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Haystacks - a common country sight
in bygone times

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What haystacks were


Hay (above) and straw (below) photographed at identical distances for comparison purposes. The straw is much rougher.


'Haystacks' seem to have been a generic term to describe stacks of corn, stacks of hay and stacks of straw. Such stacks of all kinds were common sights in the fields while I was growing up in the 1940s. In some parts of the country the stacks were known as ricks.

Corn stacks were stacks of sheaves of corn gathered from the fields after drying in the sun, prior to being threshed. They could be wheat, maize, oats, barley or other cereal crop and they were lightly thatched to keep out the rain.

Hay was and is dried grass grown as food for animals in the winter, and true haystacks were stacked hay. They tended to be less rough than corn stacks and were also thatched to keep the rain out.

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How haystacks were made

Once the hay was cut it was left on the ground to dry in the sun before being collected. The timing was critical and depended on the weather. The moisture content had to be 14% or less, otherwise the bacteria in the grass would multiply in the haystack and make it so hot that it would catch fire. At that time, the correct moisture content would have been a matter of judgement by experienced farmhands. I never saw a haystack on fire, but gather that it was not uncommon. Losing a haystack to fire would be a severe financial loss to a farmer. (If the grass didn't dry, it was carted off for silage.)

Hay being collected from the field where it had been spread out to dry, early 20th century

Dried grass, now hay, being collected from a field where it had been spread out to dry.

Farmhands raked together the dry grass, now referred to as hay, and threw it onto a spcial cart which always seemed to have folding slatted ends.

A special lightweight fork was used called a pitchfork - see the photo below - and the act of using it to load the straw onto the cart was known as pitching.

Haystack in the making

Haystack in the making. Note the ladder and the man on top building the stack.

completed haystacks

Haystacks complete and time to go home. Note the height of the haystacks, their light thatch covering and the longer ladder on the back left. Also note the folding slatted front of the cart. (The folding slatted back is not visible, although it can just be seen at the edge of the top photo.) Both pictures are edited details of images supplied by Send and Ripley History Society.

The cart took the hay to the side of the field, close to a gate for easy later access and close to a hedge if possible to keep off the worst of the weather.


Man with a pitchfork

Once in position, the farmhands stacked up the hay. The stacks came in all shapes and sizes and were quite large and tall, such that a ladder had to be used for the uppermost layers.

Some haystacks were built on frameworks supported above ground on mushroom-shaped stones to keep out rats, mice and other vermin, but as this was not always the case, stacks did get infested with vermin.

The final stage was to give the haystacks a rough thatch or mat covering to keep the rain off.

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Haystacks as playthings - and more

Courting couples using haystacks 1 of 2

Courting couples using haystacks.

Courting couples using haystacks 2 of 2

Broken haystacks were well-known as places where courting couples could lie together in relative privacy, although I dread to think of the insects that they must have lain with.

Haystacks were also play places for children who would climb up them and slide down. Neither activity would have appealed to farmers because they opened up the haystacks to the weather.

There was a certain knack in tossing sheaves from a pitchfork and many a laugh was had at the attempts of beginners, all good fun.

V. John Batten

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

Contributed by Neil Cryer