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Making hay — and memories

A youthful summer sojourn still stirs memories for the author

Author Mark Kihn in 1976.
photo: Supplied

It was another of those teenage decisions I never got to make — ugh.

Mom called me over to her on an August Sunday afternoon.

“You’re going to help Grandpa and Uncle Willie with their haying,” she announced. She’d just got off the phone with her brother 90 miles away near Russell. “They’ve fallen behind. They’ll need your help,” Mom said in her kindest tone.

Hmmm, and after four weeks of helping Dad haying, I’d fallen behind in my teenage lay-about lethargy. I had framed my slack lackadaisical condition as rest needed for growth. I was already six feet tall at age 16, but I felt I required more height still to impress the Minnedosa high school girls in September. I had only a month left. I urged on my pituitary gland, occasionally with pop and junk food. Hey, are those zits?

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Plus, this was the summer of 1976. I had practised laziness as I watched the Montreal Olympics with my three brothers. I didn’t think I needed 10 more days of summer toil making hay. My Mom, her dad, her brother and my dad thought otherwise.

Road trip debut

Dad gassed up the sky-blue Chevy half-ton, checked the oil, and assessed whether the worn tires would hold up. “Just keep it at about 50 m.p.h.,” he offered. I believe he just wanted me to drive more slowly. I had just obtained my licence a few months earlier. Dad knew I had an itch to establish weekly personal highs for speed.

I dusted down the country road, eased through our small hamlet of Basswood, and turned westbound onto the Yellowhead Highway. This was the first longer solitary trip of my life. The towns clicked by: Newdale, Strathclair, Shoal Lake, and then farther away: Foxwarren, Binscarth, and finally, Russell. Grandpa’s farm was to the northwest, right across the road from the dam.

I arrived just at suppertime. After Grandma’s home-cooked meal, Uncle Wilhelm Freier gave me a tour of the farmyard. Their Herefords were out in the pastures and there were no cows to milk just now. Chores should be a lark. Anybody can feed the chickens. The barn cats could live on mice. Grandpa’s honeybees were low maintenance – just tell them to “buzz off” and get busy.

During the drive I had worked on my attitude. This could be an opportunity to connect with relatives and cultivate memories. I was one of 24 grandchildren though. Would they even know me? And they often spoke German. I did not.

Loose hay blues

I had never noticed a hay baler among Grandpa’s machinery lineup. Dad had once mentioned “loose hay,” but I had never thought about it. The next day, I became an expert.

Their loose hay system was homemade and practical. To circulate on the hayfield Uncle Willie used his blue Ford 5000 tractor to pull the drag or sloop. It had huge timbers as runners underneath. The sloop was maybe 12 feet wide and 15 feet long, and it had three sides, about 10 feet high, each side built like the back end of a hayrack.

Grandpa drove his blue Ford 3000 tractor to scoop the hay windrows in the front-end loader hay sweep. He would then deposit the loose hay onto the sloop. They just needed someone to spread out the timothy/clover mix, tramp it down, and make sure the edges were filled and packed. That was my job.

Uncle Willie would come and show me how to build a proper stack. I am guessing he had about 40 years of experience. Slowly the hay would rise inside this haystack “mould” as Grandpa raced around gathering it in the tractor’s “sweep.” I tugged at that hay with a three-tine pitchfork – then packed it, which meant tramping in soft sweet-smelling hay up to my waist. It wore me down. I became a bird building an impossibly gigantic square nest.

Finally after about two hours, the moment of truth arrived – extract the stack from the sloop. After Uncle parked the sloop when he wanted the stack (off the field, beside an access road), he removed the side walls’ supporting tie-in plank from the back end. He then fished around in the back and hooked a steel cable onto Grandpa’s tractor’s hitch. I stood back.

In a diesel-fuelled “tug of war” that could have entertained Ford executives, the whole stack slowly slid out of its confines and off the smooth wooden platform to rest on the ground. But how?

Grandpa and Willie’s simple design had a 10-foot-long, 16-inch-diameter log at the front of the sloop, inside the mould. Attached to that cable along the floor, the log was too big to slide under the heavy stack, so the whole mountain of hay had to move. It worked. Slick.

After repositioning the huge log to the front and stretching out the cable on the floor, we began again. The first stack was interesting, the second was work, the third was monotonous, and four and five were painful. Sweat, the hot sun, and swirling hay dust worked against me. Thank goodness it was 8 p.m. The dew had dampened the hay. It was time to go home.

After supper, I quickly found my bed and collapsed. I had zero energy to read my uncle’s Country Guide magazines and dream about new tractors.

Grandma takes the reins

Morning came. Breakfast porridge awaited me. I ate like a wild animal. My 16-year-old bones and muscles recovered quickly. I was ready to go. Today repeated yesterday, but with a new player.

Grandma came out to the field with afternoon coffee. She drove a team of horses that pulled an old-style steel-wheeled dump rake. Her job was to rake up any missed hay, and dump it where Grandpa could pick it up. The diminutive lady moved those horses around the field like she was driving a sulky at Calgary’s Stampede Park. She’d press the foot pedal at just the right instant to dump a pile of hay adjacent to an existing windrow. In two hours, she headed home. Frankly, I was amazed.

The days blurred into an exhausting drama of work, eat, and sleep. I got one turn on the Ford 5000 dragging the full sloop to a new spot. The engine laboured and roared. Rudolf Diesel’s invention briefly defeated mass, gravity, and friction.

However, Grandpa’s new Ford 3000 eluded my grasp. He was proud of his three-cylinder Belgium-made shiny tractor. A young fella could easily wreck it, you know.

This outfit is a circus

By Friday, I was a wreck. I had no brothers to help me, the hayfield seemed endless, and my calluses abounded. However, out of nowhere came Uncle’s idea. He suggested the field would be done in the afternoon. Perhaps we should wash up and take a jaunt into Russell. A modest travelling circus was in town.

Well yes, maybe we could bring a miniature donkey back to tramp the hay down, or teach a chimp to handle a pitchfork. We still had more stacks to build.

Uncle and I went and we had a great time. It was a smaller outfit – the kind where the ticket seller doubles as the tightrope walker, or the ringmaster has to shovel up behind the prancing horses.

The big-top tent event seemed to energize Willie. He shook hands and laughed with townspeople and neighbours. My uncle was Mr. Popularity for a few hours. Politics perhaps? I had never seen that side of this quiet 45-year-old. And to my joy, he bragged about how his tall, strong nephew had helped him with the hay. Flattery.

On Saturday, we finished a small field. Uncle took me for a tour of area farms, and veered west to traverse the grand Assiniboine River Valley. Sadly, his (and Mom’s) younger brother had perished in that river in July 1958 in a drowning accident.

Side trip

On Sunday after church, Uncle Willie told me that haying had been caught up and I was free to go home. But wait, an option developed. I could go towards home and stop at another of Mom’s brothers at Binscarth and help out for two days. Uncle Alvin and Auntie Caroline had four children close to my age. Their haying involved a baler. I had to go. One cousin had a bad back, another couldn’t handle the hay dust, and one had taken a summer job.

I phoned Mom and she said they were doing fine without me. Huh? I wasn’t missed?

Two evenings later, three longtime friends, known as brothers, greeted me. For maybe the first time, we had happenings to tell each other and news to share. It felt good. I felt loved. Home.

Then I spread out my earnings. Their eyes never blinked as I tugged a wad of bills out of my wallet. At $15/day ($68.50 in 2020) I had gathered in $120. What a windfall!

Herefords appreciated my efforts

Uncle Willie later told me our stacks held together well. In winter, he would go out with the horses pulling the hayrack on snow runners and haul hay loads to the Herefords, that munched enthusiastically.

The next summer, 1977, I returned for two days to help Uncle cut his tall yellow clover. The stalks were like willows. He chose to use his retro binder, then we stooked the clover sheaves to dry out. That too was a new skill and it also featured hard work and fatigue.

Generational changes

Things soon changed. Uncle got married, Grandma Paulina died in 1980, and Grandpa Gustav passed away at age 90 in 1985. My parents sold the Basswood farm. I headed off to university in the U.S. Midwest in Sept. 1978.

I kept in touch with Uncle Willie. He claimed I had proven myself through my hard work, which was important to that generation. He passed away three years ago at age 87. I wrote his obituary. I didn’t mention those August haying days. I didn’t need words for my memories anyway – the experiences had filled all my senses.

Mark Kihn writes his Manitoba memories from Calgary, where he now makes his home.

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