On the southern Illinois dairy farm of my youth, Memorial Day marked summer’s official beginning. School was finished, the weather warm and fieldwork – outside a fast rotary hoeing of just-emerged corn – was light.
Most Memorial Days meant a day in town at my grandparent’s home.
After a noon meal of barbecued chicken, coleslaw and potato salad (and several cold Falstaffs), the grown-ups would watch the Indianapolis 500 on Grandpa’s new-fangled color TV while we kids rounded up a pick-up game of softball that rarely ended before dark.
The next day, May 31 – remember? – the summer work season began. Down home that meant making hay. Rare was the May that didn’t end without hay season beginning.
And with more than 150 hungry Holsteins to feed four and five times a day for the next year that meant months of sweet-smelling, sweat-inducing alfalfa hay bales.
Getting to work. My brothers and I assimilated into the hay crew slowly.
The first summer our legs were long enough to reach a tractor clutch was spent (at 50-cents-an-hour) dragging a 7-foot, ground-driven New Idea rake around and around the hayfield making real work – fluffy single-, double-, even triple windrows – for real men.
Moving on. The next summer we handed down the raking to a younger brother and headed to the hay shed.
The tin pole barn that held our precious feed was more than 100 feet long, 40 feet wide and 20 feet tall, a dark sweat box that held heat better than hay.
‘Graduating.’ Finally, at about 13, we graduated to the wagon; first snagging bales out of the jerking Oliver baler to drag back to the man stacking the wagon. By watching him, we learned how to tie the load, bale-by-bale and rick-by-rick, so it arrived at the hay shed intact.
By that summer’s end, we were stacking bales solo.
Working like dogs. Before my brothers and I made it to the top of haying heap, though, hard-bodied, weak-minded hired men did the work.
And they worked dogs; usually panting and always yapping.
One, Charlie G., was the strongest bundle of muscle I’ve ever seen.
When unloading wagons in the barn, Charlie often grabbed the twin twines of an 80-pound alfalfa bale in each hand to throw the green monsters at you like two shot puts.
In the field, he’d stack the wagons seven and eight bales high.
(He also was the only man I’ve ever known to install a floor shifter in a ’55 Ford coupe with just an adjustable wrench and an ax. The wrench for the bolts; the ax to cut a hole in the floorboard. He once bit a cow on the ear, but that’s another story.)
Hoard the Dairyman. Howard, who long-time readers of this column may remember as Hoard the Dairyman, originally came to the farm as hay hand.
His three younger brothers worked on the farm (only one of them, the smallest, Jackie, made the grade) so Howard was given a tryout after my grandfather bailed him out of the state mental institution in Anna.
Howard was uncomplaining and unwearying; he also was undeserving of his 15 years in Anna.
While milking one winter evening years later, Howard related that his father had had him “committed” after they fought over money.
“That’s just the way it was back then,” he told me as casually as you tie your shoe.
‘Great might.’ Although he was a big man, his meek manner hid his great might.
One morning when our motley crew of boys, men and whiners were picking up bales in the field, Charlie pulled his bale-in-each-hand trick and tossed two bales onto the wagon effortlessly.
Howard, I guess, thought he needed to speed up to keep his $1-an-hour job so he grabbed two bales in each hand and tossed them just as easily onto the wagon.
The work stopped as we dug the stacker out of a grave of alfalfa.
Charlie never pulled his trick again and, without a word, neither did Howard.
Today, square alfalfa hay bales are a rare and valuable commodity. So are the men of the hayfields of my youth.
(The author is a freelance ag journalist who lives in Delavan, Ill. He can be reached via e-mail at: AGuebert@worldnet.att.net. Read his columns online at www.farmanddairy.com.)
© 2004 ag comm