Colorful Country Characters

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Baling hay was hard work, but rewarding for sure.
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Hay bales were lifted eight at a time into the mow.

I grew up in a small farming community in the flatlands of central Illinois. During those years, I was privileged to come in contact with irreplaceable people who left their mark on me as a child.

Beginning about age 12, I spent my summers working for Flavel Horner, a sunburned flatlander who baled hay for a living. Flavel owned his own baler, a Massey Ferguson if I recall correctly. It pumped out the standard of the era: a small, rectangular, twine-wrapped bale of 70 to 100 pounds, depending on the time of day and type of grass. I would ride the rack wagon behind Flavel as he drove the tractor and stack the bales for delivery to the barn.

Flavel never used foul language unless the baler became badly clogged. Such an event would push him to the limit. He would thrust his arms toward the heavens and shout “hog ham and little fishes!” 

A very religious man, Flavel did not work on Sunday. The only time my grandmother would ever allow me to miss church was if I had to work on Sunday. Sweating in the sun beat sitting in a pew, so on Sundays I became a hired gun and sold myself to anybody who needed an extra hand.

My favorites were the Crawley Brothers: Woodrow, Arlo, and Cletus. They were all in their 50s, tall, whip-thin, and they all walked like scarecrows. Their farm had been in the family since the late 1800s, and all three men lived on it with their wives and worked together every day. I don’t expect any of them, unless they were in the military at one time or another, had ever been more than a day’s drive from home.

Raising cattle and hogs meant endless chores. I’d encounter Woodrow as he came out of the post office, or the drugstore, or somewhere. He’d tilt his cap back on his head, eyeball me, and cogitate for a moment before he’d speak.

“Naow then, David. Doan speck ol’ Flavel’s gonner work ya this Sundee much, is he?”

“Nope. Not on Sunday.”

“I God, ain’t thet jest fine fer the rest of us. I reckon if’n yew wuz ta show up out at our place ‘bout daybreak Sundee mornin’, me an’ ol’ Arlo could fine you a little somfin ta do!”

“I’ll be there.”

“Arberry’s raked up a mess of it fer us. Doan rain ta night, he’ll bale ‘er up tamarra. Figger ’bout fifteen-hunnert. Cletus an Alma’ll drive the tractors, me an’ Arlo’ll toss’em up, an’ yew rack ‘em.”

The Crawley’s barn was immense. A loaded rack wagon would be pulled under the mow overhang on the north side and massive steel hay hooks —  larger than the ice tongs of days gone past — would be positioned around eight bales of hay at a time. Arlo, aboard the small Case tractor, would drive slowly away from the barn, a rope tied to the clevis on the hitch pulling the eight bales up the side of the barn to the mow door, over 30 feet above the ground. When the hay hooks came in contact with the overhead pulley at the peak of the mow door, a lever would automatically engage, and the dangling bales would begin to travel horizontally on a rail suspended from the ridgepole of the barn roof. Attached to the hay hook release was a rope. Attached to the other end of that rope, standing outside, was Cletus. Woodrow and I would be in the mow, watching the bales moving 20 or more feet above our heads. As they would pass directly above Woodrow, he’d sing out “trip!” Eventually it would register with Cletus that Woodrow had yelled the magic word. He’d collect the rope and his thoughts, decide on his course of response, and then actually pull it. By then the bales would have traveled an additional 30 feet down the rail and 800 pounds of hay would fall exactly where Woodrow wanted everything to go in the first place. I asked him once about the possible consequences if Cletus were to pull the rope on time.

“Wal,” he drawled, “I reckon I’d git kilt! But we been a-doin’ this fer mor’n 40 years. He ain’t never been on time yet. Ol’ Cletus is slow but, I God, he’s dependable.”

Woodrow, Cletus, and others of their ilk are gone now, and will not be replaced. No matter how old I get, I will never be an “old-timer.”

Woodrow, Arlo, and Cletus, thank you for the memories, and the reminder that, once upon a time, it was good to be slow and dependable.

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David R. Lewis has worked as an author, police officer, musician, ranch hand, and writer-performer for radio and television. He’s currently enjoying time spent writing his latest book at his home in western Missouri.

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