Keep It In The Middle

Here is a story by Don Joynt b. 1905 in Emmetsburg. He is the son of David
Joynt (1874-1962) and Katherine Regina Brennan (1878-1901).

"Keep it in the middle" to the uninitiated does not ring a past experience
bell, but to one who had made hay on the mid-west plains, that expression
carries a familiar connotation. It represents the skill of dumping hay from
the bed of a stacker onto the middle of the perimeter of what is to be a
stack of hay.

The skill of keeping it in the middle is the responsibility of the stacker
boy. A stacker boy has the least rank or dignity in a haying crew which
normally consists of about 12 men. It is about my experience as a stacker
boy that I wish to write.

This was the first real job I had. I was 14 years old at the time. [Note
year as 1919!] Bert Ryan who farmed on a big scale hired me as a stacker boy
on his haying crew. He had some 200 acres of the finest hay land in Palo
Alto County and the yearly operation of harvesting that hay extended over 5
weeks. I was thrilled. $1.50 a day was my wage. Simple arithmetic indicated
that I would at the end of the season have some $75. $75 in those days was a
lot of hay. Excuse the pun.

I reported early at the farm on that initial day and rode out to the field
with Dad Price, one of the hands. Where he got the name I do not know, but
he had been with Bert Ryan for many years. Dad was the type of individual
who made little conversation and what he did make was on the somber side.

" A stacker boy has a tough job", mused Dad. "So tough, young fellow, that
last year we had 4 different boys and none of them lasted over 2 weeks." A
quarter of a mile later Dad added this comment, "You know Bert didn't feel
bad about any of those quits. They just couldn't keep it in the middle." I
wanted to know more about this keep it in the middle business, but felt that
thsi was no time to show ignorance.

No need to tell you that by the time we got to the field, this new job had
lost much of its appeal. Mr. Ryan was on the scene and beckoned me to come
over to where he had just alighted from a rig. "This is your team," he said.
"Their names are Bird and Duke and this is J.K. Martin, he will show you
what to do."

J.K. was a white-haired old gentleman; I learned later that he was Bert's
father-in-law. He came over, shook my hand and greeted me with "So you are
our stacker boy. Well that's just dandy and I'm glad to see you. You'll get
along just fine." J.K. didn't realize it, or maybe he did, but that warm
handshake and the friendly greeting had made for him a new friend. It was
very easy to tell J.K. that my experience with horses was limited to
occasionally having the opportunity of making the delivery rounds with Sy
McGowan. Sy worked for our local grocery store and twice a day he made
deliveries to homes in the town. Sy used to let me drive between stops. I
would sit right up front while Sy stood on the step attached to the back of
his long delivery wagon. I reminded J.K. that there was only one horse in
this delivery operation. It pleased me a lot to know that this past
experience was going to be a big  help on this new job. J.K said it would.

"Now" continued J.K. , "you drive this rig over to a spot just north of
where we are going to start our first stack. Remember to always do that
because in this rig we have our lunches and drinking water and we want them
to be in the shade as much as possible. By noon we will have a stack of hay
big enough to shade our rig. The rest of the gang will be glad to know that
you show that concern for them." That piece of instruction impressed me and
you may be sure that I never failed to park that particular vehicle north of
every new stack of hay. J.K. in his directive tied in a bit of human
psychology, he let me know that by doing this simple task right, I would win
the approval and the good will of the rest of the crew.

We unhitched the team from the lunch wagon and hitched them to the
doubletrees on the business end of the stacker. This I knew was where my
ability as a stacker boy was to be tested and the time was now. I was a bit
on the anxious side. J.K. sensed my feelings because he told me that he was
going to take up the first few loads.

"Just you watch and listen good to what I tell you. It's all important and
you musn't miss a trick because we got to get that load in the middle. Yes,
boy, you keep it in the middle. I always say if that stack is nice and
straight and will shed water, it's due to the stacker boy keeping it in the
middle. That is why this job is so important."

In 15 minutes I was on my own. Old Bird and Duke seemed to sense my spirit
of confidence. They would tighten up that stacker rope easy like; J.K. said
we should do it that way, and then as we neared the end of the run, they
gradually slowed up and we sort of aimed that load of hay right in the
middle. On every pull I kept well to the side of the doubletree since as
J.K. put it " You could get mowed down if a tug broke and we don't want you
to get hurt." Between loads I made sure to keep the loose hay pulled away
from the stack, here again I was spurred on by that simple admonition of my
gray-haired teacher. "Keep it neat and picked-up, that hay is worth $22 a
ton and you can soon trample a $1 worth of the stuff into the ground." As
the first stack took shape, I could see the straight lines that J.K. spoke
about. It made me feel proud, because he had told me that if it had those
lines it would be due to the stacker boy who kept it in the middle.

Well, the summer slipped by-fast like- I had my $75 and I was happy. Didn't
realize it then, I was only 14, but that $75 was pittance compared to the
simple truth taught to me by that old gray-haired man, "Whether work is
interesting or monotonous to the worker is determined not so much by the
nature of the work itself as by how the work is presented."