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The Race Against Summer – Haying Season

By Bennett Owen

Credit: My-West, Gordon Berry Archive ©

“No matter what happens anywhere else the hay gets put up in the summer and fed out in the winter.”   

- R.D. Marchesseault                   

I grew up in southwest Montana, in the land of 10-thousand haystacks. OK, we weren’t actually in the Big Hole valley but my Grandfather’s ranch was so picturesque that it was featured on the post card anyway.

Beaverslide. Credit: Tripping with MikenJudy

Look at those mighty haystacks, spreading down the valley … 30 to 60 tons per stack … Grandma said they looked like fresh-baked loaves of bread, an unforgettable image…

Credit: Altameadow

Fleeting monuments, so vital in the yearly circle of ranch life… things of beauty and yet the production was anything but…an orchestrated mayhem of grease and grief and men and machinery, locked in an eight-week race against summer. 

Credit: My-West, Gordon Berry Archive ©

A grueling, back-breaking struggle against time, the elements and the fickleness of lady luck. And yet, as a young boy, my loftiest goal in life was to be a hay digger, there simply was no alternative. Forget the rodeo riding, the only bull I wanted to be on the back of was a monster bullrake, pushing hay by the ton to the beaverslide, on and on through endless meadows. 

Credit: My-West, Gordon Berry Archive ©

When I was a kid the bullrake was the equivalent of flying fighter jets off aircraft carriers…the ultimate achievement, a dream that many had but few would attain. 

Credit: My-West ©

There was a certain cocky glamour to it, the way my uncles did it … a brash and showman-like quality to their expertise for they were very good at what they did.  And watching them, riding with them, all the young lads dreamed of someday guiding the monster through fields of green.

Credit: My-West, Gordon Berry Archive ©

Yes, there was a pecking order in the hayfield, an unwritten code of rank and privilege. So we started out…with a pitchfork, cleaning hay around the stack. But that didn’t even merit a seat at the dinner table with the hay hands.

Credit: My-West, Gordon Berry Archive ©

Eventually we graduated to the scatter rake, servants of a sort, cleaning up the leftovers the God-like bull rakers carelessly left behind.

Credit: My-West, Gordon Berry Archive ©

After a small eternity, the promotion to the side delivery rake or the hoist…and perhaps the mowing team, also a rare honor.  Stacking was by far the worst chore, a summer sentence of sweat and swirling hay dust and the sense of constantly climbing up out of quicksand.  The one reward at season’s end was a slightly heavier paycheck and a body that was way beyond buff.

Credit: My-West, Gordon Berry Archive ©

I started out in the hayfield with a pitchfork at age eight. I was 17 when I first mounted a bull rake.  And a lot of strange and humorous things happened in that span of time. But that is the stuff of tomorrow’s post.  In the meantime, here’s a primer on haying in the land of 10,000 haystacks.


Josh, thanks so much for submitting this painting to My-West - it really captures haying time in Montana:

Hay Season, by Josh Elliot © - near the Little Blackfoot River, near Avon, Montana

Thanks to Jim Brown for submitting these great photos of haying in Beaverhead County, Montana:

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Reader Comments (7)

A Bull Rake in southeastern Idaho was a bit before my time. We baled hay and stacked it, a bale at a time. Still very hard work, and done on a wagon with a team of horses. Picked up 66,000 bales of hay in Nevada one summer and had forearms like Popeye's when school began in the fall. Hours spent sharpening mower teeth, and hours spent mowing and raking hay (both grass and alfalfa) into windrows. The best part was lunch for the hay hands at the house in the Cottonwoods. Fried Chicken, mashed potatoes with gravy, a picture of cold and fresh Milk on the table, homemade bread and churned butter, and some Cherry Pie to top it all off. It was a right of manhood for us youngsters, and you knew you were there when you could lift a 75 pound hay bale at the end of a pitchfork to the wagon, standing the fork on it's end while you balanced the bale on the tines for the hand up top to grab and place on the wagon stack.

August 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBob Poulton

Hey Bob - Got some pictures to go with that? We'll make a post out of it! You bet, forearms like Popeye. Mickey Mantle would have cried if he'd seen the forearms my Uncles had from pitching hay and milking cows. Stacking loose hay, slew grass was the worst...wet and heavy and impervious to pitchforks. One time my Uncle Robert and I were about 30 feet up topping off a stack and he looked out and said, "I challenge anybody to do this 10 hours a day without some beef in their belly." And you're right, eating with the crew was the payoff. Homemade sourdough bread sliced as thick as your wrist, always some variation of beef, salad from the garden, churned butter, eggs from the hen house... God, where's the wayback machine when you need it.

August 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBennett Owen

I worked on a few farms in Ontario in my youth, bailing & rakeing, sadly mechanized. But the food & the comradery, the sweet warm smells in the fields & the sounds of the birds. the warmth of the sun & the softness & depth of sleep at the end of the day, remained Knowing you'd done more work in a day than most people thought possible in a lifetime. Then to get up early & do it all over again. Experience & sensations everyone should have. Lucky people are we.

August 6, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterrobertian047

Robert, indeed we are!

August 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBennett Owen

Bennett you are wrong. The lowest rung was dishwasher, I had trouble just getting to the field!

August 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDonna P.

I will always remember the fun we had. There was a lot of flirting and prank playing as well ... short sheeting the beds, making noises in the dark to make like ghosts were in the bunkhouse, last night's beets in the morning pancakes. I still crave Aunt Mary's rhubarb jam and homemade butter, Aunt Louise's spaghetti, Mom's pies... I remember praying for rain so we could have a day off and go swimming or to a movie. Once in a while someone would come to visit for the day and bring ice cold lemonade and candy bars to share with the crew - they never tasted so good. The highest compliment would be that you could scatterrake as well as Grandpa. The hoist operator would bury the stackers at least once to put them in their place. There was no loafing. If you weren't raking, you better be cleaning up around the stack with a pitchfork.

August 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJulia M Wilson

I do agree with Donna that dishwasher was quite possibly the lowest rung on the haycrew ladder. I found that out the hard way after complaining about the job of raking one year. The next year Dad (Jules) put me in the kitchen with Mom (Bonnie). It actually wasn't too bad because Mom was a very organized cook. We got most of the work done in the morning so there was usually a couple hours in the afternoon to go out to the hayfield when it was closer to the house. Oh how I loved riding on the buckrake, sitting on the gastank holding on to whatever, flying across the fields, and chatting with the cute buckrake operator. When we moved to the Grasshopper things changed a little. Now I was Grandma's "flunky", her term not mine. I learned how to cook on a wood cookstove & the "joys" that go along with. That summer there were some issues with the chimney so we had to keep the kitchen window and the door to the porch closed so the stove would draw (draft) adequately. I have deep admiration for our female ancestors. They earned their place in history. Grandma was an old-fashioned chaperon so my afternoons of flying across the hayfield on a buckrake were severely curtailed. She was a master at finding things to keep her flunky busy and out of "mischief". Our Grandma Marchesseault was a master at the art of keeping the dishwasher up to her elbows in the sink. I declare that nobody could dirty as many dishes as Grandma. Sometimes I was convinced she was either cleaning out all the kitchen cupboards or slipping the already clean dishes back into the pile of dirty dishes. There were numerous times that I would finally just let the water out of the sink and suggest we finish the rest of the dishes with those of the next meal. Dad will back me up on this, he remembers doing dishes as a youngster. Oh how I do miss Grandma, she was a woman of strength and character; oh and her chocolate cake, what a slice of heaven! God bless our relatives and the beautiful memories they gave to us.

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