Dirty Jobs – The hand baler

    Mike Rowe, the star of the TV Show “Dirty Jobs” is fun to watch, when the job is not too dirty.  One of my early jobs would fit for a “Dirty Jobs” segment and that was the hand operated hay baler.  One of the major labor intensive farm jobs in Utah was the harvesting of alfalfa and grass hay.  The hay was used to feed large herbivorous animals such as cows, horses, goats, and sheep.  

In my grand fathers era all hay was handled with pitch forks and large boom forks.  The hay would be mowed by a horse pulled mowing machine. Then raked with a large bunch rake into piles that were allowed to air dry. Then using a team and wagons two men would fork the hay onto the wagon and a third or fourth worker would ride on the wagon and arrange and tramp the hay down. The tramper was usually a younger child or two.   The hay collected from the field was taken to the stacking area where a large boom with large fork was used to move the hay from the wagon to the stack.  According to Dad the standard stack would have a forty by forty foot base and as hay was added to the stack it would get higher and wider, maybe fifty by fifty.  A finished stack would have a shape like a loaf of home made bread in that the stack was significantly wider at half height than at the base. I explain this because Dad pointed out that grandpa Roy could calculate how many tons of hay was in the stack by making two measurements in addition to the standard base measurement.  He would measure the distance from the base on one side over the top to the other side and do this on the other pair of sides.  With a formula using these measurements and a density factor they could estimate the tonnage of hay in the stack.  They had one factor for freshly stacked hay and one for settled hay after the winter. The hay was more dense in the spring than in the fall when it was fresh.  What amazed my Dad was that grandpa had only gone to school until the eight grade yet he could work this real world problem that Dad nor I could work. 

    Removing the hay from the stack was very difficult if one just used a fork because it was hard to get forkfuls that you could handle.  To get the hay in usable size it was cut or better sawed with a large hay knife into sections or slabs that could be easily handled.  Thus, a hay stack that was partially fed would have this cliff like surface where the knife had cut the hay and the worker had removed a section.

    One day Glenn Ray and I were walking down the road and this stranger came up and asked us if we wanted a job and we said of course.  We went down to his field and he had us tramp hay until late at night.  It was dark when he dropped us off at my house.  He said that he would give us an ice cream cone if we could catch him up town sometime.  We had worked in good faith all day and this total stranger did not pay us.  Our parents were sick hunting for and calling for us.  I am certain that the parents went out and called us and when we didn't answer they started to get mad and then to panic.  I had not worried about my parents because I knew that they would be proud of my new job. When I told dad the story he asked who did you help and we didn't know he was a stranger.  Dad busted out laughing and said so you work all day for “Stingy Stoyle Stevenson. You weren’t the first.” There was only one man in town that dishonest. He had pulled this trick on every kid. He never gave me my ice cream.  When I grew up I always wanted to catch him up town and drag him into the ice cream parlor and collect my cone with interest but I never did.  Never again would I work for a perfect stranger expecting pay, without a handshake.  

    The hay baler or better small square baler added one step that made it much easier to handle  the hay because it was placed in bales that weigh from 40-70 lbs.  These bales could be handled using hooks or better by the wires.  In the late 1930s the windrow baler was invented possibly by Ralph Hurlbert(shown in picture).  To bale hay the first step is to mow the hay and then rake it into windrows.  After the hay is sufficiently dry the baler comes along and picks up the hay and forces it into the square shape with a large square piston that tamps the hay into a continuous square pushing through a chute.  Sections are tied off into 3-4 foot lengths or bales. 

    Hand tied bales were made with three workers.  The first drove the tractor, the second poked wires and the third tied wires.  The dirtiest job was poking wires, the next dirtiest was tying and the driver was in the clear.  In the picture Junior Hurlbert is setting in the tiers seat. The wire poker would sit opposite and forward of Junior.  The hay would fill the square chute and the bales would come out the end.  In the baler we used the end sloped down dropping the bales to field.  

    The wires required a “needle” or wire guide. The wire poker would put the needle in the holder on his left and between compacting events the needles were pushed in with the left hand. Each slam of the piston would add 2-3 inches of hay to the column moving  the needles along.  I would pull the end of the wires out of the tube and push them through the needle.  The tier would catch the end of the wire and stick it through the eye of the same wire and wrap it in a figure eight tying the ends of the wire around the newly formed bail.  Then we would do the same for the other wire completing the new bale.  The poker would then insert a new wire eye end first through the other side of the needle top then bottom.  Pull the needle from the hay and place it into the device in time to start over again. I think that we had two needles I would push one in and pull the other out reload the needle holder, push wires through the moving needle and then repeat. 

    The job was dirty because  every slam of the piston against the hay brought a puff of dust right into the face of the poker.  The poker and tier wore a straw hat, goggles and a bandanna mask. The hat kept the sun off of your head and face and kept the dust out of your hair.  The goggles allowed you to see and of course kept particles out of your eyes.  The bandanna mask was our breathing filter.  As we finished a field we turn off the baler, dust off our hats, pull our masks down so that we could breath, and take off the goggles so we could see each other.  With out the booming noise of the piston we could now talk tell stories, relate how close we came to not getting the bale the right size etc.  We would laugh if a bale had been tied too tight and exploded.  If the tier got the wires too tight when the bale was released from the chute it would break the wires.

    One day as we were riding along between fields telling jokes and having fun.  The tier, Darrell Holden, always had fun at every thing he did.  He just disappeared from view.  I thought that he had fallen off of his seat laughing from my great joke, but as I looked back he was sitting on the seat but it was on the ground.  The bolts holding the tiers seat had sheared dumping him on the ground.  Fixing the seat was no small job as we had to clean the hay from the chute and then find bolts to replace the sheared bolts.  We laughed continuously as we were fixing the seat.

    As I remember we got paid three cents per bale or one cent each.  Thus a good day we could get $5.00. The problem was we had to drive all over the end of the county to get jobs and we received nothing except when we were poking and tying.  You see this was the end of the era of hand tied bales, because those people in New Holland, PA had built an automatic tying baler.  Little did I know that Grandpa Allan Good (Linda's Father) ran the computers for this company  that was making the old Case hand tied baler obsolete.  At Bamberger's Mr. Witt drove a New Holland baler.