In the days of my youth there were three operations on the farms of that era that had to be accomplished quickly and on time or nature would see to it that the farmer paid a penalty.
We have discussed cutting and storing ice for the summer ahead. We have also discussed the cutting, hauling, sawing, splitting and fitting wood for the oncoming winter.
A third vital accomplishment was the cutting and storage of hay. It was a very labor-intensive undertaking. It would have been far more so if a man named McCormack had not invented the mowing machine in the late eighteen hundreds.
My father told vivid tales about how they cut hay when he was a boy. A crew of men would line up at the edge of the hay field each equipped with sharp scythes. The first in line, usually the best scythe man, would be given a few seconds head start to begin his "swath," the others would start in similar fashion until all were cutting away a few feet behind each other in an irregular line, until they reached the end of the field, when they would turn around and repeat the process in the other direction. The first scythe man set the pace. The rest were expected to follow at the same speed. If they did not, the laggard found the next scythe behind clipping at his heels.
I realize that many people do not have the slightest idea what a scythe looked like or how it operated. With a very few refinements it was the same tool used in Bible times to cut the grain that was life-sustaining for both man and beast. It is a slightly curved piece of steel, sharpened to a fine edge on a grindstone and "whetted" from time to time by the user who always kept a whetstone in his back pocket. This sharp steel blade was firmly attached to a crooked piece of wood called a "snath." Hand holds were attached to the snath at the proper interval to permit the user to swing the scythe from right to left with a steady rhythmic motion that cut about six inches of hay over a width of five or six feet. The swing had to be timed right and the elevation of the blade with relation to the ground had to be just right. It was an art and those oldtimers were artists.
As I have said, the invention of the mowing machine eliminated this type of work with one "fell swoop." Scythes were still needed to cut around trees, boulders and fence posts but their use was minimal. One man riding on a mowing machine with a six-foot cut could cut as much hay in an hour as 100 men with scythes could cut in a day.
It may be of interest to know how much pay these experts received. I read an account book dated 1848 which a friend of mine found under the eaves of his house when he put on a new roof. The house, which still stands in South Jefferson, had been used as a combination store and dwelling in the old days. That was quite common in rural Maine: the store and storekeeper under the same roof.
Purchases were "put on the book" and later paid for by work for the storekeeper who had a triple role: seller, banker and employer. The storekeeper who made the entries in this old book sold, in addition to grocery staples, rum, brandy and whiskey by the pint and by the glass. If you bought it by the glass it was 3¢, if by the pint it was 13¢. In at least one case I found the same customer buying five glasses of rum which cost him 15¢, whereas if he had bought a pint by the bottle it would have been only 13¢. Probably after five glasses of rum he did not care how much it cost.
Later on in this same account book it showed credit for labor performed. Pay for ordinary labor was 75¢ for a 10-hour day; "mowing in the meadow," however, "from daylight to dark," was $2.00. Is it any wonder that the estimated lifespan for a laborer was around fifty years?
Fortunately I was born at the beginning of the "machine age." We had a mowing machine and "hayfork," both of which were great labor savers. We began haying around the first of July. Modern day practice is to cut hay in June when it has more juice. Today’s machinery allows one to dry or "make" hay much more quickly. We had to guess when the weather would be fair with lots of hot sunshine.
Mowing usually took place in late afternoon or early evening when it was cooler for the horses. It would "wilt" some overnight and if we had a hot sun the next day it would be ready to rake the next afternoon. If the weather was favorable with no rain in sight or forecast, we would leave it in the windrow and haul it in the next day. If, however, there was a threat of rain, it had to be "bunched," that is, put in round piles about four feet high. The "bunches" helped keep out the rain if any occurred. If they got wet they all had to be "opened" by spreading the hay out to dry. Either way it was work-intensive. When the hay was "made," i.e. dried sufficiently, it was pitched into the hayrack. One or two men, if available, would "pitch on" and someone would have to "make" the load. That job usually was mine because I was nimble and had developed the knack of building a good square load.
I call your attention to the picture on these pages showing a well-built load of hay drawn by my brother’s oxen. I am on top of the load, my brother John is "pitching on," and my father, who was in his eighties at the time, is raking up the "scatterings" with the horse drawn rake. The use of oxen to haul loads of hay was once widespread but has long since been discontinued, not because oxen were not able to haul the loads but because they were so slow. It is virtually impossible to get oxen excited over anything. They are now used mostly in pulling contests at county fairs in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.