Blackfoot Valley Dispatch - The Blackfoot Valley's News Source Since 1980

By Dick Geary
Guest Columnist 

Surviving the seasonal hazards of the hayfields


April 11, 2018

Looking back, it’s surprising to realize how hazardous our ranch childhoods were.  

We had scores of attractive dangers to lure us into difficult situations. We had horses, defensive cows with new calves, our pond, plus myriad things our urban friends didn’t. We were unsupervised most of the time, our fathers being at work and our mothers tending other children in those days of large families.

Most of us were driving, or at least steering, tractors by the time we were seven or eight years old. It was exciting, and we had no idea of the danger. They let us go to work in the hayfield when we turned eleven years old, and most of us in my family were put on an old, 1945 Ford Ferguson tractor on our first day.

That tractor was a child killer, but it never happened. The old machine had no running boards, so it was a straight drop off of the seat to a foot or two in front of the rear tire. There were two steel pegs as footrests, but they were adult distance, and too far for us to reach with our child’s legs.

Consequently we spent day after long day with our flimsy canvas sneakers placed on top of the hot and oily transmission. It was the only place we had unless we let our legs hang over the edge of the seat. We had no idea of the difficulty. We just took it for granted, which was the only choice we had.

The adults never cautioned us much about equipment. Unlike horses, which could kick, bite, buck and run, machines were benign. I remember getting any number of warnings about equine behavior, but never even a “Be careful,” about power equipment.

With loose hay, the buck rakes were terribly dangerous, but we never knew it. The driver sat on a flimsy seat at least five feet off the ground. And as teenagers, the game was speed. Buck rakes allowed us to go fast, which we did as often as possible. We used no seatbelts, and often a tight hold on the steering wheel was all that kept us on the machine. Danger didn’t exist in those days.

The beaverslide stacker itself was a large selection of optional dangers. Stacking loose hay, when the stack was high and we got down to get a drink of water, we often rode the basket to the top. The winch that powered the basket was often operated by a pre-teenager as foolish as the rest of us. We did crazy things, but we all escaped.

The stacker was a world of steel cables which we took for granted and never considered to be any threat. The ladder going up the stacker was almost always flimsy, with aged and cracked boards as ersatz rungs. It was more dangerous than the basket itself. 

I don’t know how we survived the summers in the hayfield without suffering acute dehydration. None of us carried water on our individual machines, and often had to travel some distance to get a drink. Many of us didn’t drink any liquid more than once or twice in an afternoon.

Feeding hay in the winters was a dangerous job when working alone. We put the tractor in a low gear, fastened the steering wheel with some contrivance,  then crawled over the back of the seat to negotiate the wagon tongue and crawl up a rickety ladder to the top of the load. The work was almost always performed with heavy clothes and awkward, icy boots.

I don’t remember hearing a cautioning word about safety from the adults on our ranch. Their main concern was a tacit, “Don’t get stuck in a slough where you had no business going.” Getting stuck was a great source of chagrin in the boggy mountain meadows of the Helmville area. In those days all the equipment was light, and pulling a machine out of the mud often required that a couple other tractors were unhooked from their implements and used to pulling a foolish kid’s haying vehicle out of the mud. It shut down the operation for an hour or two at times and made the adults testy.

There were summers when the hayfield was manned by three or four kids under the age of thirteen, all of us searching for something stupid and dangerous to do with our equipment. That behavior gradually disappeared as we got tired and the job became monotonous.

The third generation adults (our father and uncles) were much more concerned about safety with horses. They actually knew horses better than mechanical equipment, having spent their lives with them, but only ten years or so with tractors and the rest.  Tractors were benign and obedient, but horses had their own volition.

We survived the horses, also, but I don’t know how. Foolish like I was, I did everything possible to get hurt, but other than getting my foot stepped on, made it unscathed.

We all became, I think, cavalier about the hazards of living and working. Ranch childhoods offered a wide variety of dangers to choose from, and it’s only with advancing age that safety becomes a priority.


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