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.