Cleaning out the hay wagons was one of the earliest chores I remember helping my older sister with. This happened after the large, four-wheeled trailers had had their wooden sides attached and had been rented out for something called a “hayride.”
Later I’d come to understand the allure of these evening rides to a country picnic and bonfire and an even later and much more quiet ride snuggled in the hay on the ride home. At the time I only knew to be careful with the pitch fork, which was longer than I was tall, while climbing over what to me were the towering sides of the trailers.
My sister made sure I would give the forkful of dry straw a good shake before tossing it over the side of the wagon. The goal was to toss the straw with enough gumption so it landed in the property’s barrow pit instead of right next to the trailer.
Dad, and later we kids, would always push the wagon next to a borrow pit before cleaning it out. Later, when conditions were right, Dad would burn the straw, cleaned the pit while ridding ourselves of the leftovers of satisfied customers.
And just why had my sister made sure I gave the pitchfork full of straw a good shake before tossing it over the side of the trailer? Now that you’ve asked, I’ll tell you the anticipated joy we kids felt when someone had rented the trailer for a “hayride.”
It seems there were folks on those hayrides who did not pay attention to what was in their pockets. As I said, I would eventually learn about those distractions. But when we were armed with pitchforks we kids discovered there was always some change falling out of that straw—sometimes even a whole dollar’s worth!
Our folks never had to coax us into cleaning up after someone else’s hayride.
My folk’s rental business included two large hay wagons. Because they were four-wheeled trailers the front tires were articulated, so they turned as the tongue of the trailers were pulled into a turn. First by hand-pushing the trailers with my sisters and later by backing them with a tractor or car I got quite proficient at the reverse- of a reverse- steering it takes to maneuver eight wheels, with four of them able to turn, into a parking space.
To my boyhood mind another fascination with these trailers was the wire that came from each wheel. Each wire attached to a cable that ran along the center post of the trailers’ undercarriage to the tongue of the trailer. On the tongue of the trailer this cable was anchored to a second part of the tongue that slid an inch or so back and forth over the section of tongue that was attached to the trailer’s undercarriage. This second part of the tongue attached to the vehicle pulling the trailer.
Dad told me these wires and the sliding tongue controlled brakes for the hay wagons. Even after helping dad replace the break shoes I never really believed those flimsy wires and little bit of a sliding tongue would make any difference in controlling a trailer.
My dad died in 1977, when I was 32, and that summer we were getting the property ready for an estate auction. Among other collections were five large stacks of wood. My dad always liked big roaring fires in our home’s brick fireplace and our cabin’s cast iron Franklin stove, so he had plenty of justification for an ever expanding accumulation of wood. Previous woodpiles had made great forts when we were kids.
In 1977 I had no fantasy of cutting all that wood and moving it to the mountain cabin but there were two randomly piled mounds that had already been cut down to the sizes that were useful at the cabin. It seemed practical and an honer to Dad to load up one of our big hay wagons and get a last load of wood to the cabin, so I recruited my friend Andy Venn to help out.
We attached one trailer’s high sides around the flat bed of the wagon and began pitching in chunks of wood. I don’t remember it taking long at all on a pleasant spring day. Getting in the trailer, tossing them down and stacking them beside the cabin’s porch was just as rewarding.
The thing I remember being completely surprised by was the trailer’s breaks. I expected the big V-8 engine of my 1962 Mercury Monterey to pull the grade from Lucky Peak Dam to Highland Valley Summit, a climb of 922 feet in 4.4 miles. No problem there. It was the even steeper grade down to the Mores Creek Bridge, 527 feet in 2.6 miles, that I had been dreading. All that weight pushing against the car, and all that weight pushing the trailer to the side and around the brakes of the car if the tongue were ever so slightly out of true was a disaster in the making. It worried my mind.
It turned out I would never have known that trailer was following me down that hill if I had not attached the tongue to the car myself — and, of course, if I had been able to see anything but a wall of trailer in my rear view mirror. There was never the least bit of the trailer pushing on the car. Nor were there any lunges back and forth because the brakes were setting too strong, holding the trailer back until the car pulled the brakes off and the trailer ran forward pushing the tongue of the trailer into the car. Rather, that steep descent was as smooth as pulling a trailer on a level road.
Hay wagons get heavy, dear reader. Whether loaded with alfalfa, furniture, kids on a hay ride or stacks of wood. I had never thought about the need to break heavy trailers. Nor had I appreciated the clever and perfectly adept way those old timers had mechanically solved a serious problem.
When working on a tractor there is always a need to use a tool. Usually a simple plier or screwdriver or piece of baling wire can patch a problem enough to keep from having to run to the shop.
As I got older it came time for Dad to keep me entertained, even when he was working with one of the two tractors we rented out. And it was evident that, with the clutching and braking and wrestling the unpowered steering wheel of a Ford N series tractor, there was no holding me on his lap.
And that is why one of my first memories is perching my scrawny butt on a narrow tool box on a big fender that kept my little ass from scraping on the big left rear tire of dad’s tractor.
There was an ever-present odor of grease and oil and gasoline and hot engine up there. To this day I think of those aromas as the smell of my dad.
The tool box was the highest I had ever ridden, atop that big tire looking out at the moving world with just air around me. It was nothing like being shut up in a car. The road or ground was right there moving beneath us. And when Dad was plowing or mowing or leveling or disking, the action was churning just under my feet. It was endlessly fascinating to see what Dad was doing to the dirt or the grass. And more than once I terrorized myself thinking how that plow or mower or leveler or those disks would maul my bones into the scenery should I fall off that bit of a tool box as the tractor bounced and tugged and struggled at its tasks.
Which I suppose is why I absolutely always had to have my arm as far as I could reach around my dad’s sweaty chest. No being cool and hanging on to the top edge of the fender, my body arched back and my hair blowing in the summer wind like a carefree movie star sitting atop the back seat of a convertible.
Not that I minded hanging on, even as I got older. It was never a solid ride up there and I was glad for the hand hold. And I’m sure my arm around him made my dad confident he’d know to stop the tractor before any mauling in case my hinny suddenly slip off that bit of a fender perch.
When Dad got his first Ford tractor he spent one afternoon driving it out to my mother’s grandparent’s farm south of Ustic, Idaho. My mother’s aunt Ellen had been raising her three children on that land since her husband died some thirteen years earlier at the age of forty.
Ellen led a hard life, scraping together enough egg and milk money to feed her growing kids. Her daughter Dona tells me Ellen made their clothes out of feed sacks, the unworn edges of sheets, and what good scraps could be salvaged from ragged adult clothes. Her mother was so good at combining the different patterns that Dona considered her dresses to be the prettiest in the school.
The farm had a large garden to grow the food the family would eat through the coming year. Every spring the garden needed to be turned over, raked level and prepared for planting. Dona’s older brother and sister pushed a wheeled hand plow through the dirt to break it up and the whole family got busy raking and leveling the ground for planting. It was days of back-breaking work.
And that was why my dad drove his new tractor mounted with a plow way way out in the country. The rest of us arrived in our Frazier Manhattan automobile pulling a trailer with a disking implement on it.
Dad sat on his tractor pulling the plow through the garden. It dug deep, breaking up the soil and turning it over so the remains of last year’s crop were turned under to compost into the land. Then he sat on the tractor dragging the disc, a series of circular blades that broke up the clumps of dirt left by the plow and leveled the deep ruts the plow had left behind. The job was easily done in an hour.
Years later Dona told me she and her sister and brother had watched that man they did not know sitting on his tractor. “We knew he was showing off. BUT WE WERE SURE GLAD TO HAVE ALL THAT DIRT TURNED OVER!!!!!!”
(A note: My mother’s grandparents on her dad’s side were Eric and Johanna Dahlberg. Their daughter Ellen married Earle Officer in 1925. Their daughter Dona married James Saad in 1956.)
My folks started renting trailers during World War II. They added two Ford N series tractors to their home rental business after the war.
Once I got old enough to be trusted with such transactions I was on the phone letting men know that, yes, “They are full-sized tractors and we have the implements you need to get your job done.” If they needed more than one implement (perhaps a plow to turn soil, a disk to break it up, and a blade to level it off) we had a heavy-duty flat bed trailer that tilted and had a winch for loading the tools. They could pull the loaded trailer to their job site with the tractor.
We rented the tractors, including implements, by the gallons of gas they burnt. “That way if you get called away from the job you are not paying for the use of the tractor.” We always gave the example that perhaps they’d have to take a phone call. And yes, kids, we had to go in the house to use the land-line phones in those Barbaric times.
The rate for our tractors was $5 for the first gallon of gas, $4 for the second gallon and $3 for every gallon thereafter. Gas was going for 20¢ a gallon at the time so this was when questions really started to fly!
I had heard the answers from my dad many times and repeated them: “How much gas the tractor burns depends on what you are doing. Plowing is a lot harder work than leveling. The tractor will burn more than a gallon an hour when plowing, depending on how hard the dirt is. You get over an hour per gallon when disking. And yes, you drive the tractor to your work site. The tractors have an overdrive for highway use and they get around 16 miles per gallon.” Our customers considered that good gas milage back in the 1950s, when cars were built like tanks and had big, inefficient V8 engines.
Usually the customer would show up as soon as he could get to us. But sometimes the man on the other end of phone let us know he could rent a garden tractor for $1.25 an hour. We’d mention we were renting full-sized Ford tractors and, of course, we certainly respected his knowing what was right for his project.
Sometimes a man would show up the next day saying he had tried a garden tractor and had barely begun his project when it got dark. Two to four hours later he’d swing our Ford tractor back into our driveway, pay somewhere between five and ten dollars, and let us know he’d be telling his friends about using a “real tractor.”