Looking Back at Haystacks

The hay bales of today don’t provide as much fun as the large loose haystacks of yesteryear.

  • As a child, large piles of hay provided entertainment for the author.
    Illustration by Dennis Auth
  • Taking the plunge into the hay stack was exhilarating.
    Illustration by Dennis Auth

If I could, I’d put every child within easy reach of a haystack in his or her early years. Today, long past childhood and far from the ranch on which I was born, I look out on a modern barn. Its 20-foot pole legs support a metal roof that shelters tons of hay, all baled.

Yesterday a giant, motorized monster gobbled these bales from the field and stacked them, domino-neat, under the high barn roof. The process was quick and efficient. Neatly stacked bales, however, hold neither the challenges nor the dream-inducing fragrance of a mound of freshly cut alfalfa. And although country youngsters nowadays might enjoy any number of hayloft fort activities, those loose-piled haystack of yesteryear still hold a special place in my heart.

When I was a child, the hay that fed our small dairy herd in the winter was summer-grown by my father on our ranch. “Five crops again this year,” Dad would say, hiding a proud smile behind a weathered hand. He and our hired man, Orville, hand-forked load after pungent load onto the hay wagon before it was towed to the stack by our team, Nellie and Duke. Once the heaped wagon was parked next to the haystack, Dad took his place on a rig he’d remodeled from an old mowing machine. It was simply two wheels, a seat above an axle, and a tongue to which Nellie and Duke were harnessed. This “hay stacker” controlled one end of a cable that ran from the stacker through a pulley high on a pole and dangled a clamshell-like loading fork.

Dad’s gloved hands gripped the reins as he talked the horses slowly forward, keeping watch over his shoulder. The great forkful of hay lifted off the wagon. Orville stood ready on the stack, guiding the laden, steel-jawed pendulum with a pitchfork. “Drop ‘er!” Dad shouted.

Orville jerked a cord. The jaws opened, dropping the load exactly where it was needed to “square out the stack.” Nellie and Duke, obeying Dad’s command, then backed until the big fork lowered to bite again into the remaining hay on the wagon.

My sisters and I watched, holding our breath between each lift and drop. But for us, the stack was much more than winter feed for the cows. It was our retreat for daring and reverie. Once the last cut of hay had been stacked, we’d climb the ladder to lie on the fragrant cushion, eyes toward the sky. We chewed sweet alfalfa stems and spun grand tales of future travels and careers that would rival movie queens Loretta Young and Myrna Loy.

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