B A C K T H E N
August 14, 1911, mowing swale grass near Belfast with a pair of young Holstein oxen. Mowing was usually done with horses, but in this instance oxen were being used due to the softness of the ground. On soft ground horses are liable to crowd and lunge–especially if attacked by belly-biting greenhead flies. Oxen are generally more deliberate by nature, and their cloven hoof creates less suction than does the horse’s hoof when retracted from mud. Both horses and cattle could work ground too soft to support tractors, and a vast acreage of low-lying mowing lands reverted to alders and popple with the passing of draft animals. On very soft ground both horses and cattle were sometimes fitted with strapped-on wooden mud, or bog, shoes.
Swale hay, low in feed value, was commonly used as packing material, for bedding, and as insulation in icehouses. In Waldo County it was known as “steamer hay,” and was sold to shippers at Portland and Boston who wanted cheap feed for the miserable, sea-sick cattle they sent rolling across the North Atlantic on steamers, bound for slaughter in Britain.
These two oxen are obviously very “handy” and have mowed many an acre together. Marching along in step, tails switching, they are laying down a clean, straight swath without any guidance aside from verbal commands and suggestions, occasionally underlined by the flick of the lash on a flank. There is small margin of error when mowing, else the cutter bar will plug, or a strip of grass will be missed. The oxen are fitted with wire nose-baskets to help keep their minds from straying from the task at foot.
Mowing a rank stand of swale grass on soft ground in August was hot, heavy work, requiring cattle that were well-hardened. Cattle have more trouble shedding heat than do horses, but Holstein oxen, being of a milking breed, normally carry less insulating fat than do oxen of beefier breeds. They are easier to acclimate to hot weather work, and slower to have their “tongues pulled” by heat exhaustion.
From 1820 to 1860 more progress was made in the development of labor-saving devices for the farmer than in all of previous history. The practical effects of these advances, of course, reached far beyond the farm. Few devices were appreciated more than the reaper and its close cousin, the mowing machine. The key to both was the cutter bar invented in 1832 by Obed Hussey, possibly born near Biddeford. The invention of the hinged cutter bar, which differentiated the mower from the reaper, has been credited both to R. T. Osgood, a Mainer, and to Hussey.
Mowers were developed after reapers because it was more difficult to cut grass close to the ground than to cut grain several inches higher. Although practical mowers were in production in the 1850s, it was many years before they became commonplace on Maine farms. Cost aside, much of Maine’s hay land was not fit for the passage of a mower until it had been considerably improved.
The early ’80s were relatively prosperous years on Maine farms, and a Waldo County machinery dealer calculated that in 1883 Maine farmers had bought $300,000 worth of mowing machines, each costing from $75 to $100. In 1884 a Waldo County farmer warned his peers that a boy would no longer remain on a machineless farm. The most popular mowers in Maine were the Walter A. Wood machine, made in New York, and the Buckeye, from Worcester, Massachusetts. The high-geared Wood was long favored by oxmen to match the low gear of their cattle. Coming along behind the mowers were $100,000 worth of new dumping hay rakes usually drawn by a horse between the thills.
The purchase of the first mowing machine was a great family event. As a labor-saving device benefitting the farm wife, who no longer had to feed hired scythemen, the mower was said to rank with the sewing machine. It redefined the size of the average farm and sped the replacement of the ox by the horse.
The mower was not only the first real machine that many farmers operated, but it was also the most dangerous, a combination resulting in tragic accidents to man, child, and beast. One long remembered in Waldo County involved a pair of Durham oxen from Thorndike who were celebrated for their neat and stylish mowing. One day the old off ox backed into the bar while executing a square corner, cutting a tendon. He had to be slaughtered right in the field.
Text by William H. Bunting from A Day’s Work, A Sampler of Historic Maine Photographs, 1860-1920, Part I. Published by Tilbury House Publishers, Gardiner, Maine, 800-582-1899