Prologue to The Haymakers
Return to The Haymakers.
There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound—
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.
It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,
Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers
(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.
-- Robert Frost
We always kept track of close calls on the farm. It was Dad’s way of teaching us to be careful. Once, when I was still too young to remember, the combine caught his shirttail in a moving belt. Because he was strong and the shirt was cotton, it ripped and he wasn’t hurt, but what if it had been thick denim? Mom took a picture as a reminder of how close he had come, a permanent image in the family photo album from that time on. The picture appeared next to snapshots of birthdays and anniversaries: Dad, younger than any of us ever knew him, bare-chested but for shreds of his ribboned workshirt dangling down to his waist. He stands posed beside the combine: one hand in his pocket, hat tipped slightly to the side—positioned next to the exposed belt and sprocket that nearly pulled him in. His face is clenched in a grimace, but his chest is strong and unharmed.
The lesson was clear: watch out for that machine; watch your step, your hands, and your feet around the combine, the hammer-mill grinder, the mowing machine, the corn picker and the corn sheller, the silage blower and the haybale elevator. Be careful that you don’t get your hand pinched hooking up the hayrack to the tractor hitch. Move with caution, every day, on every inch of the Hoffbeck farm.
We were taught to be especially careful around moving parts. The worst I faced was the power-takeoff (PTO) shaft we ran from the tractor to the hammer-mill to grind corn and oats into prime feed for the cows. It was just a bare PTO shaft, no shields, parked by the feed room. I took care to climb up the tractor, stepping past and over the shaft to get to the seat, where I cranked the throttle up to grinding speed. I always looked and stepped wisely to avoid it on the way down, careful to the point of hugging, literally, the tractor’s fender. Everyone feared the PTO, for everyone had heard of someone who had been caught. I didn’t know how it killed someone, but I believed it was awful. These are the fears of farmkids.
In late November 1968, the worst of those fears was realized. It had already been a tough fall for Dad; the autumn skies brought too much rain and the soybean fields were too wet to harvest in September. The rains continued, and the beanfields were still too wet even through all of October. Finally in November, after the ground had frozen, Dad could work with the combine in the field, but it was so cold that he had to wear more warm clothes than usual. Whether from the fatigue of the drawn-out harvest or from the frustration of working with an aging combine-harvester, my dad made a mistake on the afternoon of the nineteenth, and somehow he got his bulky clothing caught in the PTO shaft.
My mom prepared an afternoon lunch for us kids to eat when we got home from school, wondering why Dad hadn’t walked home for coffee at four o’clock like he usually did. She finally went through the grove on foot to see what was keeping him. His body had been wrapped up tight in the twisting of his clothes by the PTO shaft, and he had suffocated. I was at basketball practice, in town, when my mom ran home to call an ambulance. They came and cut him from the mechanical grip of the combine, but he was dead on arrival at the Redwood Falls hospital. When I got home, my sister Ane Marie was the only one there waiting for me, tears on her face.
“Daddy died.” That was all she said.
In the silence of the morning following the accident, and with none of us going to school that day, I went out to the north of the grove to look at the place where it had happened. Frost hung on the tree branches. It was 7:30 and the school bus passed by on the gravel road going north, past the end of the driveway where I usually waited. I watched the bus go without me, wishing that I could go too, that somehow this could be a normal day. Searching the harvested rows of beans, I could find only traces of what had happened the day before. The old combine had been towed away, but I could see where Dad had died, for there were bits of his clothing, blue denim and white scraps of waffled long underwear, only a few icy drops of blood.
It was the combine, the same machine in the photograph, that killed him. The image was supposed to be a warning to us, not a prophecy. His death made that picture—the relief of a close call—too hard to look at anymore. It has stayed in the family album, in my mom’s closet, until now.
* * * *
Before the mower arrives, a field of timothy grass is green and alive, leaves waving in the morning breezes. Meadowlarks sing their early-summer songs, field mice are safe in their underground burrows, and a fox lurks by the fence line. Grasshoppers and crickets leap in the tall grass. A hawk stares from a nearby telephone pole.
The mower disturbs all life in the hayfield. The machine scatters wildlife and, if it lingers long, cuts it with scissorlike blades. Pheasants fly from the nest, leaving their young if they must. Timothy falls backward. It withers and wilts. The remaining stems bear a whitish cut-mark, slashed through.
In the aftermath (a word from the Old English, which means “after mowing”) the whole field lies exposed. Naked. The short stubble lends no place to hide but under the windrow of timothy. There the crickets congregate, where they are easy prey for the meadowlark, the blackbird, and the sparrow. Some mice scurry in the cut portions of alfalfa and the hawk takes to the air, circling the field. Crows pick at the carcasses of other mice killed by the mower blades.
The grass appears dead too, but the roots are deep. The timothy will recover in time. New shoots arise from the wounded stems; the field will turn green again. Cows may graze there or the farmer will take a second cutting from the hayfield. In a dry year, the field might be plowed under and new crops planted, the old stalks nourishing the new. The cut timothy becomes hay, fodder for the livestock, sustaining them through the wintertime. Hay keeps traces of what it once was in the field, the faded green, the smell of summer, the strong perfume of memory.
My boyhood on the farm was a field of grass. My father and later my brother were cut down. The loss was deep, but a new growth of grass covers the field now. I can look out and see the meadowlarks on that hayfield again. The sun shines on the timothy once more.
* * * *
I was never cut out to be a farmer. I never plowed a field; I never could figure out how to tell when a cow was done milking by feeling the pulse of milk through the rubber hoses; I never drove the tractor for mowing hay, for hauling manure, or for cultivating a field. I always let one of my brothers do those things; they wanted to drive tractors, and I did not. I did the hardest work, cleaning manure out of the gutters from the age of five, stacking the bales in the haymow, knocking down weeds with a weed cutter, picking cucumbers for making Gedney pickles, and digging up potatoes in the fall.
I did the manual labor and I learned enough to drive a tractor for some work, but I made sure not to learn too much. I mainly drove a tractor for raking or baling hay or for driving a full hayrack homeward. When I was fifteen years old, I would often drive the Allis Chalmers WD-45 tractor out of the farmyard, across the bridge over the county ditch, and out to the alfalfa hayfield to the east of the farmstead. My dad had already hooked up the side-delivery rake, which was fine with me; it would have taken me twice as long as anyone else. Every skilled job on the farm that was easy for the others was difficult for me, so I worked, providing the manual labor, hoeing cockleburs and milkweeds out of the rows of soybeans, carrying tall pails of milk to the milk-room cooler, pitching manure out of the calfpens and the gutter, and feeding hay and silage to the cows. But I was good at making hay.
I didn’t mind raking hay with the side rake, because all it required me to do was drive straight on the straightaways, slowing down on the four corners of the field in order to make the windrows easy to bale, always raking two swaths of mown hay into one windrow. I had it easy; I wasn’t cutting with a scythe or even working with a horse-drawn rake. For early white settlers in Minnesota, haying meant weeks or months of daily handlabor. They needed to use their strong hands to make enough hay in the summer to last through the long winter months before spring, when the livestock could again be turned out to eat the grass in the pastures and meadows. Minnesota farmers throughout all generations made hay as an obligation; it was their duty. They cut and dried the grass, then tossed it onto haystacks and into haylofts for later feeding to the livestock. The labor of haying was never in vain, for hay was the food that kept their animals alive through the winter, but it was never a choice. Everyone needed it.
Even city people used to keep dried timothy-grass hay in their carriage houses and stables for the horses, but as we moved into the twentieth century, hay became less common. By 1970 there were more people living in the metropolitan Twin Cities area than there were cattle living on all outstate farms combined. In barely a century as a state, Minnesota’s character had radically changed. Today many city dwellers have lost their connection to the country to the point that many now wonder, What exactly is hay?
Hay is humble stuff, just grass that has been cut and dried as fodder for cattle, horses, and sheep. But hay is not straw and should not be confused with straw. A farmer gets straw from the hollow stems of wheat or oats plants after the kernels have been threshed from the top of the stem; because straw is made of dry stalks, it has little nutritive value. Hay is green. Straw is bright, golden yellow. Hay is fed to the animals; straw is spread in animal pens to absorb manure and urine so as to keep beds dry in the cowbarns or sheds. Cows and horses eat hay but sleep on straw. A milkcow might sample a little clean, fresh straw put down for her bedding but certainly will not eat it after it has been trod under hoof.
Horses and cows eat grass in summer pastures. They need to eat fresh grass in order to have good health, but, in Minnesota, the pasture grass is not nutritious from the time it turns brown (after autumn frost kills it) until the springtime warmth and sunshine bring it back to life. When the grass is dead or covered with snow, then cows and horses have to eat the next best thing—dried-grass hay. Animals will eat it eagerly, for it has retained its nutritive value, especially its protein content.
Hay can also be made from the dried leaves and stems and reddish flowers of red clover plants, which grow to be about one and a half feet tall. Short white clover, famous for being the three- or four-leaf clover plant, also has become hay when it grows mixed with other types of grasses. Dairy farmers have come to love alfalfa hay most of all because it gives the most protein for cows to make milk. The leaves are especially tender and relished by milkcows, the stems are not tough to digest, and the tiny purple, blue, and pink blossoms are lovely in the field and in the haystacks. Jersey and Holstein cows eat the whole plant in sun-dried alfalfa hay, so long as the hay is properly dried and promptly put into the loft of a barn or in a large stack outside.
However, if the cut grass has been rained on or not thoroughly dried, it can turn musty then moldy. Horses fall sick from eating moldy hay, and even cows can die from eating too much wet grass. The pasture grass ferments in their stomachs and can cause so much gas that they bloat. A farmer can save the cow if he diagnoses the problem quickly enough. He can put a stick in the cow’s mouth to hold it open, allowing the gas to escape, but if the cow is lying on her side with her legs rigid, drastic intervention is needed. The farmer must take a knife or an instrument called a truncheon and poke a hole in the side of the cow to let the fermenting gasses out.
Once, as a boy, when one of our cows was on its flank in throes of agony, I watched my father take the barn knife we used to cut twine off haybales and puncture the cow’s side. Gas came rushing out and digestive juices gurgled and flowed from the wound. It didn’t help; before long that cow died in the cowyard near the pasture entrance. In winter, a dead cow would freeze; in summer it attracted flies that buzzed and circled the carcass. After a while, a truck came to pick it up, and it was turned into glue or dog food at the local rendering plant.
Farmers have always had to work hard to get the hay cut, dried, and harvested and into the hayloft in the barn as quickly as possible. It was always a race against time to get the hay harvested before it could be ruined by rainfall; thus the old phrase was born, “Make hay while the sun shines.” It means to get the hay-work done before dark rain-clouds could arise and ruin the mown hay. It means to work as hard as you can for as long as you can before nightfall.
* * * *
If this book succeeds, you will be able to feel the burning July sun and the noontime heat that made haying one of the hardest tasks of agriculture. You will find red clover plants in cut hay in a nearby meadow, take in the aroma and remember Shakespeare’s line from A Mid-summer Night’s Dream: “Good hay, sweet hay.”1 Or perhaps, you will recall Robert Frost’s assertion that the fragrance released by clover when cutting it with the “long scythe” made the work “the sweetest dream that labor knows.” But the work itself was less than poetry, as anyone who has ever done the labor can attest. So I hope you will also be able to imagine the stifling heat in a hayloft and the cooling effects of an August breeze on the sweat-streaked brow.
Fill your lungs with the fragrance of hay. Hay permeates the past and the present with its gentle perfume. As Walt Whitman once wrote, “The familiar delicious perfume fills the barns and lanes”2; but perhaps the sweet smell of hay is less familiar than it once was. In 1991 the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago conducted an investigation of the question: “What odor causes you to become nostalgic?” Researcher Alan Hirsch noted a powerful link between smells and memories. People born before 1930 associated their past with natural odors that they inhaled during childhood, such as hay, horses, meadows, pine trees, and sea air. Those born after 1930 tended to connect childhood recollections with the smell of a newly mown lawn rather than newly mown clover; with Pine-Sol rather than piney woods; with man-made scents like fresh plastic, scented markers, airplane fuel, VapoRub, Play-Doh, or Sweet Tarts rather than home-baked bread or wet clothes on a clothesline.3
Helen Keller appeared to be correct when she wrote: “Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of miles and all the years we have lived.”4 The fragrance of hay is a part of many pasts. No aroma on the farm brings back deeper memories than the smell of “good hay, sweet hay.” The scent of red clover is the scent of haying heaven. Alfalfa’s essence is somehow greener and heavier than clover, but still permeates the memories of those who fed it to cows and steers. Grass hay or marsh-grass hay leaves fewer traces in the nerves that govern smell but just as many connections to the work of gathering it and pitching it. Anyone who has ever lain down on his back on piled hay has kept traces of the feel of hay, of its aroma, its essence of work, its usefulness, of its very nature and quiet force.
* * * *
The last words I ever said to my dad were: “It doesn’t make any difference.” I was saying good-night, standing in the doorway to the upstairs and both Mom and Dad were already in bed. All the lights were out except the hall light upstairs. I questioned whether I had been paid the full amount by the church for helping my brother Jeff with mowing the cemetery lawn; I thought I had earned a little more. He told me it was the right number, and I did the math in my head again. Jeff had indeed put in more hours, done more work. Conceding the point, I said to Dad, “It doesn’t make any difference.” My last words to him. Not the last thing I would have wanted to say, but words that resolved the matter, a gesture of concession. Maybe I couldn’t ask for more than that.
We never said things like “I love you”; it wasn’t the way we did things in our family. Our family had love—I worked with him and we had respect for each other and I never talked back to my father. That’s what love consisted of on our farm. All we had ever really done together was to work together, in the barn, in the field—everything involved work, or developed a work ethic.
When I was a kid, my brother Larry and I were responsible for feeding the cows at an outside hay feeder, which was made out of an old straw-shed. It had two strands of an electric fence on one end, at the end where an outside stack of haybales stood. Larry was supposed to throw three bales over the wire fence, remove the twine strings, and spread the hay along the south side of the feeder, so that the cows and heifers could eat it after putting their heads between the partition boards.
I was supposed to throw three bales over the fence and then break up the slices of hay along the north side of the feeder. This I did until I began to feel that there was something unfair about the job. Feeling that I was too young and not strong enough to throw the bales over the wire fence, I committed a sin of convenience. Instead of feeding them three bales of hay, which was my chore, I climbed into the feeder after my brother was done with his part of the work, and I took half of the slices of hay that he had spread out on the south side and I threw them over to the north side. Because I was shunning my duties, the cows were not getting their full measure of hay.
It took only a few days for my father to notice that something was wrong. He could see that the cows were eating every bit of the hay in the feeder, rather than leaving some stems and rough parts. My father watched one evening as I did the chores, saw what I was doing, and then spoke to me that night.
I will never forget what he said to me. In a calm voice and with no anger, he told me that he was disappointed by my shirking of the responsibility of feeding the hay to the cows. He told me that we all had to work hard on our farm and that he knew that I would do the job the right way the next time. He said that he understood that throwing the bales over the fence was difficult for me and so he helped me with that part of the work the next night and for several nights afterward. That’s how we measured love on our farm—by how hard you worked, how much time you put in. And, of course, it makes all the difference.
* * * *
Work came first. Getting hay into the hayloft was a massive undertaking, for loose hay was measured in tons, not pounds. We had to lift tons of hay from the ground into the second-story hayloft. In the days of baled hay, one mechanical baler could produce more fully loaded hayracks in a day than could a whole family making loose hay. The baling machine in the meadow made it necessary to unload haybales into the hayloft as fast as was humanly possible. That meant that farmkids like us unloaded bales from the hayrack into the loft in the morning, in the noontime heat, or in sultry humid evenings. Many farmers put hay into the haymow no matter how hot it was, inside or out.
Each hayrack held over one hundred bales, and a bale elevator (or conveyor) lifted those bales into the hayloft with mechanical regularity, having no mercy and slowing down for nothing—not for heat, not for humidity, not for time. The noise of the bale elevator went on and on and we tried to keep track of how many bales were still left to stack, but inevitably we would lose count. The first bales dropped off the top end of the elevator and fell a great distance to the floor of the hayloft. Some of thm broke apart upon impact and had to be pushed away from the landing zone. Hay leaves fluttered down, making a little pile of loose hay on the floor.
We put the bales in straight rows in order to get the maximum number in the hayloft space. It was a point of pride for farmers to operate an orderly farm, and a part of having such a farm required stacking the bales in the hayloft, rather than just letting them fall in a heap. The usual method in this procedure was to lay down a whole layer in rows running lengthwise east and west; the next layer would be laid in lengthwise columns north and south. Layer by layer the hayloft became filled.
The hardest work involved in filling a loft with baled hay was stacking the bales in the uppermost corners of the hayloft. The lower layers of bales involved much throwing and little lifting—after you mastered the talent of throwing bales into the right place. But when piling hay into the rafters near the ceiling, we had to throw the bales and then lift them into place—while the space became more constricted and the air was hot and close. I learned to walk with agility on top of rows of bales, and judging where to put each foot to avoid stepping into crevices swiftly became second nature.
Relief from the constant rush of falling bales came only when the screeching blades of the elevator and the electric motor stopped. When those of us in the haymow heard the elevator being shut off, we would think Good! knowing we were done with one more load. After this, it was a great feeling to get outside the hayloft door into the fresh air and sit down on the elevator and slide down on the smooth steel edges, made slippery by the polishing of thousands of bales that had gone up that elevator—being careful to duck through the haydoor and avoid any obstructions on the way down.
After filling the loft so full of hay that the green bales stuffed the gaping maw of the hayloft door, we could take pride in having gotten the hay safely into the red-painted barn. Red was the color of dairy barns, but the color green dominated all work with hay and haylofts. Farmers prided themselves on their good-looking hay; we wanted the hay to be as green as possible. Our cotton chore gloves were purely white or yellow when new, but all gained permanent tinges of green at the fingers, with bits of alfalfa leaves on the back of the hand. We even breathed in green alfalfa, getting a full nose from the green dust, and we blew green stuff from our nostrils at day’s end. The right pant leg of the bale lifter became green with hay stains, and the fabric over the knee of the throwing leg wore out before that on the other knee. Dried green leaves from the hay gravitated into shoes and socks. They were unavoidable in haying time. They clung to you like memory.
* * * *
The Catholic girls from my grade, even the ones I didn’t know very well, all came to the funeral home for the viewing of Dad’s body. I was glad they came, glad those beautiful girls cared. I was more of an observer than anything else that day, watching my mother’s grief, my brothers’ and sisters’ grief—standing a bit outside of it all. I was trying to take it in but I don’t remember much of the funeral time. Mostly what sticks with me is the image of his hands, folded in death, his hands, cracked from constant dipping in water while cleaning cows for milking and callused from twine digging into his fingers from one summer’s three thousand haybales. What a bitter contrast to his smoothed-over, cosmetics-covered face.
I was fifteen, too young to really understand him; it seemed all he knew was work and all I knew of him was work. I worked with him carrying milk from the barn to the milk cooler. I didn’t know what to say so we worked together in silence. Even on his fiftieth birthday that September, I had wanted to say “Happy Birthday,” but I couldn’t get the words out. Only later did I find out that he liked the fact that I was a good athlete, a good pole vaulter and a quick guard in basketball. He never saw me play, because he was working. At least he knew that I got good grades and did well at sports. At least we had worked together, every day, even if it was mostly in silence.
Life continued on the farm, and my eldest brother, Larry, though he had never wanted it, became a farmer. I did the same kind of work I had done before, manual tasks, but now I did it to please my mom and help my brother. Working with Larry, I learned to talk to him, something I had never known how to do with Dad. Larry had such a kind way of asking me to work; he said, “Do you want to grind the feed today?” I would only tell him “yes”; there was no avoidance of work anymore; there were no “no”s about farmwork anymore. Larry was just eighteen, just out of high school, and had given up his dream of becoming a carpenter so that our family wouldn’t lose the property my grandfather had purchased. For nearly sixteen years he managed to keep the farm going, until he too was killed on that same family homeplace, less than a hundred yards from where our dad died.
* * * *
This is a book of remembrance, a book tracing the role of haymaking in the lives of five farm families in different parts of Minnesota from the later Territorial period through the present. This could be merely a collection of facts about hay; but it is more, because hay meant life to livestock and, therefore, life to many Minnesotans. Each chapter follows a different family according to the changing methods of gathering hay during the decades of their lives, but this is not meant to be a detailed technical manual on haymaking, nor is it a book whose purpose is merely to remind or inform us of bygone haymaking methods of summers past. Instead I have tried to tell the stories of families on farms and how haying was part of the seasonal rhythms of their everyday lives, the larger rhythms of life and death. Those of us who grew up on Minnesota farms have only to count the number of farm deaths in our own communities to understand that every family will eventually suffer its own set of tragedies. This book is a tribute not only to those who lost their lives on farms but, also, to those who have endured despite those losses and continued to work their farmsteads.
My brother’s story—the story of his life and death on our family farm—is the last of the five told here. I am a professor of history now, and some part of me needs to see what has happened to my family in terms of the history of our state, the trials of those who have gone before. I wrote this book to better remember my dad and my brother, so that they might be remembered by others. Wound around my memo-ries of summers haying with my dad and my brothers are deeper threads of mourning. Danger, both natural and mechanical, is woven into the fabric of farmwork.
Sorrow is as common as labor on the farmstead. The dread-filled anticipation of the effort can be as heavy as the work in the field or hayloft. Whether grown on a back forty or wild on a prairie meadow, by July, fields of green hay—clover, alfalfa, timothy grass—are ready to be cut, raked, and gathered. When a field is ready, the horizon is usually hazy from the heat of the day and pollen thick on the air. It is the early afternoon, just after the main meal of the day. The stubble crunches, bending stubbornly underfoot. Most days nothing of note happens; you cut, you stack, you bale. But every day the fate of the farm hangs in the balance, and every day you’re only one mistake away from disaster. You try not to think about it. Time to get to work.
Return to The Haymakers.