Gathering salt marsh hay

*Featured photo from a glass plate negative taken by Ipswich photographer George Dexter (1862-1927)

Two varieties of cordgrass dominate the meadows of the salt marsh. Stalky “smooth cordgrass” (Spartina alterniflora) dominates the lower marsh habitat, growing up to 8 feet tall, but has little value as livestock forage. The smaller and softer “saltmeadow cordgrass”(Spartina patens) grows 1 to 2 feet high and dominates the high marsh habitats, which makes it more accessible and valuable as salt marsh hay. “Cow licks” of velvety Spartina patens are formed by the daily inundation of tide water over the soft grass.

Spartina alterniflora (foreground) and Spartina patens at Newbury marsh

Plum Island was not included in the territory granted to the Ipswich settlers, and was contested by the inhabitants of Rowley and Newbury. The General Court on October 17th 1649 decreed, “Upon the petition of Neweberry, this Corte thinketh meete to give & grant Plum Island to Ipswich, Rowly & Newberry viz. Ipswich to have two parts, Neweberry two parts & Rowly to have one fifth part.” Now that the right of Ipswich in Plum Island was settled, the Town began to make provisions for use of its hay:

  • 1651: “Order to dispose of the grass to such as have none from year to year.”
  • 1652: “Ordered that the seven men shall have power from yeare to yeare to order the cutting of the grass at Plum Island, Goodman Johnson to be considered among others for cutting grass there according to his need.”
  • 1663: “Ordered that All shall have liberty to cutt that have right to common privileges (but noe others), provided they take their grass they cutt together and carry it quietly and peaceably without interrupting one another, upon penalty of five shillings an acre for such as shall transgress.”

In 1664, the date for beginning the cutting was set to the twentieth of July, “provided there be liberty to Mr. William Hubbard to take his opportunity for cutting a parcel of marsh at Grape Island for one month viz. to the 20th of August, to be assigned to him by Jacob Perkins and John Layton not exceeding 6 acres.” Notwithstanding the remoteness of Plum Island from the Town, the access to it only by boat across the swift Plum Island River and its complete isolation in mid-winter, it was regarded as a valuable asset. The salt marshes and thatch banks had a good market value. There were many acres of fertile upland, too good to be used only for the pasturing of swine.

In June 1664, the town voted that Plum Island, Hogg Island and Castle Neck be divided among the 203 commoners. The date for beginning the cutting was changed to the twentieth of July, The Committee reported in April, 1665, that there were 800 acres of marsh and upland “beside beaches and gall’d hills,” and that each single share would contain three acres. Rights to the marsh were purchased and sold, and are included in deeds through the 19th Century.

In August, patens was traditionally cut and stacked for drying, and was the most valuable “crop” in the first century of English settlement in New England. Stored for winter use by cattle, the hay was also loaded on boats to be sold at Haymarket Square for the cows whose meandering paths are said to be the origin of Boston’s winding streets. As late as 1835, salt hay was sold at auction locally at $12.50 per ton.

Salt marsh haystack
Photo by George Dexter circa 1900

Thomas Franklin Waters wrote about harvesting salt marsh hay in “Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony:

“Farmers learned perhaps from the neutral French who had dwelt here their great success in diking the Acadian salt marshes and securing great crops of English hay from thousands of acres thus reclaimed. The grass that grows between the upland and the marsh was cut and then when the right course of tides came, vast stretches of salt marsh along the river and its creeks were invaded with a great army of hay makers. On the nearer and more accessible marshes the hay was stacked on staddles to raise it above the high tides.

“On the more distant Plum Island marshes, the green salt hay was loaded into great gundalows which were rowed slowly with huge oars with a favoring tide to some convenient dock where it was unloaded and loaded upon the farm wagons. Every old time farmer owned his marsh lots and esteemed them a valuable asset. The long coarse reedy grass borne by the thatch banks which are submerged by every tide was of less value but was reckoned worth the getting for bedding and banking about the buildings and covering.”

Salt marsh hay is still gathered on the North Shore today. Eva Jackman wrote: “My husband’s family has been harvesting salt hay on the same Newbury land as in 1643. He cuts salt hay and helps with the stacks on Rte 1. When greenheads get really bad he resorts to burying himself in the hay to find relief. If you’re lucky, a windy day helps keep them at bay.”

Stacking salt marsh hay

Sand Dunes and Salt Marshes

Text and photographs below are from Sand Dunes and Salt Marshes written in 1913 by Charles Wendell Townsend, a summer resident of Argilla Road in Ipswich.

“In cutting the grass, which is done in Au­gust at periods of a low run of tides, mowing machines are used, except in the lower, softer places where the scythes are swung. The horses wear broad, wooden marsh shoes, and a novice horse is practiced in the security of the barn-yard with the awkward, clanking things before he is ventured on the unstable marsh. It is no trifle for a pair of horses to become mired in the salt marsh, and only those men born and bred to the work can manage them in that treacherous region.

“The hay is piled in small cocks, under which are thrust two long poles. These serve like the handles of a Sedan chair for the removal of the hay to the higher land beyond the reach of the tides. Hay boats, or canoes as they are inappropriately called, are also used to harvest the hay. These are long, narrow, flat-bottomed, square-ended scows that work in pairs cov­ered with a broad platform, on which the hay is piled. With great sweeps, long unwieldy oars, the haymakers slowly urge them along the winding creeks, while the steersman, with a huge oar resting on a supporting oar-lock in the stern, directs their course.

“In many places the hay is piled in huge stacks, that are elevated above the highest tides on small piles or “staddles,” as they are called, and the stacks dot the marsh for miles like clustered tents. When the marsh is fast bound by winter frost the farmer goes his rounds and carries off the savory, salty hay on sledges, his horses’ iron shoes now well-sharpened. No need of wooden marsh shoes; all is hard and solid as the rocky ledges.”

“In cutting the grass, which is done in Au­gust at periods of a low run of tides, mowing machines are used, except in the lower, softer places where the scythes are swung.”
Salt marsh hay loaded on to the hay gondola
Hay being transferred to the wagon

Recollections by Lawrence G. Dodge in Puritan Paths from Naumkeag to Piscataqua published in 1963:

“Salt grass was especially hard to cut with a scythe, and when thoroughly dry, almost impossible, so the marsh crew drove off well before daylight, in order to begin mowing at dawn — and have as much as possible cut before the dew was entirely dried off. Two days of such hours might be enough followed by two or three more days at regular hours. The salt grass was quite ripe by this season and salty enough to be well preserved, and required no drying except for the dew. The swaths accordingly were raked by hand and “cocked” into piles weighing toward two hundred pounds each. Then two men with a pair of smooth poles about ten feet long, usually of spruce, each tapered to a dull point at one end, slid the poles under a cock, picked the load up after the fashion of a stretcher, and walked with it to where the stack would be made.

“If away from the upland, the stack was built on “staddles,” to be hauled away on sleds over the frozen marsh in mid-winter. A staddle was formed of a group of stout stakes driven into the ground with two to three feet standing above the sod. On this contrivance the hay was kept above the level at which the tide would cover the marshes during the “high run,” usually around November.”

“Wallace B. Ordway of West Newbury was quite familiar in his youth with many of the men who owned or operated the gundalows: ‘Along through all the near-shore towns salt hay added considerable tonnage to the hay and fodder from the upland, and was a very appetizing item for cattle of all kinds, due to the salty flavor. For Milking cows some care was needed as to when they were fed salt hay, else the mil customer might complain of a slightly unusual flavor in the milk, but which the farm family knew was harmless and disregarded.'”

Farmhand atop a salt marsh haystack at Plum Island

Fairbanks standard hay scales

In 1830, Thaddeus Fairbanks received a patent for the first operating platform scale. Even before the design was finalized, customers had already placed orders. By the time of the Civil War, Fairbanks’ scales were the best known American product in the world, and several were located at strategic intersections in Ipswich.

E & T Fairbanks & Company offices opened in Boston and New York in the 1870s. By 1882, more than 80,000 Fairbanks scales were being produced annually. The company expanded from a modest one-building operation to a complex of 40 buildings with more than 20 acres of floor space by 1910. The company today is based in Oakland Park, Kansas and has over 500 employees.

Fairbanks hay scales
A set of Fairbanks scales at the intersection of East Street and Spring Street
Fairbanks Standard Scales

Sources and further reading:

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