly. The rest of us walked the field and pitched up to him, and then at the barn we went into the mows and stowed. But now all that lore is lost. It's a crying shame that not one little farm boy of this dreary day will ever know what it was like to lead the horse for the hay-un loader - known as a track-fork. We had such in the peak of our barn, long superseded by mechanical improvements I know nothing about - happily.
I was seven, going on eight, the first summer I was accorded the great honor of leading Tantrabogus back and forth for the track-fork. Until then I had done no more at haying than "tread the mow" and fetch the switchell jug from the spring. Switchell was a mixture of oatmeal, molasses, and spring water deemed helpful in assuaging hayfield thirst, but so many years later I recall it with a shudder. Now, I was old enough to do my part, and as child labor was not then considered evil, I was invited to handl e old Tanty.
Tanty was the nigh horse of the heavy team, and was going on 30 years. He weighed over half a ton and his hoof was the size of a bushel measure. Having assisted in bringing the load of hay from the field to the barn, he was now unhitched and worked single to pull the rope on the unloader. His mate, Malchizedek, bided until the load was off and Tanty should return. Tanty, even though he slept most of the time, was almost equal to working the hay-fork rope alone, like a "twitchin' horse," so the most impor tant part of leading him was to keep my tootsies out from under. As the nigh horse, he had a tendency to pull toward me when single, so my toes today are a memorial to my boyhood care.
Our barn was 80 feet long, and any student of Archimedes can quickly name the number of feet of rope it took to pass through four "snatch blocks" to get a harpoon fork of hay off the rack and into the far mow. This will show how far I had to lead Tanty before somebody shouted "Whoa!" and we turned to come back.
Tanty would hear the command as I did, and as the rope behind him went slack he'd realize the harpoon fork had been tripped. Back and forth, to and fro, Tanty and I realized with pride that no matter how much the men of the crew struggled and strained and shouted, 'twas Tanty and the little child who paced the job.
This was somewhat gratuitous on my part, because Tanty could hear the "Take it away!" as well as I could, and by the time I got my hand to his bridle he was already leaning into his collar. And he could tell it was time to stop when the rope went slack on his whiffletree, at which he would turn and lead me back to position one. When turning, Tanty was always careful not to foul himself in his traces.
Tanty was of much the same color, but quite another horse from Bill, who was used on the hayrake. I got to rake with Bill in a year or so, and we hated each other. Bill was a retired racehorse, used single for cultivating, and for raking hay. Once in a great while he'd get to town with the buggy, but sometimes he'd think he was back on the track and do a joyful mile in half-past-two, which was an occasion for prayer. One time he rejoiced in his memories and started over a four-foot stone wall with me and
the rake. I got off just before the critical moment and lived to tell of it, but I remember how that rake jingled during the next 10 days.
So it's sad for me to drive past a hayfield nowadays, subject to thoughts about the happy days that were. Hay gets cut in a dull and dreamy manner.