Symbols remind us of what’s important. A wedding ring symbolizes a commitment. A lushly green, well-watered lawn symbolizes suburban perfection. A signed baseball symbolizes a brush with fame.
For my uncle, a perfect haystack symbolizes a summer’s work.
I recently found a black-and-white picture of the haystack in my uncle’s collection of personal photos.
“You’ve had this photo for 40-some years,” I said. “There must be a reason you kept it so long.”
“That hay stack represented a finished job,” Uncle Lee said. “I don’t get many ‘finished jobs’ in my line of work now.”
Nowadays, making hay is highly mechanized. Round bales, created by a machine, dot the rural landscape around the little town where I live on the outskirts of Chicago.
But a century ago, hay was cut with scythes and moved with pitchforks, and haystacks shaped like little houses were fixtures of the Midwestern landscape. Square balers mechanized the process in the 1940s. As the farming industry moved to a more corporate operation in recent years, large round bales have become more common.
The biggest advantage of small square bales like those handled by my uncle is that they can be moved by one person without a lot of machinery.
Square hay bales must be stacked in such a way as to shed moisture and prevent rotting. My uncle estimates his haystack probably had 2,000 square bales in it.
“I probably handled those bales six times each,” he said. “That’s why I was in such great shape! The knees wore out of my blue jeans from hiking up those bales. I could throw them like you couldn’t believe.”
As the saying goes, you make hay while the sun shines. One has to cut it, rake it and bale it first. “Dad [my grandfather] had a brand new baler at the time,” Uncle Lee remembers. “Then I’d go out and put ’em in six packs — that’s the first time I handled ’em. Then I’d pick ’em up and throw ’em on the hay wagon (that’s two), then stack ’em again on the wagon (three), bring ’em home, throw ’em down (there’s four, right?), then stack them like you see here in the picture.”
The stack in that picture symbolized a whole summer of work.
“Wait, that’s five times, I think,” I said.
“Then in the winter time, you have to feed the cattle – I had to throw the bales on the ground for the cows.”
“I like everything about cattle,” said Uncle Lee, who grew up and made hay in the western plains of North Dakota. “I enjoyed that part of farming. I didn’t like seeding or combining, but one of my favorite times of year was when we moved the cattle to summer pasture. All winter, they were cooped up in the barnyards, but in spring we moved them to the open fields. They were like little kids! They’d kick up their heels and hit their heads together, they were so happy.
“I still like cattle.”
Early on, Uncle Lee left farming because there was no money in it and embarked on a career in education. He started out as a social studies teacher. Now, he’s a school administrator – the top of the stack, so to speak – in a small, rural school district in Wisconsin.
“That’s probably why I prefer rural districts,” Uncle Lee said. “North Dakota built my foundation. It was a hard place to make a living: It’s got a short growing season. It’s colder than hell. Sometimes it doesn’t rain. It can be a very lonely, lonely place.”
But he learned what hard work can accomplish.
And the picture of his haystack symbolizes it.