Mowing Down Assumptions

[July 1719] Thursd 16  fair & hot. . .I Stacked Some hay yt grew before ye door.  Thursd 22 [April 1725]  fair.  In ye morning I Sowed Some white Clover Seed betwixt ye Barberry Bush & Cherry trees. . . . Saturd 11 [August 1739] fair. . . Adam Mowed the Little pasture before the Door & Stacked the oats.

Wednsd 13 [March 1751] fair. . .& aftern I Set out for midletown [from Hartford] & bot 2 qrts of Clover Seed for 40s of one Curtiss near the South Side of Wethersfield. . . Tuesd .26 fair.  in the foren I Sowed the oats att home.  7 Bushells & in the aftern I followed the Harrow & Sowed 2 Quarts of hay seed that I bot of Mr Curtice of Weathersfield Near Midletown uper houses.  Tuesd 2d [July] fair.  I was att home foren & aftern I was out to the Cornfield &c.  Raked ye Clover ye most of itt.  Natt Way Mowed itt ys day.

One of the biggest problems in understanding life in times past is our assumptions.  We all carry around mental pictures of objects and activities based on our experiences, which can include reading and watching videos.  Sometimes these assumptions are valid for earlier times, and sometimes not.

Take hay, for instance.  When I think of hay (before the modern rolled-in-plastic version) I think of large stacks dotted around large, open fields.  The grass that becomes the hay is all the same variety and has all grown to the same length.  The stacks will eventually be transported to barns and stowed in the haymow above the animals’ stalls, ready for use all winter.

The picture is all right, as far as it goes, but as usual the reality was more complex.  The diary entries above show that hay was sown in any available space, and that it was not always the long, straw-like grass we think of.  Both white and purple clover were used, as was grass and salt hay, or marsh hay.  And no one was going to hand weed all those acres of hay, which is why Hempstead notes when he pulled up yellow Blossomed Weeds in Smiths lot [June 1730].  St. John’s wort, or hypericum, is apparently harmful for cattle.  Most flowers and other weeds were just left to be mowed also.

Hay was stored wherever the animals were going to spend the winter, in haymows, sheds, fields, and sometimes (in pressed form) on vessels bound for the West Indies that carried horses.  In all cases except out in the fields it had to be completely dry before being stored, so that it did not spontaneously combust.  And just when you were trying to get your hay in (keeping your fingers crossed it didn’t rain—no weather forecasts), so were your neighbors, leading to a greater than usual shortage of available labor.

Actually, “keeping your fingers crossed” is another assumption.  Perhaps good Congregationalists of Hempstead’s day would have found that a pagan superstition.