While haying is today frequently depicted as having been a bucolic pastime reminiscent of a simpler age, in reality, hay-making in the nineteenth century and earlier was back-breaking work, the most grueling and toilsome of the farmer’s tasks and one which was dictated by the weather. Since hay needed to dry and couldn’t tolerate a substantial wetting without getting moldy or musty, farmers frequently scrambled to get the crop in during the heat of late June and early July in between seasonal storms.
In this regard, the Green and Muttock neighborhoods had a unique resource, however, in Captain Nathaniel Wilder (c. 1744-1825), owner of a farm on Plymouth Street near Nemasket Hill Cemetery. Wilder was well-noted as “a farmer of distinction” and more so for his uncanny ability to accurately predict the weather during hay-making time, a most valued skill in planning the harvest of such a commercially valuable crop.
Frequently, Middleborough farmers might be required to engage in haymaking on Sunday, which some in the community found offensive. “Last Sabbath, a number of persons in this place occupied a considerable portion of the day in haymaking,” reported Namasket Gazette editor Samuel P. Brown in July, 1854. “A few men can be found in almost every place,” Brown continued, “who have no regard for the laws, human or divine. Some people consider it necessary to labor on the Sabbath, whenever they can save an extra dollar by it, but we are thankful to know that the mass of people believe in and practice another way.”
Realizing that the weather often dictated this course of action, however, a respondent simply identified as “Frank” wrote Brown that “you censure those farmers who saw fit to spend some of the hours of last Sabbath in making hay. We had had several days of wet weather and their hay was considerably injured by being wet and remaining so for so long a time, and that, no doubt, was their reason for spending the Sabbath as they did. So far as I noticed, they did their work in a quiet way, not disturbing the whole village, or making any more noise or display than was absolutely necessary to accomplish their objective.”
Brown remained unmoved. “When a person takes his hay from the field upon a wagon, and gets on the top of his load, drives it through the main street, gleefully saluting others by the way, and after weighing his load returns in the same way, it looks to us a great deal like ‘more noise and display than is absolutely necessary’”.
To assist in haymaking, Middleborough farmers engaged agricultural laborers, as it was imperative to get the crop in before summer showers ruined it while it was still in the field. In 1869, Simeon M. Pratt paid $550 in wages and board to his hands, a considerable amount at that time, and a large portion of which was undoubtedly expended during haymaking season. Some farmers, like Jack Morey, engaged these laborers months in advance to ensure that they would be on hand at the appropriate time.
Though Nahum M. Tribou (a progressive farmer and former agricultural implement dealer who owned a farm between Muttock and Warrentown) had acquired a Ketchum mowing machine as early as haymaking time in 1859, and though mechanical mowers were exhibited and demonstrated locally the following year, it would be some years before the use of such machines to cut hay would become widespread. Until that time, great scythes (some with cradles attached) would be utilized and a number of Middleborough merchants such as grocer Ira Tinkham and George Waterman could generally be found advertising such implements in the local newspaper in early June, just before haying time. For example, in June, 1866, Tinkham touted “scythes in great variety, from the most celebrated manufactories in the country.”
Once cut, hay would be left where it lay to dry in the field for the day. The following day, it would be turned, and allowed to dry further. Finally, it would be gathered and brought in to the farmstead to store.
The chore of turning and loading hay was one often carried out by boys and young men who would turn the hay to dry, load it into wagons and transport it to barn lofts and hay mows where summer temperatures could well reach 100 degrees. Often the task had to be performed quickly when thunderheads were spotted on the horizon.
Rain was not the only threat to hay at harvest time. Carelessness, as well, could jeopardize a crop as indicated by the following report from July, 1891: “A Middleboro farmer had eight tons of hay vanish into thin air last week. The hay lay in long windrows ready to load, when the men thought to vary their work by burning out a “yellow tails’” nest. They started a fire and lit out. When they turned to see the hornets flying out of the flames with singed antennæ and smoky eyes, they beheld the hay crop burning briskly. The wind had shifted in a twinkling, and saved the hornets’ nest at the expense of the hay”.
The local production of hay remained a commercially important occupation, throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth when the local dairy industry expanded rapidly. The decline of dairying, however, brought with it an equally rapid decline in hay cultivation, a now increasingly rare summer occupation locally.
Loaded Hay Wagon, cabinet card, late 19th century
This cabinet card is believed to depict an unidentified Middleborough farmer and his load of hay. Typically, hay wagons would be heavily loaded with dry hay which would be taken for weighing at scales at Middleborough Center or brought directly into barns where it would be stored for the season.