Eric Williams reports on an old Cape Cod agricultural activity, harvesting hay (Spartina patens) from salt marshes: A missing piece of history (Cape Cod Times, May 22, registration probably necessary after a few days).
Salt haying took place in marshes along the North American Atlantic coast from very early colonial times (the process is described here: Marshing and Salt Hay - see also the links at the end of this post).
Williams reports that the Cape Cod National Seashore has a 19th Century barge designed for haying in salt marshes. This has been stored in a warehouse since the late 1960s. The Seashore is trying to figure out how to display it. Williams' story is based on a lecture by historian Jim Mitchell.
When the boat was given to the Cape Cod National Seashore in 1969, an accompanying letter from Richard Nichols of the Orleans Historical Society included the following passage: ''As far as I know, this is the only Hay Scow now in existence and dates back to around 1850. ''¦ There were a number in use at that time and they were rowed or sailed to the Salt Marshes to pick up the Salt hay which had been mowed and raked by hand. ''¦ The Scows were then sailed or rowed back to the farm and the Salt hay fed to the cattle. ''¦ I used to taste salt in the milk when I was young and it was not unpleasant.'' ...
Below he says it was "free for the taking." Its not clear what he means by that. Probably that it grew naturally. I originally thought he meant that salt hay was an open access marine resource. But I don't think he did. It wouldn't be true. Several sources on the web refer to different types of access rights. Investments in dikes and ditches to improve productivity wouldn't have been made without some system of access rights.
Mitchell made it easy to see why skinflint Yankees of yore were attracted to salt hay.
''It grew every year,'' said Mitchell. ''You didn't have to fertilize it. It was great for the cattle, it was great for the horses, it was great for the oxen. In 1850, you had all three. So you had to feed 'em somehow.
And there it was, free for the taking.'' ...
Haying was hard work:
But lest you think salt-haying was all beauty and free money, we provide this cautionary tale from John Hutchinson of Salem, historian, artist and flat-out salt hay nut.
Hutchinson recalled a conversation several decades ago with a certain Farmer Brown of Rowley, an older fellow who was perhaps the last of the salt-hayers on the North Shore.
''I'm telling you, it was hell,'' said Hutchinson, recalling Farmer Brown's testimony. ''Mosquitoes, horseflies, falling in, and it was so (darn) hot out there. Terrific greenhead fly problems. The horses would be pestered by them all day. The horses would come home bloody.''
Salt haying links:
There is a chapter on "Salt-Hay Farming" in New Jersey in the on-line book, FROM MARSH TO FARM The Landscape Transformation of Coastal New Jersey (Kimberly R. Sebold, National Park Service).
The Lane Library of Hampton, New Hampshire, has several web pages on salt hay production. These can be linked to from here: Geography and Natural Resources of Hampton, New Hampshire .
Here are a couple of sites on salt haying in Nova Scotia (with good pictures of the process): Salt Hay from Salt Marshes - The Lifeblood of Long-Ago Livestock and Salt marsh haystack .
Salt (or marsh) hay art is covered at Alan Ritch's Hay in art weblog. Check out the marsh hay poems of John Herbin, the paintings of Martin Johnson Heade, and the page on John Hutchinson's investigations: Hutch's hay (this is the John Hutchinson mentioned above).
Ritch's web site is absolutely first rate - this is a serious, and entertaining, investigation into artistic depictions of hay, salt and otherwise. See, just for example, Bosch's Wain's world: hay symbolism in the sixteenth century, Roles in the hay (work) (on gender work roles in hay art), or Roles in the hay (play) (on gender sex roles in hay art).
David Casagrande places salt haying within the history of the exploitation and conservation of coastal wetlands: The Full Circle: A Historical Context for Urban Salt Marsh Restoration (Yale Forestry and Environmental Studies Bulletin 100).
revised May 23.