(Host) As summer winds down and Labor Day approaches, VPR commentators are recalling “Summer Times” of the past that linger in their memories and continue to have meaning for them today. Here’s commentator Tom Slayton with his memories of haying in the Vermont of his youth.
(Slayton) Some of my earliest, happiest memories of summer in Vermont are of haying with my brother Peter on my grandfather’s small farm in North Duxbury, pitching big forkfuls of hay onto the wagon as the load grew ever-higher above me. My
strong Uncle Charles worked alongside me, doing, in fact, most of the work while staying out of the way of my fumbling pitchfork.
High above us on the wagon was the man I knew as Grampa — Homer Kennedy, strong and redoubtable even in his 60s and beyond. He engineered the huge load of loose hay into a coherent, self-sustaining heap and then drove the wagon back to the barn, clucking softly to Old Joe, the easygoing
workhorse who clop-clopped his way meditatively down the narrow dirt road. There was no hurry.
It was Old Joe who pulled the mower bar that cut the grass, dragged the big curved-tines of the hay rake around the field, and finally pulled the hay wagon itself homeward, loaded and creaking with a big load of hay, Grampa and two small boys.
Throughout the summer, the barn filled with sweet-smelling hay as Old Joe, Grandpa and Uncle Charles hauled in load after load. The mows rose
higher as we pitched the hay in and then jumped into them. Late in the summer the barn would be chock full of hay, ripening like a nut toward the
coming winter. It was filled not only with the sweet smell of cured hay, but with the less-sweet smell of fresh manure from the two or three cows and a dozen sheep Grampa kept. They are smells that can still bring back an entire place and time for me.
I was 10 or 12 years old those summers in the 1950s, and Grandpa’s farm was a magical place: the sheep meadows, the little brook, full of frogs
and ferns, the farmhouse itself, a time machine that took me back (though I did not know it then) to the 19th century and a simpler Vermont of hard
work, outdoor privys, kerosene lanterns and short, sweet, rasperry -scented summers.
None of Grampa’s hay was ever baled. Later, as an adult, I looked up the haying machinery he used: horse-drawn cutter bar, hay rake, hay wagon
and pitchforks. It was a farm technology developed in the 1880s.
Grampa was a conservative in every way: politically, economically, personally. He was, as the late Keith Wallace of Waterbury used to say, “a real old Vermonter (who) lived not so much on income as on lack of expense.”
Probably the fact that Grandpa clung to the old ways, in both living and haying, doomed his farm long before he gave up the ghost in the early
1960s. But this was Vermont’s past, a simpler world now lost. I know exactly why people miss it and hate to see it replaced by mere conveniences.
Not that it was all sunlight ands sweet-smelling hay. The little North Duxbury farm saw its share of misery and tragedy.
Still, haying the old, hard, sweat-equity way is a part of who I am today and a part of what Vermont is, too. We need to remember the dignity of that simple, tough life and save the best of it, if we can, in a place close to our hearts.
Tom Slayton is editor of Vermont Life magazine.