What a perfect haystack means

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.

A meaningful stack of North Dakota hay, circa 1965.

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.”

Six.

“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.

Lee in 1965.

“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.

44 responses to “What a perfect haystack means

  1. I really liked this blog. Rates right up there with the one about your mom & dad turning live chickens into dinner and your blog about our friendship despite our differences!

    • minnesotatransplant

      Thanks! It was fun to talk to my uncle about hay and write it. (For readers curious about the live chicken blog, click here. Find the one about our friendship here.)

  2. Really enjoyed reading alot of your post!! so informative 🙂
    Thanks!!

  3. Congrats on being freshly pressed 🙂 Your uncle reminds me of my grandpa, such a nice read.

  4. Really liked your blog. No matter what out profession, building something little by little, the hard work and the desire for perfection, is universal. You brought out so many more nuanced things through the blog and the pictures here.

  5. Is there a critical mass for hay? Where the pressure and heat from decomposition gets to be too much and the hay starts to smoulder?

    • minnesotatransplant

      Probably. I think if it’s properly dry, there is less chance of decomposition over the course of the winter.

  6. Reblogged this on thinkpurpose and commented:
    This is a lovely post about someone building a haystack. Enjoy!

  7. I remember as an 11-year-old in Saskatchewan following the hay wagon through the fields, picking up the bales from the ground and passing them up to the person who was stacking them on the wagon. Everyone went into the fields in haying season, even me, a child visiting from the nearby town. Thanks for taking me back.

    • minnesotatransplant

      I’m glad this inspired a good memory for you. I had no idea when I wrote it that I would reach such a far-flung audience!

  8. I was born & raised in Dickinson, in SW North Dakota. My grandfather farmed in nearby Gladstone from around 1915 or so until he retired in about 1960. His farm was eventually sold to his daughter and son-in-law and, as far as I know, still remains “in the family.” As young as I was at the time, and a town girl to boot, I realized how simultaneously difficult and rewarding the farm life was. To this day, I admire farmers–where would we be without them?–and feel for them as they deal with this year’s drought.

    • minnesotatransplant

      My uncle was baling hay outside of New Town. When I visited that farm (my grandfather’s), I remember it being all fun and games. But, of course, it wasn’t. I never baled hay, for example.

  9. Lovely post and photos. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed.

  10. Oh, I remember baling hay. It was one of the hardest jobs I have ever done, and it was always when it was 90 degrees and extremely humid. But I also remember the feeling at the end of the day, relaxing in the shade, chatting and sharing a cool drink with the others. Awesome.

    • minnesotatransplant

      When I wrote this, I had no idea how it would inspire others’ memories. That’s the fun of blogging. Thanks for commenting.

  11. Great post How funny. I was just wondering about whether the round bales are still called bales, during a recent drive through farmland. I like how you built a picture of your uncle’s character.

  12. Bailing hay is one job I have never regretted not doing.

    Money was great, but everyone I knew said it wore them out!

    Great memories.

    Ghost.

  13. I really like this post. There is something about making hay. By the time I attempted it they were using throwers. Easier than stacking, but harder than the round bales. Thanks for sharing.

  14. Great post! I remember watching hay being baled when I was little. My uncle used to make those small bales that had to be thrown up onto the wagon that the horses would then pull up to the barn to be unloaded. Great descriptions of such memories.
    Congrats on the FP!
    Cheers,
    iRuniBreathe

  15. Tres cool article man. Love the history.

  16. Nice post, Excellent writing. Thanks for sharing
    Congratulation for Being Freshly Pressed!

  17. Lots out there don’t even know the true meaning of hard work and I have to admit, I’m one of those who don’t.
    Farmers and all those people that work hard back in the days, I’d say they are heroes. Love the meaning of the haystack. 🙂

    • minnesotatransplant

      Thanks. I agree. When I first saw the photo, I had no idea how much physical effort that stack of hay meant!

  18. As a young farm-girl I baled plenty of hay. I was always proud of how I could heave them up and into a stack. I could never learn to back the tractor up and wagon into place, though.

    I included “baling hay” in my 25 things to avoid in this lifetime post

    http://k8edid.wordpress.com/2011/08/12/25-things-to-avoid-in-this-life-time/

  19. Hi,
    I like your blog and I’ve nominated you for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award.

    Naveed

  20. Good story, and cool photos.

  21. Great writing! I don’t usually like these types of stories but you told this soooo well. The dialogue and the progression of the story and the pictures were all excellent. Good job.

  22. What a wonderful post and it makes me happy to know you’ve have such a great relationship with your uncle.
    I wonder; in a perfect world, what your uncle could teach urban kids if he taught them how to work cattle and hay. That thought just popped into my head when I finished reading your story. Imagine the life long lessons they’d learn…..
    I loved your story and the photo’s are beautiful.

  23. I love the symbols we create in regards to accomplishment.. we are on a horse farm and the greater part of winter we are in -40 weather and under snow.. Hay bales are essential to us.. Great story ❤

  24. Pingback: Hay-ho, we must be home! | helenwhiteart

  25. Pingback: 2012 in review | Minnesota Transplant

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