Jim Buchanan

Jim Buchanan

It was almost as if a signal had been sent up.

I was on my way to Cherokee as May rolled into June, a hot, dry but somehow steamy day where folks were taking to the waters of the Tuck or Oconaluftee looking for some relief.

But not all of them. As people streamed to cool mountain waters farmers were streaming into the fields to make the first cutting of hay.

One of the many things that set these mountains aside is that unlike the big industrial farming operations across areas of the country where the land is flat, you don’t see large tractors with enclosed, air-conditioned cabs. These guys were out there in the elements, perched atop steel pan seats with no relief from the sun but a hat.

Technology has changed a lot, but gravity and terrain still hold the trump cards in many mountain fields.

Still, puttin’ up hay has changed a lot in my lifetime. What I consider my first real job took place when I was 10 or so, chucking loose hay with a pitchfork into the back of Bill Buchanan’s pickup truck. I got paid $9, and felt richer than any Texas oilman.

Over the years I’ve grown nostalgic about putting up hay, and all the terminology involved in the practice. You don’t store hay, you put it up. And puttin’ it up meant using a pitchfork to pitch it into whatever means you had to transport it, and then into a barn loft.

It was quite a trick with loose hay, and pitchforks were specialized. Pitchforks with two tines – tines are the pointy business end – were used to spear hay or any other material that had been gathered up enough to hold together. Three-tine pitchforks, the type you see in the painting “American Gothic,’’ were for loose hay.

Sometimes the hay was put up by stacking it in the fields, something I haven’t seen for many years, which is a shame. Haystacks were awesome playgrounds for kids playing King of the Hill or hide ‘n seek or a good place to take a nap. Any kid who’s ever enjoyed jumping on a bed would’ve liked the soft give of a haystack, which offered little danger other than the remote possibility you might jump on a snake. Or back in the Depression era, a hobo.

I think the hay bale probably killed off the haystack, and made the pitchfork a curio at antique shops. You still put the hay up, but now by slinging it onto a truck and thence into the barn. 

The aforementioned Bill had a love of geometry and could get, if I recall, 48 bales onto his truck if arranged just right. At the time a judge would’ve had to sentence me to geometry, but Bill showed me all the tricks, and it worked every time.

You still see hay bales in the mountains in some fields, but like the bale replaced loose hay, the small bale has been replaced by those enormous round bales that resemble Nabisco Shredded Wheat, only with about a thousand servings per biscuit. Another important difference is that I don’t ever recall thinking a regular hay bale could kill me, but those big boys can weigh half a ton or better, and being round can roll. Potentially not a good combination right there.

Mainly, hay was a lot of hard work, but I do get nostalgic thinking about old-timers in the field talking whether to winnow or let it lay, various curing tricks, how wet bales could combust and start a fire in the barn, etc. 

Still, it’s fun to watch the tractors roll and to reminisce.

Especially when it’s somebody else doing the puttin’ up.

Buchanan is special projects editor for the Herald.