Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Chapter 4

           Then in the fall, the stock was returned to the valley or the sheep to the desert. So each man did what he could find a job doing. Where earlier the sheep and cattle men were bitter enemies, by 1920 they had been forced to each help the other and most ranchers ran both sheep and cattle. The past winter had been exceptionally cold. Nineteen sheep herders had frozen to death on the red desert and most of the available ranch hands had been pressed into service to round up the herds and to haul feed by six team wagons to feed the snow starved critters. The only cash crop was the lambs, beef and wool produced by the animals and the entire effort of the valley was geared to produce the animals and feed them to market time.

            In between breaking horses, the men were busy watering or irrigating the field. The grain, alfalfa, and a few of the higher meadows had to be watered. Even the irrigating be came a horse chore. There was on the ranch an old sorrel mare named Dubby. Which was always ridden to irrigate because she would immediately start eating  when stopped and would stay right there eating until the rider returned; no need to tie her. In fact, she was Dad’s race horse and he never lost a bet. He would bet any man  in the county that if riding along and stopped, Old Dubby would take a mouth full of grass before the other horse. The standard bet was a candy bar.

            In the last week of June, the mowers would start cutting the alfalfa hay. The alfalfa was on higher ground and therefore, drier and because we could get two crops of alfalfa. On the hay crews, three mowers worked together. The fastest team would start out a head and leave the other just far enough behind to be clear at the corners. Then round and round they went. Dad initiated an eight hour working day, the first in the county. Of course, this meant hitched up and rolling. In addition, the horses had to be wrangled, caught, harnessed, and ridden or led to the field and hitched up before. Most of the ranchers went 10 hours plus these chores. At noon, the mowers would return to their teams to the barn, unharness that team, catch and harness the afternoon team and be ready to go by one o’clock.

            The drivers wore the usual jeans and denim jackets of all cowhands, with the usual 10 gallon hat. In those times, the costume was required for a different reason—mosquitoes! The mosquitoes were so bad a man couldn’t work without the denim clothing and gloves. In addition, the big hat kept the necessary mosquito net off the driver’s face. All the horses were equipped with a protective flap on the bridles. It was a piece of leather across the horses’ nose and cut into vertical strips. As the horse walked along, he would develop a habit of flipping his flap up and down to keep the mosquitoes from his nose and eyes.

            Sometimes the mosquitoes would be so thick they would get in a horse’s nostrils and choke it so bad they would have to stop to let the horse get its breath. If the mowing machines were below the horizon you knew where they were and if they were working by the cloud of mosquitoes overhead.

            Two days after the mowers, weather permitting, the rake would start. One good raker would keep up with three mowers. On our spread, the rake was pulled by a single horse, generally one of the lesser horses, often Old Dubby. The dump rake piled the hay in long winnows and Dad insisted the rows were straight. It was a monotonous job—one, two, three, dump; one, two, three, dump—hour after hour. Since the horses were generally older, not even a horse would get excited.

            Soon after the Fourth of July, the stacking would begin. First the hay would be picked up by a buck rake, a now forgotten device with a series of teeth in front of the horses and a man sitting behind. There were two fixed wheels at the pivot line of the teeth and two castered wheels behind. A frame, about eight feet wide and as long as a horse separated the teeth from the driver. The team was separated and worked outside the central frame. It was turned by holding one horse and having the other walk around the first. It took a good deal of coordination between driver and team so the very best horses and drivers were given this job. The teeth tilted down and up to pick up the hay and carry it. The buck or push rakes picked up the hay from the winnows and deposited upon the teeth of the stacker.

            The stacker then lifted the hay to top of the stack and dumped it at the command of the two men who were stacking the hay. The stacker was powered by a horse or horses pulling on a cable that wound around a block and tackle arrangement to elevate the hay to the top of the stack. There are two different kinds of stackers used at different times on our ranch but the motivation was always the same. On the later model stacker, which I remember best, the hay was elevated in a 90º arc from the ground and the hay would be ejected when the fork arms reached the 90º rotation limit. If you wanted the hay to fall off the stacker gently at the near end of the stack, you drove the team very slowly. If you wanted to place the hay to the back of the stack, you drove more rapidly. The fork would lower by gravity, keeping the cable tight, but sometimes the fork would stick momentarily and everything else received a big jolt that would kink your neck. The team driven on an old mowing machine frame from which the gears and the cutter bar had been removed.

            There was a definite social order involved in the haying operation. Each driver and team was evaluated and assigned. The most senior, reliable drivers with the steadiest, strongest, most reliable teams were assigned to the push rakes. The fastest drivers, who preferred the fastest teams were assigned to the mowers. The greenhorns and kids did the raking, and the young kids started out on the derrick. The stackers needed no horses and were in class by themselves, but a good stacker was the most important man on the crew. As a young man grew or a greenhorn learned, he would graduate from one job to another.

No comments:

Post a Comment