By Rachel Barduson
A John Deere tractor, a hayrack, a hay bale hook, and a field full of rectangular bundles to pick up...that’s what made up our summer interscholastic “weight-lifting” program back in the day. It was all we needed for building muscle and the characteristics needed for teamwork.
Back when I was in high school I do not recall hearing about a “weight room” or a weight-lifting program, and I cannot speak for any of the other rural area schools back in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. What I do know for sure is that dad had an idea of what a high school weight lifting program SHOULD look like, and it was mostly hauling heavy stuff on the farm, in particular, hay bales in the summer. He offered plenty of opportunities for body building, power lifting, cross training, and hardcore exercise workouts – all of them outside of the walls of the old high school. There was nothing like a good day’s work for building pretty much everything a young scholar might need in addition to muscle, and that was developing a strong work ethic and character building attributes. And besides, dad needed a few good solid guys to throw bales.
I look back at it now and wonder if maybe dad had some kind of agreement with the coach or the high school principal in securing farm labor. As I previously stated, we did not have a weight room full of barbells, weight benches and free weights, kettle bells, elliptical bikes and rowing machines in high school. Maybe, just maybe there was a jump rope or two and a rope hanging from the gym ceiling to climb. But beyond that, I think “weight room” was a far-fetched compound word that hadn’t even been thought of yet.
Because of that, the coach possibly had another idea of what could benefit the athletic programs the school DID have to offer: football, wrestling, basketball, baseball, and track programs. And maybe, since football, was fast approaching, maybe, just maybe, the football coach had talked to my dad about giving some guys a call.
Farm kids were already working for their own dads, so my dad offered a town kid or two, or three a combination of an interscholastic job opportunity and a body-building program. He literally took them “out to the field” for the experience. It might have been a bit brutal at first. It was lots of lifting, lots of time to think, lots of throwing of heavy hay bales, and lots of hours under the sun. But in the long run, this would work out for the coach, the athletic program, my dad, and other parents. The health benefits may not have been glaringly evident at the time, but as my dad always said, “you’ll thank me for this later.”
And so, after making a few phone calls each morning during “haying season”, my dad had his workers employed and a few large alfalfa fields full of rectangular hay bales lined up in rows as far as the eye could see. Begin the power lifting.
Dad offered the guys the use of his old “bale hook” (which I still hold near and dear to my heart). After he showed the guys how to use it, most found it easier to just use their gloved hands to throw the bales on the hayrack.
Of course, there was an art to stacking the hayrack, and that lesson had to be taught as well. Dad’s stacking had to be precise on the hay bale carrier/trolley system he used to get the bales lifted up and from the hayrack and into the hay barn. This meant four bales were placed going down the middle of the rack, and eight bales placed on each side. Each layer of bales on the rack totaled 20 bales, and there were three layers stacked, if you can picture it. Most of the time dad would have one guy on the hayrack as another threw the bales onto the rack. Each load held 60 bales. Yes, it was a bit complicated. Because of the mechanical hydraulic system of the bale carrier/trolley, the bales on the hayrack had to be very precisely placed so each one of them would stay secure until they were hooked, lifted, and dropped inside the hay barn.
I drove the John Deere while the guys loaded up the loads. Once the hayrack was stacked, I would drive back to the farmyard and up to the unloading spot next to the hay barn door. This is where the large mechanical device with hooks would lift 10 bales at a time up and into the hay barn. This would be done six times for each load. That large mechanical hook was lifted by a hydraulic system, cables, and a conveyor belt pulled by the Ford tractor on the other side of the barn. We had quite a system. It included my sister and me as I gave her signals (as dad signaled them to me) to drive forward or back with the Ford tractor next to the barn. We waited patiently to get the first signal from dad as he placed the big pitchfork-like-hooks into the bales, and she drove slowly as the Ford tractor pulled the belt that pulled the cables and ropes that pulled the trolley that pulled the 10-bale load at a time up and into the hay barn. Once the bales were inside the hay barn dad would “trip” the rope. The bales would fall down into the hay barn and the manual lifting and stacking by sheer manpower (the hired football players) took place again as they stacked each bale in the places dad had told them to stack them. And this was done in mostly 90-plus degree heat. Load and stack the hayrack and re-stack inside the barn. Repeat the process after a quick drink at the well. All in a day’s work. Repeat until the first crop is done. Repeat again as the second crop of alfalfa is stored for winter. Repeat one more time. By the end of the season the haystack in the hay barn reached the rafters and couldn’t have gotten any higher.
Yup, my high school had a weight-lifting program after all. Surprisingly, some athletes came back for a second day.
It didn’t dawn on me at the time that the weight-lifting program that my dad offered could really have been considered an interscholastic activity – sports related yet scholarly. This hay bale hauling not only strengthened the core, but it developed character and work ethic, healthy competition, speech, drama, history, and mathematical thinking skills. Maybe this program also gave them insight into accounting and banking as they were paid the going rate for hauling hay during the summer of 1966, or 67 or 1968, 69, 70, 71, and so on and so on. The same goes for any kid with a summer job or any job for that matter.
I was told a story recently of a kid who needed a pair of shoes back in the 50s. Our high school teacher and principal, Mr. Kaess, asked this particular kid if he wanted to do some odd-jobs and janitorial tasks at the school in order to pay off a pair of shoes. Of course the kid was excited to do so. It offered him an opportunity to earn money with dreams and goals for opportunities down the road. He was happy to get the work, and never forgot that great teaching moment outside of the classroom. Staying humble, he is forever grateful. My folks, having gotten married during the Great Depression, never let anything go to waste, and that lesson was passed along to all of us kids. Some lessons, hard-taught, stick with us for the rest of our lives. Hauling hay is one of them.
I like to think that this was the case – a summer job earning a few bucks while thinking about what’s ahead. Whether it was dad getting his alfalfa crop in, or the football coach thinking about a successful season...whether it was to earn some cash or build character - I tend to believe it was a good program for all of us.
And besides, one of the biggest perks for the guys working on our farm was mom’s good old home cooking – at high noon she served the best hot dinner (not called “lunch”) in the county.