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Making Hay in Osage County, Kansas

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The shaft, or snath, of Hank’s scythe is custom fit for his height, as is his home-designed and homemade rake.
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Hank used an old-fashioned froe and splitting maul (red handle) to create rake parts from logs.

I’ve been forever fascinated with old ways of doing things. And even though I love the sounds and smells associated with making hay using diesel-powered equipment and modern, self-tying large round balers, I’ve always wondered whether I could pass muster with my ancestors and make sufficient hay to feed some critters through the winter using a scythe, primitive hand hay rake, pitchfork and wagon. Plus, I am no fan of running on a treadmill for fun or exercise, so I figured I could get healthful quantities of both if I put this hand-haymaking scheme to the test. 

Since I already owned an Austrian-style scythe (complete with snath custom-fit to my 6-foot-4-inch frame), and since we had a few old pitchforks and wagons cluttering up the barn, I decided to hit the hay meadow hard within a day of hatching the plan. My former manual-mowing experiences were limited to periodically whacking weeds in places where I couldn’t maneuver the tractor and shredder, so I checked out some online videos to get a feel for the proper scythe swing. It took about an hour to find my rhythm and to learn when to give the blade a lick with the whetstone.  

I quit cutting that first day a much more efficient mower than when I started, and I managed to knock down about a quarter of an acre in the process. Whew, I was pooped – but not as pooped as a couple days later when I went to gather up the windrows using a pitchfork. As efficient as the fork is for loading and stacking, the rake is necessary for gathering. 

In Osage County, Kansas, vintage wooden hay rakes sell for pretty good money in the antique stores, so I decided to have a go at making one myself. I took a look at some rakes online and even studied some “plans” in a couple of woodworking books, then just decided to do like my German and Lapp ancestors would have done when they hit the Dakota territory in the late 1800s – make do with what I had around. 

With muscles still aching, I harvested a hackberry sapling from a hedgerow and two small logs – one hackberry and one black walnut – from a tree snag created during a previous pond-dam repair project. About three hours worth of labor later (spread out over the course of two weekends), I had become sufficiently reacquainted with my froe, splitting maul, chisels and hand drill that I had a serviceable, if not lovely, hay rake ready to press into service – and press I did. 

Now that I’ve used the homemade hay rake to help gather the roughly 5,000 additional pounds of hay I’ve cut to date (my goal for the year is four tons), I can report that the rake works beautifully. I plan to build another, this time with steam-bent hackberry angle braces and a wider head. Realizing that I can actually make do with the natural resources the farm provides has inspired me to find more ways to make do next year. Right now, I’m thinking a hay feeder that will allow the sheep to eat their way through the stacked hay in a controlled way, a garden gate, a couple of wooden pitchforks, a riving horse …   

Whether you’re building your first barn, rendering lard or putting food by, we’d love to know what you’re up to this season. We’d especially like to know how you plan to make do in 2011. If you keep a country journal and would like to share it through a blog at www.Grit.com, just let me know (hwill@Grit.com).  

See you in January. 


Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper’s Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.

Published on Oct 6, 2010

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