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Reflections on times gone by

by Marie Johnson

July is hay season. The snow on the mountains shows it’s a good water year. Water enough to keep the fields green without me having to chase it around every few hours and a custom hay crew will come cut our hay. So I’ve turned my energies to a project that started out as simply replacing this house’s floor coverings but has grown into an overwhelming task that will last until I finish feeding off all the hay next winter.

Crawling around in the dirt under the house my husband and I found his grandfather’s initials burned into a floor joist. Parts of this house were built in the early 1870’s. Neddenrieps have been living here for 129 years along with, I think, some of their original carpet and wallpaper, too. But the initials got me thinking about putting together a time capsule for when our children’s grandchildren want to change floor coverings and end up finding our hand prints in concrete under the house. What did I want my great-grandchildren to find? My kids don’t want to do one. They don’t want to bury their treasures right now. I want to save stories that are part of this old house.

On the east side of the house is a narrow 10-foot-by-20-foot rectangular room we use as an office. It has been converted from a enclosed porch that was a toy room when my husband was a boy. And long before his time, it was originally set with long tables where the summer hay crews ate their meals. Kent’s grandmother, “Oma” as he called, her told me about the men she had to feed in this room. It was the early 1930’s. Men were looking for work. Haying, a labor-intensive job needing to be done in a particular amount of time, offered opportunity. Grainy black and while photos dated 1932 hang here in the office showing the stout horses and men and the rustic equipment they used. One of the old thrashers in the pictures is still stored in our shop and the old field rakes sit rusting up by the corrals. But when Oma talked about haying, she talked about the enormous amount of food a full crew ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner. A girl was hired as day help to come in the early mornings to set tables, serve the food and later help clean up the dishes. On Wednesdays, they made bread all day in the July heat.

Hay crews were a spectacle – new people in the Valley, a lot of activity. Horses, threshing machines and hay derricks putting up winter-feed. Now, big, expensive machines do what dozens of men and horses did, and gas and oil instead of bread and bacon fuel the work force. Ten years ago this ranch sold its haying equipment. Running the machines for such a short time over our limited fields wasn’t worth the expense. Some ranchers in the Valley still put up their own hay while others like us hire hay professionals to help squeeze a profit out of every blade of grass.

It takes a lot to turn grass into food fit for people. And over the generations, a lot of the infrastructure that holds an agricultural community together is dissolving all over this county. Fewer people doing more work – our own efficiency – is eliminating us. I’m not asking for an economic depression to create a mobile and cheap labor force, but small operators can’t afford most machines that allow ranchers and farmers to be labor-efficient and profit-orientated. And when you have to pull pennies out of the ground, you lose some of the enjoyment of playing in the dirt. I know the good, old days were a lot of work and not always good, but it must have been thrilling to have whole communities working with you to help you accomplish what you needed to get done. I guess I’ll put a computer CD in my time capsule with pictures of the hay crew of the 30’s and of the folks who help us now and Oma’s bread pans.

– Marie Johnson, a Fredericksburg resident, is married to Kent Neddenriep. They have two sons, Kyle, 9, and Bradley, 7. Her column, “Fence lines,” appears once a month.