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

The days of loose hay and stripped nuts


During the loose hay era it was this time of year that most ranches got their haying equipment ready for the summer's work. In those days the machinery, except for the tractors, were home fabricated or built by the town mechanic.

There was a lot of equipment: usually two buckrakes, two side delivery rakes, a winch, and two mowers, plus the beaverslide stacker itself. Most of the machinery was in a marginal state, having been patched together for years. But it worked.

My father and two uncles were totally inept when it came to anything mechanical. For years I chuckled at their ineptitude, but recently realized that they were only introduced to the mechanized age when they were in their 20's. Our ranch bought its first tractor in 1945, and until then none of the boys had even seen a grease gun. They were novices, having only harnessed teams and repaired sleighs and wagons until tractors appeared.

The operation was predicated on ingenuity, given that most ranches had a few tools, some old battered bolts, and little else. The main tool on our ranch was a 10- inch crescent wrench that hung in a special place in the shop. There were also two bent pipe wrenches, an old monkey wrench that served well as a hammer, and a smattering of open end/combination wrenches that served little purpose because all the most used sizes had been lost years back.

Also, kept in a special place in the house, was a small set of 1/2- inch drive sockets. They were kept in the house because they were sophisticated tools and didn't belong in the old shop.

The sockets didn't serve a lot of use because most of the nuts and bolts were square headed in those days, and the sockets didn't fit them. Occasionally a nut would be only a tiny bit oversized, and then we could pound the socket onto it, then beat it out with a punch later.

New bolts were a rarity. There were scores of pounds of old, bent, and stripped bolts, that, with a little work, served just fine. One of my jobs as a hanger on child was to go to the shop and paw through the rusty collection of bolts and nuts, looking for just the right one. It never happened, I don't think. I could muster almost the right thing, but it was usually too long, too short, the wrong diameter, or completely stripped of usable threads. When the bolt situation became hopeless, a 60 penny spike worked quite well in those days.

Too long didn't matter much, as we could find old nuts and other things to make up a spacer so we could tighten the partially stripped nut that I had dug out of the pile in the shop. If the bolt were much too long, and a half-hour of searching had yielded nothing, we bent the bolt over, promising that we'd change it when somebody brought the right bolt from Deer Lodge. That never happened, of course.

When things became totally hopeless we all trudged out to where the old, abandoned machines sat. With luck and a lot of work we usually found the bolt we needed – but only after a lot of struggle to twist the heads off a couple rusted pieces before a usable bolt broke loose for us.

All the work was done in the dust of the yard and the glare of a huge aluminum roof that made the tools so hot they were untouchable. And then the horseflies made good use of us and shortened everyone's temper.

The buckrakes and such were pretty straight forward, but the old Ford belly mowers were a challenge. The were complicated and heavy, and had to be hung under the tractor itself. It was usually a half day's work to get one attached.

Eventually we'd get everything assembled. There were always a number of problems and substitutions that we promised to fix correctly when there was more time. But that never happened, so we were constantly replacing the substitutions, and we all planned to fix them in the fall when we put the equipment away. But that never happened, either.

The equipment represented amazing examples of rural ingenuity and ability to do the impossible with nothing but a 10" crescent wrench, a monkey wrench, and a couple pipe wrenches. But it usually got us through the summer because we had two of each piece of equipment, and if one broke down, the operation was slowed but not completely halted. Now, if the baler or the swather breaks, you're totally shut down and probably out hundreds of dollars for a new part, when in the old days a bent spike would have kept the operation moving.


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