Artifact of the Month - “Hay – That’s A Saw!”

Contributed by Richard Estelle

When most people think of a saw, they envision a tool for cutting wood, metal, or employed by a butcher for cutting meat. However, in our Museum collection, we have a saw used by farmers for cutting haystacks.

When grass is cut for hay and stacked in piles, or “haystacks”, to dry and for temporary storage, the top of the stack is mounded to shed rain. As the hay is piled up to form the stack, the grass stems overlap each other in random fashion. With time, hay in the upper part of the stack compacts that below, producing a rather compact mass. When hay from the stack is taken to feed livestock, the easiest way to do so would be to take it from the top, un-compacted layers. However, this would open the stack to rain and deterioration of the hay below. So, the needed hay is removed from the compacted sides of the stack, a more difficult and time-consuming effort.

One might envision that some long-ago farmer, frustrated with having to laboriously pull or rake the required amount of hay from the stack each day, may have attacked it with an ax or hoe and discovered that cutting the grass stems was more productive than trying to pull them out. Armed with this awareness, in 1871, George Weymouth of Dresden, Maine patented this “hay saw” or “hay knife” designed to do just that. Soon thereafter, the Hiram Holt Co. of East Wilton, Main began manufacturing and marketing this tool as the “Holt Lightning Hay Knife”

To many folks, its use is not self-evident when they first see this tool currently on display here at the Museum, and some would guess it to be some kind of wicked combat weapon. With an overall length of 35 inches, the blade is capable of cutting to a depth of about 25 inches. The in-line and offset handles give control of cutting at any angle. Wooden handles were originally formed around the metal handle cores but have been lost from our saw. The sharpened, somewhat rounded teeth acting much like knife blades, are more effective in cutting across hay stems than the pointed teeth of a wood saw that would catch on the stems and push them aside.

The design of this tool has been so successful in serving its purpose that it is still used today on some farms to cut apart large round hay bales, or large rectangular bales, into smaller portions as needed for feeding. Some folks recall from their youth using a tool like the one on display for an altogether different task, that of cutting ice from ponds to supply ice boxes and cold storage facilities in days before refrigeration was common.