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Home > History of Development > Technology Through Time > Soil and Agriculture > Haying > Horse Haying

Technology Through Time

Horsepowered Haying, 1880–1940s: The Mower

Haying Operation at Looma, Alberta, Showing Hay Cutting, 1925.Until after World War II, most of Alberta's hay was put up using a combination of horse powered machinery and human muscle. Hand sickles or scythes and hay rakes were used, but only on small areas of very wet or rough lands. The horse-drawn mower cut hay in most types of haying operations. Practical horse-drawn mowers had been developed as early as the mid-1840s by William F. Ketchum of Buffalo, New York, and designs had become standardized by the 1880s. The mower consisted of a two-wheeled cart with an attached cutter bar. A system of gears and pitman shaft transformed the rotary action of the cart axle into a reciprocating action, driving a serrated knife back and forth through slotted guards attached to the cutter bar.

Numerous manufacturers, each with their own gear system, sold mowers in Alberta. The most common were two-horse mowers with five- to seven-foot cutter bars. One-horse mowers with three- to four-foot cutter bars, although much less common, could also be found.

Mowers required constant care. The sections of the knife on the cutter bar had to be kept sharp. A mower with a dull knife clogged and often stopped completely. It over-burdened the horses and could cause the pitman to malfunction. Consequently, the knife had to be sharpened at least once a day. Each section of the knife had to be laboriously ground by hand using a file, water grindstone or special bevel grindstone.

Not surprisingly, mowers were difficult to run and frequently broke down. Conditions on recently cleared land in the Peace River area made mowing a nightmare:

The mower will bring up against one of these infernal stumps with a crunch that nearly jerks the breath out of the horses. It's no wonder that everything gets broken. It's a terrible strain on a person...It's so rough—full of holes and bumps that jar the very eye teeth loose.

The need for vigilance and caution may explain the odd stance seen in old photographs of men operating mowers: head cocked to the right and eyes riveted on the cutter bar in an attempt to see through the tall grass. Hitting even a small hidden object could seriously damage the knife. Training horses to pull the mower also could be difficult. The ominous whirring behind their heels made many of them nervous, jumpy and difficult to control.

Mowing could only be done once the morning dew had dried, for damp grass jammed the knife. Warm dry days were quickly seized, and the haying crew speedily assembled. Once mowed, the hay lay in the swath and took about two days to cure in ideal conditions of warm sunshine and brisk breezes. The purpose was to lower the hay's moisture content enough to allow stacking, and every farmer had his own way of estimating the moisture level. Some twisted the hay into a rope to see if it would break, others felt the hay on the ground or chewed the stems. Those that lacked the knack watched their neighbours!

Judy Larmour. Making Hay While the Sun Shone: Haying in Alberta Before 1955. n.p.: Friends of Reynolds-Alberta Museum Society and Alberta Culture and Multiculturalism, Historic Sites and Archives Service, 1992. With permission from
Friends of the Reynolds-Alberta Museum Society



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