Hand Mowing Few Have The Skill To Swing A Scytheproperly

Story by Steve Taylor, Photos by Bob LaPree

El will Smith, herdsman on a large, East Washington dairy farm, gripped the handle of his scythe and at the starter's command went forth to mow the prescribed 50-ioot course. Judges hovered around, measuring the swath he lay down in the lush green grass and clover.

When a half-dozen others had had their turn and the points and times were added up, Smith had won the Golden Scythe Award, symbolic of supremacy in the art of hand mowing in Sullivan County and other points east of the Mississippi.

The Sullivan County Dairy Herd Improvement Association (DHIA) has held its hand mowing championship every summer for the past 25 years or so. Anybody who thinks he or she is up to it can take a crack at winning a new scythe decorated with gold spray paint.

Elwin Smith

Elwin Smith, winner of the Golden Scythe Award. Neatness of stubble nudged him ahead of the others.

Bob LaPree

* Reprinted with permission from New Hampshire Times, 27 July 1977. 246

Elwin Smith, winner of the Golden Scythe Award. Neatness of stubble nudged him ahead of the others.

Bob LaPree

Elwin Smith calls himself an old-timer, and it's usually old-timers who win the Sullivan County DHIA's Golden Scythe. In 1977, Smith nudged out three dairy farmers by one- to three-tenths of a point, and all were veterans in the scythe competition. They were Fred Hall of West Unit, defending champ Horace Bascom of Gharlestowtt, and Smith's boss, Hans Eccardt of East Washington.

A broiling July sun beat down on Charlie Stone's beautiful Meriden daily farm, and the temperature havered at 99 degrees in the meadow across the road from the cow barn. The veteran scythemeri warmed up by taking a few swings at grass around the edges of the field and then set to work putting fine edges on their scythes with pocket-si/,e sharpening stones. Then one by one they mowed the course.

The competition is scored 011 a combination of factors. Time over course is worth 15 points, width of cut 30 points, neatness of stubble 45 points, and completing course 10 points. Penalty points up to 10 can be assessed by the judges for spitting tobacco juice on the course or giving judges or bystanders lip.

Judges measure the width of his swath as Hans Eccardt finishes his course. Bob LaPrcc

Elwin Smith was slower on the course, achieving 11 out of a possible 15 points. He ran well behind speed merchant Horace Bascom, who laid down his swath in two minutes, five seconds, But Smith picked up a total of 13 out of 45 possible points for neatness of stubble and that gave him the victory.

The swath where Smith had mowed looked like it had been cut with a lawnmower, so short was the remaining growth, and there weren't many places where the scythe had skipped and left little telltale manes of uncut grass.

Smith was repeating what he'd done at the DHIA field day back in 1959, winning the big prize, and darned if he didn't use the scythe he was given for the '59 championship to win in '77.

Later there was a competition for greenhorns, also known as dubbers or hackers. This was won by a Meriden area farmer-writer whose swath—like those of other contestants in his class—looked like it had been carved up with a hatchet.

After the competition, the veterans stood around and talked about their individual scythes. Eccardt had a European-style model with a straight handle. Stan Colby from Cornish praised his cherry snath. Elwin Smith savored a cold bottle of Miller beer Eccardt had sequestered in a clump of clover by the fence.

Then it was off to a picnic on the Stone farm lawn, with fiddle music by the Dave Levine

The competitors pose for the camera (left to right): Stan Colby, Elwin Smith, Fred Hall, Hans Eeeardt, Horace Bascom, Dean Bascem and Bennie Nelson, Bob La Free orchestra. Another hand mowing competition had been written into history, its participants and spectators well entertained at the sight of the vestiges of an ancient art.

Virtually every boy and man in rural New Hampshire knew how to swing a scythe a century ago. The skill was essential to family and individual survival, for it was the means by which the basic-feed of livestock—hay—was harvested on the land.

Hand mowing as a skill exists today, but only among old-timers and a few younger men wlto probably have learned it working on a highway crcw responsible for trimming roadsides.

Hay was harvested in July and August a century ago, and came all in one crop. Today, the first cutting is in the barn before July 4, and second and third cuttings come along later in the summer. That's because of the introduction of legumes such as alfalfa and trefoil, which have displaced timothy and other grasses, the old standbys for hay production in New Hampshire.

During the Civil War, many New Hampshire farm hands enlisted in the Union Army and marched of! to fight, A similar development in other northern stales stimulated the development of farm machinery to speed up and ease the task of harvesting hay in this area.

The first significant invention was the horse-drawn mowing machinc, which was developed in 1847 but not perfected until well after the Civil War. The mechanical hay loader and the dump rake were introduced in the 1870s, and the pace of haying was stepped up considerably.

The need for skilled scythemen diminished steadily in the late nineteenth century, although many poorer farmers continued to put up hay using the old methods. These farmers kepi alive the traditional methods and procedures.

Haying with scythe, hand rake, and pitchfork traditionally began on the first Monday after the Fourth of July.

Work began at dawn when several men went out to do barn chores and milking. While chores were being completed, Grandpa and the young boys would go to work on sharpening scythes in preparation for the day's mowing. The kids would have to turn the crank on the grindstone while Grandpa would start water trickling on the stone.

After removing the snath, or handle, from the scythe, Grandpa would grasp the blade in both hands and bear down on the stone. The stone would turn rapidly without resistance, but as the

Start Colby sharpens his scythe with a whetstone.

Hob La Free

pressure increased, the stone would slow to a drag. Periodically the edge would be tested with a thumb, and after 10 or 15 minutes the job would probably be done. To a youngster that would seem like an eternity, especially if there were two or three more blades to go.

After sharpening the blades on the grindstone, a whetstone, sometimes called a rifle, would give them an even keener edge.

After breakfast, the crew would assemble in the field and work would begin. The hired men would start off first, followed by Dad or whoever was boss. The boss would try to crowd the mowers ahead of him, and if he passed one or more of them in the advancing echelon, they were disgraced and had to retreat and pick up a new swath at the rear.

Behind the mowers would come young boys with puchforks, spreading out the newJy mown hay to speed up drying. Since hand mowing is such hard physical work, especially if the men were being pushed by weather or the boss to produce, mowing was usually done in the cool of the morning. The afternoon was devoted to raking up, tumbling, and loading the hay onto wagons for transport to the barn.

In raking, the crew would set out in reverse order of the morning arrangement, with the young boys leading with small rakes, and the stronger men bringing up the progressively larger mounds of hay into windrows. While one man fetched the horses and wagon, the others would tumble the hay, that is, arrange it in piles which could be forked directly onto the load and which presumably would stay intact through several handlings from field to mow.

Next would come the time to pitch hay. Strong arms would fork the hay onto the wagon, then fork it off the wagon at the barn, shove it up into the storage area where it would be mowed away. The following winter the hay was supposed to come out of the mow by the tumble as it had gone in, but likely as not, it came out with much grunting and groaning and not by the tumble.

The tremendous physical exertion required that large quantities of fluids be available in the field. Cider was one important beverage; some old accounts tell of rum; switchei is said to have been a popular refreshment. Switchei was a concoction of cold water, sugar, ginger, and vinegar, and those still around who have consumed it say it was more or less thirst quenching.

As late as the 1880s, there were purists who refused to adopt the labor-saving machines such as the mower and dump rake, often claiming the iron wheels spoiled the land. So they kept swinging their scythes. But as time rolled on, there came to be fewer and fewer farms where the hay was harvested by pure human muscle power.

Hand mowing is the same sort of rural skill as sheep shearing. It requires determination as much as anything. It also requires reasonable muscular condition and a fair measure of coordination. But once the essential rhythms and movements are mastered, it can be done with grace and smoothness.

A matt who can handle a scythe as gracefully and efficiently as anyone in New Hampshire is Stanley Colby of Cornish, a retired agricultural extension agent for Sullivan County and now a town selectman and amateur historian.

Colby grew up on a river farm in Plainfield. His father declined to do hand mowing when Stanley approached manhood, and so the boy had to learn. Colby's grandfather, Albon Wood, instructed him on mowing by hand with a scythe and coached him for a year or two. Wood could mow all day long and hardly work up a sweat, Colby recalls. Colby is willing to coach greenhorns today, much as his grandfather did him a half century ago.

'There's not much to it. You just have to know how to mow, how to sharpen a scythe, and how to set the nibs." The nibs are the handles affixed to the snath, which is the curved handle of the tool. The scythe is the metal blade which does the actual cutting.

"You should set the nibs so they're comfortable and then hold the tool in a normal position dose to your body. The tip of the scythe should then be at your left foot,

"Then you do it. You keep your heel down, stand up tall. If you bend forward, you'll be a basket case in no time," Colby advises.

Good scythes are hard to find these days. The ones made for the market today are typically imported tools. "Those rigs may be okay for Austria or some such place, but they're not much good for anything over here except maybe cleaning around a fence post or something," Colby snorts.

Many scythes on the market now are ill shaped and don't have enough steel to take and hold a good edge, and the handles are generally inferior, Colby likes a snath made of cherry, but it's impossible to find cherry snaths today.

The best method of finding a good scythe is looking around in old barns. A lot of scythes got stuck away up on beams years ago, and not many people have gone seeking them out for use since.

Most of the winners in the Sullivan County hand mowing championship over the years have brought their own pet scythes with them. Horace Bascom, Sid Clarke, Jesse Stone, and Colby have captured the title most of the time, and all of them did it with their own special tools.

Finding a good grindstone on which to set a scythe is difficult, too, Colby says. Most of the good stones have been appropriated by homeowners and antique fanciers for decorations. Once left to weather, old grindstones are worthless for sharpening scythes.

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  • carambo
    How to swing a scythe?
    5 years ago
  • aedan
    How to swing a scythe properly?
    4 years ago

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