Monday, September 22, 2014

1 scythe, 5 acres, 8 hours?

"Mowing Matches" were competitions where contestants with scythes would try to mow a certain area in the least time, or try to mow the most area in a given time. These contests date back to the 1700s or earlier. (From the mid-1800s onward, mowing matches were also held to compare the performance of various designs of mechanical mowers and reapers.) 

Listed below are the published results of some mowing matches held during the past few centuries.

1795 -- Finchley, England 
2 acres (0.8 ha) of grass cut in six hours and 40 minutes

A mowing match was decided a few days ago at Finchley; the prize being a fat hog of eight and twenty stone, and a wooden powdering-tub lined with lead. Only married men under one and thirty years of age were allowed to be candidates, of which there were eleven The winner cut down, and laid in swathe, in a neat and farmer-like manner, two acres of grass, in six hours and forty minutes.

1822 -- New Boston, NH, USA 
One acre (0.4 ha) of grass cut in one hour and 26 minutes

There was a famous mowing match in New Boston, on Saturday, August 17th, between Mr Daniel Andrews, of New Boston, and Mr Abel Hart, of Goffstown. The competition was who should mow an acre of meadow grass the quickest and best. The ground was staked out and the work performed in the presence of numerous spectators. Mr Andrews completed his acre in one hour and twenty six minutes. Mr Hart in one hour and twenty eight and a half minutes. The victory was of course decided in favor of Mr Andrews.  Amherst (N.H.) Cabinet.

1826 -- Stratham, NH, USA 
813 square feet (75.5 square meters) in one minute

    On the morning of the 4th inst. many of the farmers and other inhabitants of Stratham assembled at the Plain's corner to witness the novel exhibition of a mowing match. The premium was an elegant scythe, by which the work was executed. The rule was previously established that no candidates should be accepted, excepting those between the ages of 18 and 21; that after the work was executed it should be measured, and the three best mowers should again perform the task. Three judges were appointed: Major Benj. Clark, Major David Robinson, and Capt Joseph Smith, with liberty to the mowers to select two additional ones. if they should think fit.
     When the work was executed by the nine mowers who had presented themselves as candidates, it appeared that Messrs Benjamin F Clark, Nathan L Morrill, and Benjamin Kelly, had done the best minutes mowing; and the work was again performed by them, when it was declared by the judges that Mr C. had mowed in one minute, 45 strokes, 8 feet swathe, and 101 feet in length, being 808 feet square; Mr M. 50 strokes, 7-3/4 feet swathe, and 103 feet in length, being 796 feet square; and Mr K. 48 strokes, 7-7/12 feet swathe, and 107-1/4 feet in length, being 813 feet and one quarter square; and Mr Kelly accordingly received the premium. The thanks of the company were tendered to the gentlemen who acted as judges; to Capt Smith for the use of his field; and to Rev Mr Cummings, for an elegant and appropriate address delivered by him upon the occasion.
     Previous to the dissolution of the meeting, Major Smith, aged 80 last autumn, mowed one minute and cut over a surface of 803 feet square. The work was executed by him with great ease, and he was rewarded by the applause of all present and with a badge of respect and honour. It is proposed to continue these meetings; and we shall endeavour in our next paper, to give some further account of the plan. We regret that our limits will not allow a more extended notice of this first exhibition of the kind.
[Exeter Gazette]

1827 -- Canandaigua, NY, USA
586 square feet (54.4 square meters) in one minute

     In giving an account of the festivities off the 4th, the mowing match should not be forgotten. As soon as the procession returned from the church, a large concourse of people repaired to the meadow of Mr Thaddeus Chapin, a few rods west of the burying ground, where the following exercises took place: Fourteen candidates entered for the premiums, six in number, to be awarded to the man who should cut the most grass, and in the best manner, in the space of one minute. The first premium, (an elegant scythe with snath) was taken by Calvin Simmons, who cut 586-1/2 square feet; swarthe 9 feet 2 inches wide. The second do. (an axe was) awarded to John Kentm who cut 511 square feet; swarthe 9 feet 9 inches wide. Third do. (a hoe), to John Woby, a colored man, who cut 546 square feet; swarthe 9 feet wide. Fourth do. (a fork) to Daniel Trowbridge, who cut 508-1/2 square feet; swarthe 9 feet wide. Fifth do. (a spade) to Elias Russell, who cut 557 square feet; swarthe 9 feet wide. Sixth do. (a shovel) to K. Murray, who cut 496 square feet; swarthe 8 feet wide.
     All the work was extremely well done, and it was with some difficulty that the judges, Messrs. Bates, Wilson, and Hubbell, could determine which of the men ought in justice, receive the last two premiums.
     The premium articles were all of elegant workmanship and were given by several of our most respectable citizens.
[Canandiagua Repository]

1828 -- Canandaigua, NY, USA
892 square feet (82.9 square meters) in one minute

The Mowing Match at Canandaigua on the 4th excited much interest. The first premium, a Plough, was awarded to Samuel Remington, of that town, who mowed in one minute 100 feet in length, and a total of 892 square feet.

1856 -- Vallejo, CA, USA
5 acres (2.0 ha) of grass cut in 7 hours, 55 minutes

The True Californian gives an account of a mowing match which came off on the 9th instant, in Vallejo Valley, near the town of Vallejo, between Addison M. Ripley, from Maine, and Mr. Ball, from Vermont. The task was five acres of grass each, turning off two and a half tons to the acre! They mowed against time. Mr. Ripley won the match, finishing his work in seven hours and fifty-five minutes, and beating his adversary a quarter of an acre!! The stake was five hundred dollars. Mowing machines would not stand much chance with such men.


The results of mowing matches should give some indication of what extremes are possible when a scythe is in very skilled hands attached to a strong body that is pushed to its limits. Such a pace is obviously not sustainable for actual farm work.

Of course, the results of non-standardized contests cannot be compared too closely, since there are numerous factors that can cause variations in the outcomes. These factors include differences in grass type, height, density and moisture content; contest format; requirements and penalties related to quality of cut; and inaccuracies in area measurements. "Sloppy reporting" could also distort the results of a match.

(Interesting to see so much variation in the reported results from 1827 and 1828, with the matches held only one year apart at the same town.)

Nevertheless, these published results show some remarkable achievements in the realm of hand mowing, during times when scythes were common tools on a farm. In the early 1800s, more than 800 sq ft (75 sq m) could be cut in one minute, and an acre (0.4 ha) could be cut in an hour and a half (assuming that the reports are factual).

The report from the 1826 match gives some notable details. The mowers in this match cut only one swath, at whatever width was optimal for them. The swath widths were around 8 feet for the top contestants. The winner mowed a distance of 107 ft (33 m) in one minute using 48 strokes, which means that his average forward advance was over 26 inches (68 cm) per stroke! The corresponding advances for the other top contestants were similarly over two feet (60 cm) per stroke.

To obtain such a large advance with each stroke would require a long blade (swung a certain way) and a sturdy snath (to withstand the forces from moving that amount of grass with each quick stroke). The American scythes of that era could qualify, with their stout snaths, and blades commonly available around 4 ft (1.2 m) in length.

[New York] Farmer whetting his scythe, by William Sidney Mount, 1848

Competition scythe (S├╝dtiroler Bauernjugend photo, 2010)

The 1856 (Vallejo) match results are outstanding, perhaps unbelievable. The newspaper reports that the winner's name was Ripley --  so believe it or not.

In closing, the following newspaper article from 1900 gives an account of a mowing match that was surely a "tall tale" from a storyteller:


The Greatest of All Giants Enters In the Farmers' Mowing Matches.

"If anything," said the old circus man, "the great giant used to come out strongest In competitive contests. You see, there he showed for not only what he was, but even greater, by the contrast. Of course, he was always in contrast, but here the contrast was made more striking; but we never failed to enter him in any sort of a competitive contest that we could get him into. Mowing contests, for instance, the giant was very strong in; and we never missed an opportunity to put him into one of these when we could. The old man was always on the outlook, sharp, for this sort of thing, in any form, and if he ran up against a mowing match coming off, say the day the circus struck the town, he'd get the old man into it somehow, sure; not, of course, entering him as a giant or a big man, or anything of that sort, but simply as an unknown. He used to go equipped for this mowing business.

"I suppose that the average scythe blade would be three feet or thereabouts In length, and the snath maybe four feet and a half long. Well, now, the giant's scythe had a blade about ten feet long and a handle about fifteen. Those farmers would get together in a grass lot to see what a man could do, say, in half an hour, everything to count; width of swath, forward cut, cleanness and evenness of the mowing, and so on. I suppose that a man might cut a swath five feet wide, possibly more, but more likely less, and his cut as he stepped forward with even swings of the sharp scythe might be a foot to eighteen inches. The young farmer, and some old ones, too, for that matter, would try, one after another, in this competition, every man swinging along in fine style, till pretty much all of them had had their chance at it and then they'd begin calling for the unknown, and then we'd bring up the giant.

"And he never failed to make a sensation when he appeared; but when he stepped into the field and took off his coat and tossed it into the wagon alongside the lot, and took his scythe out of the wagon, with its ten-foot blade and fifteen-foot snath, and rolled up his sleeves and took the scythe and set to mowing, then there was a sensation. Talk about cutting a wide swath! Why, you ought to see the giant! The farmers cut maybe five feet, the giant fifteen. They'd step forward a. foot or a foot and a half with every sweep, the giant four or five feet. And he was a good mower, too; cutting close and even and clean from side to side. Just think of it, will you!—a man cutting a path fifteen feet wide and going forward five feet at every stroke!

"Pretty soon the giant would stop and pull a scythe-stone out of his bootleg—this stone was three feet long, as long as an ordinary scythe blade —and sharpen his scythe with it; and then he'd drop the stone in his bootleg and go to mowing again. And pretty soon he'd get dry and want some cider; and that's where he used to come in again with business. We had a jug that was as big around as a barrel in the biggest part of it, and that was pretty near as tall, but a regular jug in shape, and we used to get this over the fence to him wherever he was, and he'd lift that up as easy as coud be and turn it up, looking like a balloon up there turned up in that way, and take a big, long drink and then set it down and go to mowing again.

"Well, when the giant had got through mowing there wasn't likely to be much grass left In that lot to mow, and there never was any doubt about who'd won the prize. And he used to cut as wide a swath among the farmers as he did in he grass. There wasn't a farmer for miles around but used to come to the [circus] show and bring his family. Maybe they'd ha' come anyway, but the giant's mowing hit 'em hard; and as for the rest of the community, why, It just simply got 'em all.

"My, my; but It makes me sigh to think of the great old giant."

—N. Y. Sun.
[appearing in the Los Angeles Herald, 1900}


Mowing Ahead sign, U.S. Federal Highway Administration, Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, sign number W21-8, public domain

Finchley match results from The Sporting Magazine, Vol. 6, Rogerson and Tuxford, London, September 1795, page 327

New Boston match results from New England Farmer, Vol. 1, No. 5, Boston, August 31, 1822, page 35

Stratham match results from The American Farmer, Vol. 8, No. 17, Baltimore, July 21, 1826, page 139. Also reported in New England Farmer, Vol. IV, No. 52, Boston, July 21, 1826, page 411

Canandaigua 1827 match results from Niles' Weekly Register, Vol. 32, No. 829, Baltimore, August 4, 1827, page 373

Canandaigua 1828 match results from New England Farmer, Vol. VII, No. 1, Boston, July 25, 1828, page 6

Vallejo match results from The Genesee Farmer, Vol. 17, No. 9, Rochester (NY), September 1856, page 267.  Also reported in Rockland County Journal, Nyack (NY), October 25, 1856, page 2

Farmer whetting his scythe painting from William Sidney Mount book by Frankenstein, Alfred. NY: Abrams, 1975, plate 31 [color] Hay in Art Database ID: 133

Competition scythe photo from S├╝dtiroler Bauernjugend, April 15, 2010

Circus giant story from Los Angeles Herald, No. 141, February 18, 1900, page 17.
Also appears in Rockland County Times, Nanuet (NY), March 10, 1900, page 6

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Monet and me

Haystacks at Giverny painted by Claude Monet, 1884.
Photograph by Christine Hemp, haystacks by her husband.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Scythe Fiction (Scy-Fi)

Here's a story that was published 102 years ago:


"In choosing a scythe, John, same as in lots of other things, it's a pretty good plan to be medium".

Sylvester Bristow cast a shrewdly critical glance at the well-made but unusually long scythe that his son had picked from the rackful in the village hardware store. "There are places, John, I'll admit, where the stroke you'd get with that thing would work mighty fine, and then again there are places where it wouldn't. It's a long hard pull across Amasa Barton's Big Twenty -- and it's a long day, John, from sun to sun in July."

"But you know what I'll have to meet, father. I shall need the best there is."

The older man laid a big, wrinkled hand on the square shoulder of his stalwart son. "Even if he is past fifty, Amasa Barton claims to be as good with a scythe as the best in this end of county. And perhaps he is. He's in a hurry to get through haying, too. He'll rush things. He doesn't like his neighbors to be ahead. That's why he's offering pay and a half for hands provided they'll stay with him in the field. But, John," -- his shrewd eyes had been scanning the rack, and his big hand now held a scythe much like the one that his son picked out, but several inches shorter, -- "There you are, now, for a pull on a long, hot day and an all-round pull in all kinds of grass -- medium, John. Your father's been there."

 A smile lighted up the young fellow's lean brown face. Replacing the long scythe in the rack, he carefully balanced in his hands the one his father had selected.

"I guess it'll be this one, father. Amasa Barton may be the best in these parts just now, but if you hadn't the rheumatism, I should be prompt to dispute it. I don't know whether I can 'stay with him' as he calls it, or not, but I'm going to try. If you say this scythe," -- his gaze returned for an instant half-regretfully to the long, rakish one, but he finished decisively, -- "why, this one it is. I hear Ben Langton came on a day or two ago to help Barton."

"Yes, Langton is there. I've heard a number say the young fellow is a clipper with a scythe -- fully up to Amasa. He's a great talker, but unlike most big talkers he can perform. He's stocky and wiry, but I guess you needn't worry."


John Bristow hung his new scythe, ground to a razor edge, in a convenient crotch of the old greening tree in his father's yard, and glancing speculatively at the cloudless evening sky, sauntered slowly to the house. From the porch his sister Kate called to him, "So it's Waterloo for sonny boy tomorrow, is it -- eh, John?"

"Must be, if you say so, Kate."

"And Benny Langton, too, John -- of all others. Whose black eyes will dance if you take second place, little boy?"

"Possibly, now, she means Sue Barton's," said John, tranquilly. He sat down beside her, and after a while he said, "I wish I had more of the 'gift of tongues,' Kate -- could talk, you know, like Langton and such fellows. It's a great gift. Sue likes that chap -- and I don t blame her. He can talk on all occasions -- right word for the right place, and all that, you know. But my tongue, now, when I want it the most, is about as valuable as a piece of beefsteak.

"Yes, I like Sue," he continued. "I may as well own up to you, because I know you know it already. But there it is. She's bright and quick herself, and a bold, bright, quick-witted talkative chap like Langton would naturally take her fancy. Just compare him yourself with a thick tongue like me."

"Startling contrast, that's a fact," commented his sister. "Ben Langton can talk, we all know, in all places and under all conditions. But did it never occur to you, John, that a girl might like to apply some of father's ideas to persons and things?"

"Such as?"

"Medium, John. Think it over now and then."


"This is the field, boys -- the last one, and I'm glad of it. It's the Big Twenty, you know." Amasa Barton cast a proud glance over the broad meadow, its tall grasses swaying lazily in the early morning air. "Grass hasn't hurt any to speak of yet, and won't if we get it before another rain. Is it pay and a half, boys? All right, that suits me exactly. We'll make a mark in the Big Twenty before sundown I guess."

Big and brawny, a trifle stout, perhaps, but hard as nails, the farmer, with his huge arms bare to the elbow, looked the picture of rugged health as he unslung his scythe and stepped promptly to the front.

Langton came next. Both men glanced sharply at John's scythe, and Langton, catching the farmer's eye, grinned slightly, and received a wink by way of response.

John had already noticed that each of his opponents carried a long scythe, formidable in appearance, and almost the exact counterpart of the one that he had so nearly selected shortly before. He cast a critical glance over the big meadow. Although fairly tall, the grass did not seem particularly thick on the ground. He wished most fervently that he had stuck to his own choice of scythes. The outlook seemed decidedly dubious. But swish! -- Barton had struck out. The day's work had begun.

Long before the first long, straight swaths had been laid across Amasa Barton's "Big Twenty," John Bristow fully understood what confronted him. The grass in the Big Twenty proved to be, as he had thought, not especially heavy on the ground. With long, easily carried strokes, the two leaders swept up the long meadow; they swung their scythes in perfect unison and with but little apparent effort, and each, as John well knew, watched out of the corner of his eye to see how the new hand was doing.

By using all his art and covering every possible inch of his shorter blade, John was able to keep stroke, through the first long swath, without loss of place. But well he knew that when the others warmed to their work, the pace would be far swifter -- and for several reasons. Barton was shrewd, and as his neighbors said, a trifle "close." He was not the man to offer "pay and a half" without expecting the better end of the bargain, He knew well his own endurance, his skill and prowess in the field, and he loved to excel. John knew how his boisterous laugh would ring out if a younger man should fall behind. And John particularly wished to stand well in the opinion of the stalwart owner of the Big Twenty.

Langton and John had never been very good friends at best, and just now John knew that nothing would give Langton greater pleasure than to see him discredited with his employer. For an hour or two they mowed steadily. Once or twice, Langton had said something trivial in itself, but containing, as John well knew, a thinly veiled innuendo. He understood that the others felt they had taken his measure. He also understood that sooner or later, one or both of them would attempt that crowning proof of superiority in the hay field -- mowing him "out of his swath."

Along toward noon, when it was John's lead, the two strong mowers behind crowded up nearer than at any time before. Well warmed to their work, they were lengthening the stroke of those long scythes without diminishing the time. Langton, next to the leader, was almost abreast. He was beginning to roll his swath just enough to make it difficult for John to "toe in" properly for the beginning of his stroke.

John knew there was but one thing to do -- he must quicken his stroke. It called upon his reserve of strength and endurance, a reserve that he was carefully hoarding, and that he ought not to call upon until far later in the day, if at all. He was quite conscious of all this, but he was not going out until forced out. With a quick bracing of muscles, he "broke stroke" and forged ahead slowly to his proper lead.

Langton slightly increased his peculiar whistling. Barton glanced up quickly with a look of surprise. Each quickened stroke a trifle, but not much. They knew it was not necessary.

As they "carried swaths" for the next trip, Barton told with gusto the story of one of his former triumphs at a mowing contest. Langton commented freely, and laughed heartily at the right places. But the new hand had nothing to say. His quickened breathing and flushed, perspiring face showed the beginnings of distress and the fact that if he had comments to make, he had little breath with which to make them. At the foot of the field he whetted his scythe with the others; but Langton ostentatiously dressed his scythe with a rattling accompaniment of the stone on the blade -- plainly the mower's challenge. It was his lead, and he stepped promptly to the front with a slight nod -- which was returned -- at Amasa Barton.

John Bristow got through that long swath somehow, he hardly knew how; but he found at the end, almost to his surprise, that he was still in his place. And no sound that he had ever heard seemed sweeter to him than the loud clang of the farmhouse bell, which then boomed out the noon dinner call.

Except for John, it was a jolly group that gathered about the table in the long, cool dining room. Barton himself seemed in an especially genial mood, and Langton quite outdid himself as a talker. Sue Barton, keen-witted as ever, met his raillery with quick repartee. John thought that he had never seen her more charming. And he had had more cause, he thought to himself, to regret his own obstinate, thick-tongued silence.

Amasa Barton dwelt much on the fine progress that they were making in the Big Twenty; and Langton took occasion to say that would make a still better showing before night if they all held out.

With a glance at Sue, he added that he thought they would all hold out, with exception, perhaps, of her father and himself -- a thrust at which Barton and he laughed boisterously. John saw that the girl understood. She laughed, but somehow her laughter did not seem quite genuine.

The first swath or two after the short noon hour were as hard for John Bristow as those of the morning -- a little harder, perhaps, because the pace at the start was swifter. And now again it was his turn to lead. Although he more than half-believed that this swath would be his "Waterloo," he stepped to the front with dogged resolution.

That morning he had noticed out in the big meadow a vague line that seemed to mark a different quality or kind of grass, but he had had time to give it only an occasional glance. Now the mowing had brought them fairly to this line, and he understood what it was -- a wide piece of "new-seeded."

Amasa Barton was a good farmer. The ground had been cleared of stones and well tilled: there had been an excellent "catch." The new growth stood rank and thick, and although not lodged, was still a tremendous burden. Eying the thick growth askance, John struck into it tentatively; to his intense relief, his scythe came through clean and free. Again he reached forward, this time with nearly a full stroke, and again his scythe came through without a "buff."

Close behind, and still with that irritating whistle, came Langton, swinging vigorously. With a full, unhesitating stroke he swung into the thick new-seeded.

John listened attentively and watched from the tail of his eye. Langton's whistling ceased abruptly. and in its place came an explosive ejaculation of disgust. He had found three forceful thrusts necessary to drive that long scythe of his through the thick, tangled growth.

A moment later Barton's scythe struck the line of new-seeded. Although no word came from the sturdy farmer, John's quick ears caught a distinct and most expressive grunt. The young haymaker laughed softly to himself. He said nothing, but carefully using a medium stroke that almost invariably brought his scythe through clear and free, he mowed steadily across the wide field. Then he turned back.

Several rods away, and fairly close together, the two were pulling along. By lifting their left hands to a high, strained position, they had contrived somewhat to shorten stroke. They were coming -- after a fashion.

As he waited for them, John looked carefully round. He smiled contentedly as he noticed that nearly all the rest of the big field was covered by new-seeded grass.

Breathing hard and perspiring freely, the two men finished their swaths. As Barton turned at the end, he cast a sharp glance at John's swath. He said nothing, for there was nothing to say; the swath was plainly the cleanest cut of the three. This time there was no story-telling as they carried swaths.

Twice more they cut through the heavy tangled growth, the new hand easily, the champions of the morning only through grim determination. Again at the foot of the field, they wiped their scythes with the fresh-cut grass, preparatory to whetting them.

Whetstone in hand, John Bristow looked for a moment square into the flushed faces of his two opponents. Then, once more over the Big Twenty there rang out, in no uncertain tones, the peculiar sharp rattling notes of the haymaker's challenge. But this time the new hand played the tune!

Although John was not in the least vindictive, he did believe that in certain times and places people should be given a good strong dose of their own medicine. He thought that one of the times was this July day, and one of the places was Amasa Barton's big meadow.

Whenever either of the men, visibly fretting over his long and now unwieldy scythe, took the lead, he followed closely. He was sure at last that he could easily mow either out of swath; more than once he was on the point of doing it. But he refrained; the extreme course is seldom the best. He smiled as he remembered his father's words with their wide application. But steadily, sharply he crowded the work; for perhaps two hours not a word was spoken by any one of the three.

Finally, it was easily to be seen that both Langton and Barton, seasoned workmen though they were, had nearly reached the limit of their endurance -- and especially Langton. That hitherto complacent young man gazed time after time anxiously across the meadow in search of a possible end to that killing new-seeded. But apparently there was no end. It stretched far back, wide and menacing. To add to his discomfiture, it really seemed as if the victim of the morning were carrying his stroke stronger and growing fresher hour by hour. Finally, at the end of a swath in which he had kept place only by using every last shred of his reserve strength, he stopped. Without looking up, he ran his finger over the edge of his scythe, shook his head, and saying gruffly that he "must go and grind," left the field.

For a moment Amasa Barton eyed his slowly retreating "help." He was himself breathing heavily, and perspiration streamed down his face; but his mouth was set, and there was evidently still some fight left in his sturdy frame. He looked at John silently.

"Fine piece of new-seeded grass this, Mr. Barton," remarked John, cheerfully.

Although the sun beat down relentlessly and there was not a breath of air, the sturdy old veteran of the field held his place twice again across the wide meadow. Then at the end a swath he deliberately shouldered his scythe.

"John," he said, slowly, and in his voice was a note of respect that the young man had never heard before, "my scythe isn't dull, and I'm not going to pretend that it is, but -- I'm going to sit in the shade a while. It's pretty hot."

He started toward the house, but stopped to call back, "You understand, John, that you don't have to mow any more today unless want to?"

"Yes," said John, "I understand. But I guess I'll mow till night, thank you."

Twice on his way to the house, Amasa Barton turned to look back at the solitary mower steadily swinging along in the Big Twenty meadow. He understood perfectly well that more than once that stifling afternoon, the young man's courtesy alone had saved him from the disgrace of losing his swath.

From the wide farmhouse porch his wife and daughter glanced up inquiringly as he went slowly past. He scowled at Sue; then suddenly his face relaxed. Stopping, he jerked his big thumb in the direction of the meadow. "That young fellow allows he'll mow till night," he said in an odd tone expressive of mixed emotions. "He's gritty enough -- but it's frightful hot down there. I guess he'd appreciate a jug of our Cold Spring water, if you have time, Sue." And he stumbled into the house.


"Thirsty, John?" John Bristow looked quickly at the end of his long swath. A look of delight came into his face at sight of the bright-eyed girl in the wide sun-hat. Her eyes were twinkling roguishly, and he wondered whether she understood the situation. In the true back-handed style he tossed up the jug and took a deep, refreshing draft.

"Thank you, Sue; this certainly is kind of you," he said, as he handed back the jug. And then, much to his surprise, he suddenly found himself talking with fluent ease.

Soon he again took up his scythe. The girl, with a half smile on her lips, had been looking out over the long row of swaths. Now she looked at the tall young mower, holding his scythe so easily, and said:

"Benny Langton came up to the house a while ago, John. He said he'd dulled his scythe, but he went home without grinding it. And father's lying on the couch in the sitting room." She laughed softly. "I heard them talking at noon. They said you weren't in their class -- that you couldn't stay, and that they were going to put you under the fence before night. They didn't do it, did they?" She hesitated a moment, and then added shyly, "I'm glad, John." And John was alone with his mowing.

The shadows were falling when, with his scythe over his shoulder, John turned into the home lane. Milking was over; his father was putting up the pasture bars. They understood each other, these two, and they said little as they went together up the green lane.

But soon the father said, and there was a pleased light in his eyes, "I saw someone mowing alone this afternoon in Amasa's Big Twenty. It couldn t have been you, John?"

"I guess it was, father."

"Scythe work pretty well, John?"

"Best in the world, father. The very best in the world."

His father nodded appreciatively; then he added, "Taking things by and large in this old world, it's a pretty good plan, John, to be medium."


The Youth's Companion, Vol. 86, No. 18, May 2, 1912, pages 230-231
Illustration drawn by Charles Hubbard

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Q&A: Left-handed scythes?

Mowing with ease at seven years young.

Q:  I'm planning to get a scythe, but I'm left-handed. I know there are left-handed blades out there but, in your experience, do southpaws simply adapt to scything with a right-handed bias (as with so many other things)?

A:  [from Peter Vido] The basic 'switch' to an opposite-handed scythe can -- in some cases -- be made before the morning's worth of mowing is over (after which the refinements will continue, of course). My daughters, one naturally left-handed and the other right-handed, would agree. They both started with right-handed blades at the age of 7 or so, and only tried a left-hand version several years later, 'just for fun'. But it was no big deal for either of them to make the 'wrongly-aimed' blades cut grass just fine.

However, my daughters (as well as their uncle Alexander Vido, who is a natural left-hander) continued to use primarily right-handed scythes. The chief reason is that they were interested to try out different blade patterns, and during any one season would end up 'fooling around' with many of them. And, although left-handed blades have long been produced, the diversity of available models was always FAR less. The privilege of our left-handed scythe collection notwithstanding, they can try out MANY more right (as opposed to left) handed models, and so they stuck with the 'right-hand bias' for the most part.

I have recently experimented 'somewhat' (meaning about 10-12 hrs of actual work) with left-handed scythes because my long ago right wrist injury more or less 'ordered' the trial. As a fringe benefit, it was an interesting way to gain insights about the learning process for a beginner -- something I now feel I ought to have done long ago...

We can speculate that it would be easier for a natural left-hander to begin with (or later switch to) a right-handed scythe than for a natural right-hander to meet the same challenge, simply because in our 'right-dominant' culture the left-handers grew up adapting to many 'right hand only' tools. (An example -- ever heard of a left-handed chainsaw? Yet thousands of natural left-handers have made professional careers of using them just the same; a statement to our potential ability to adapt.)

So let's speculate why would someone specially chose to use a left-handed scythe?

Some of the possibilities:

a) They're one of the 'committed left-handers' who prefer left-handed equipment whenever it's available.

b) They are a natural left-hander who initially learned to mow with a left-handed scythe and do not want to relearn (or override) the motions.

c) They are natural right-handers but as a result of an injury to the right shoulder/arm/wrist have more available strength in their 'unnatural' side and consequently can mow better with a left-handed scythe, especially in dense and/or tall grass when the strength factor comes more into play.

d) Some people simply desire to balance their body's muscle usage in general, and while scything they can occasionally switch between right-handed and left-handed scythes.
[Yes, we do know individuals actually doing this.] 

Team mowing with left-handed scythes

One of the most frequently offered reasons against obtaining/learning how to use a left-handed scythe has been "but then you can't mow in teams". Those making this argument may be 'under the influence' of the illustration on page 61 of David Tresemer's Scythe Book. They probably also haven't used the scythe enough themselves, and consequently fail as yet to grasp the range of individual expression that -- potentially -- the use of this tool can entail. That "round and round around the field" represents a 'boxed in' approach to forage harvesting, a must to most forage-harvesting machines. Yes, it may well have been the way the large, flat and evenly-standing areas of America were mown (even with scythes) in bygone days -- but is NOT how a group of mowers traditionally progressed most of the time, in most of the scythe-using world.

Whatever the definition of 'teams' may be and how frequently groups gather (in relation to solo scythe work) these days in the 'West', I do not really know. What I do know is that whether there is a 'team' of 2 mowers or 25 who wish to cut a respective area together, there are usually several ways to accommodate either-sided folks.

Regardless of the specific numbers of people involved, some can begin moving diagonally from opposite sides of a field. Also, the traditional Swiss 'double swath' approach can effectively be implemented by equal number of left and right-handed scythes -- by the leading person (it could be either right or left-hander) starting a strip which deposits the cut matter against the still-standing grass. A person with a blade pointing in the opposite direction can then follow in the leader's heels and deposit the grass against the already accumulating (leading person's) windrow. That is not exactly how the Swiss do it, but the end effect would be the same -- a swath twice the width of one cutting movement of a blade, with all grass accumulated within a 'double windrow' in the middle. (In Switzerland, this approach is still features in at least some of their national mowing competitions. It consists of a person mowing the given length first towards the standing grass, and then turning around and making a pass away from it. It takes more than the usual judgement and skill to assure that everything under that 'double windrow has been shaven clean -- an element, besides the time taken, that is taken into consideration. That is, before the judges announce the final score, all grass is raked away to see just how cleanly the mowing was performed.)

However, the majority of folks making up the Western eco-crowd do not usually mow large fields together as 'teams'. Most end up working in irregularly-shaped terrain where adhering to certain direction is not the issue, or at least shouldn't be. In fact, all seasoned mowers who have faced a wide variety of mowing conditions would likely tell you that there were times they wished their blades were pointing in the opposite direction. That is to say, there are situations where -- due to topography and/or the predominant lay of the plants to be cut -- having a left-handed scythe in hand (or a friend with one at your side) would be advantageous. An experienced leader of a group ought to be able to quickly access the site, and then place the right and left-handers (regardless how many of each the group consists of) in positions where their respective scythe be made best use of.

Availability of left-handed blades

All the above notwithstanding, it would be unreasonable to advocate 'equal rights' in this regard, simply because the present availability of left-handed blades is severely limited.
The Schroeckenfux company of Austria makes one standard (#201 pattern) model - but in 70cm/28" only. They also still, from time to time, make a wider model (#108 pattern) for an old customer in Portugal, where apparently in a few select regions everybody mowed 'left-handed' once upon a time. That (Portuguese) model has been made in lengths from 18" to 28", but is not listed in the company's regular catalogue. Any wholesale customer could, I assume, ask for it although it may not be laying on the shelf in their warehouse in all the lengths at any one time. The Falci enterprise in Italy makes one of their standard models in a left hand version, but only in one (65cm/26") length. That may be the extent of the options today. In Bob Dylan's old words -- "The times they are a'changin'..."

To buck the trend would require a large scale revolution (akin to the feminist, gay or 'black power' movements). Even then, anywhere near matching the right-hand blades' models and lengths availability? Forget it. And this, from my perspective, is the only justifiable reason for advising a natural left-hander against getting stuck on their 'natural right' of bucking the present norm. In the meantime, Scythe Works still offers an inexpensive option to experiment with -- a blade model made in Austria, 20-30 years ago, made for Argentina. It is not extra light (but neither are most scythe blades today), has a relatively steep tang (making it easy to fit the simplest-to-make straight one-grip snath) and comes in 20, 22 and 26 inches, at least for now.

We have in our collection still other left-handed models, but it would take more digging than we can presently take time for to get them all out whatever boxes they are hiding in just to pose for a picture. Hope this suffices as a statement that, yes, left-handed scythe blades have long existed.

-- Peter Vido

Mirror images from Mowing with ease at
Photos from Vido family collection.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Scythe blade repair

Alexander Vido sent these photos of his repairs to a blade that someone had damaged.

Ouch, a major tear. It was fixed by first cutting the metal with aviation snips, removing a tapered strip from both sides of the tear. Then a file was used to even up the line of the edge, followed by a carborundum stone to smooth and re-bevel the edge.

 The result: a scythe blade that can be sharpened and put back to work.
After repairs. Click on photo for enlarged view.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

DIY Whetstone Holders

These whetstone holders were made by Alexander Vido using scrap materials. Shown first is a one-piece design cut from copper pipe. The bottom was bent and soldered to make it watertight.

This next design uses a section of bamboo, with an attached clip.

The bamboo was cut just below a joint (node), to result in a watertight container. A clip was made from a scrap of metal attached with a bolt, but a longer strip of metal or wire could be bent into a flat "S" and attached through a hole, or a belt loop could be made with a piece of cord (or wire) looped through a small hole.

Bamboo would be an obvious local material for whetstone holders in many areas of Asia.

[Link to earlier post showing an improvised whetstone holder.]

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Scythe Project in Bhutan?

Looks like these Bhutanese farmers would benefit from some scythe training, 
and some better-fitting snaths they could make from local tree branches.
(Photo linked from HelvetasBhutan)

In the Kingdom of Bhutan, yak herders have problems with fodder shortages during the winter:
The long, dry winter period affects the productivity of livestock. Fodder scarcity is severe from January through April. Production is at its lowest during these months and in the case of yak, milk production is low to nil. Yak herders have also reported high mortality due to fodder scarcity. It is therefore very important that we look into solving fodder shortages... 
-- Tshering Gyaltsen, Experiences with Oats at Temperate and High Elevations of Bhutan, 2002

 The following photographs are linked from the document titled Country Pasture/Forage Resource Profiles, Bhutan, by Kinzang Wangdi, 2012 update (photo source: Tsering Gyeltshen):
Harvesting oat fodder in Bhutan for making hay for yaks

Oat fodder at high elevation (4,000 m)

Traditional method of drying oat hay at high elevations in Bhutan

Used efficiently, scythes have a much higher productivity than sickles, and can help amass sufficient hay to last the winter (as currently done in the mountains of modern-day Switzerland, for example, and in snowy Canada).  

A team of Canadian volunteers from the Scythe Project in Nepal could swing over into Bhutan to give training, if desired. (Interested organizations can contact Alexander Vido for details.)


Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation | Bhutan,

Experiences with Oats (Avena sativa) at Temperate and High Elevations of Bhutan, by Tshering Gyaltsen (Programme Officer, Livestock Sector, RNRRC, Yusipang, Bhutan), 2002

Country Pasture/Forage Resource Profiles, Bhutan, by Kinzang Wangdi, FAO, 2012 update (Photo source: Tsering Gyeltshen)

Saturday, July 12, 2014

133 Haymakers

Diagonal line of 23 mowers
Detail of painting "Country around Dixton Manor", 1715

The incomparable Hay in Art website by Alan Ritch has a detailed description of the early eighteenth century painting titled "Country around Dixton Manor". Some quotes:
Careful examination revealed a peaceful army of at least 133 people (71 male, 62 female) waging a cheerful collective campaign to bring in the hay...
Meticulous attention to detail... a visual encyclopedia of haymaking...
Wagon teams of four horses and two drivers...
Work groups of five women rakers with one male forker... no fewer than 46 women with rakes, some resting, most working...
John Harris, in the Observer Magazine (4 November, 1979, p.60) called this painting "one of the most evocative pictures in the whole of English art. There is nothing like it either in its day or at any other time.."

Alan Ritch closely studied the original painting at Cheltenham and his descriptions can be found here, along with details reproduced from the painting.

The following images are linked directly from The Wilson Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum:

An article titled "The Dixton Paintings" was written by Jane Sale and published in Gloucestershire History (1992). A copy of the 8-page article can be downloaded here.

In an essay titled "Art and agrarian change", Hugh Prince writes that Dixton Manor Haymaking is
...a highly unusual estate painting... The artist does not depict the country house as the center of its world... The haymaking scene is unique in the genre of prospect painting in focusing on a working field... If the artist has accurately enumerated the scene, more than half the able-bodied people of the village are out in the field [based on a historical reference to the village population in 1712]... Operational efficiency is achieved through the division of labour and the whole effort is co-ordinated under the eye of the squire... 
Quoted from The Iconography of Landscape, edited by Cosgroves and Daniels, 1988, preview available here.

More recently, an episode of the BBC television series Talking Landscapes used this painting to "help uncover an Ango-Saxon agricultural revolution." The landscape should look familiar:

Photo from BBC Four series Talking Landscapes, Episode 6 of 6, " which Aubrey Manning sets out to discover the history of Britain's ever-changing landscape. Clues from the local art gallery, a spot of ploughing and a flight with a local pilot help uncover an Anglo-Saxon agricultural revolution." [Broadcast in 2012]

This episode seems to be currently unavailable for viewing, but the transcript can be read here in the format of the subtitles for the programme. Some excerpts from the first 10 minutes of the 30-minute episode:
For 250 years, agricultural revolutions have cut through these fields. What could possibly remain of their history? On my first morning, I called on archaeologist Julian Parsons. He told me to meet him at the Cheltenham Art Gallery, where there is a landscape painting completed just before the great agricultural revolution. It's known as the Dixton Harvesters. It's a remarkable picture....

So the landscape, like the communities, was transformed by the agricultural revolution? You would think so, but if you see this view today, it has many similarities with this painting. That afternoon, I persuaded Julian to take me there... Julian insisted we find the exact spot where the painter stood nearly 300 years before...

That's the old hedge. So just where those sheep are, they cut the hay. The grain of the land, the line of the hedges, is exactly the same. Even the new hedges fit into the older pattern. That's quite extraordinary.

All that revolution, the depopulation, but the land has held its pattern. New hedges had appeared in between, but the outlines of this landscape, its fields and tracks, had hardly changed since the painter stood here in 1715.

But if this landscape wasn't created around modern agricultural machinery, what was it created for? Down in the fields themselves was a clue - a pattern of long, curving humps and hollows. Julian said it was ridge and furrow. Before recent powerful ploughs, there had been much more. This, he said, is the secret of this landscape.

That evening, we went to Gloucester to see a collection of aerial photos taken 50 years ago, before the heavy modern ploughing had begun... If you look behind the boundaries, you'll see these very faint lines, which is the ridge and furrow of the medieval field system... In this area, this was the way the land was farmed from the early medieval period... The amazing thing is how extensive this is. It's everywhere. Everywhere is ridge and furrow... a medieval farming system dating back long before the agricultural revolution.

What is this ridge and furrow and how was it made? ...The aim was to bunch up the soil in the middle and have drainage down the side... Rather different from the modern concept, which is a big flat field... You get the advantage of the drainage as well. That's how you get the waves in the landscape. Each wave is someone's piece of ground... It looks as though the ridge and furrow began because medieval fields were divided into strips, each farmed by an individual farmer. And as each one worked with his medieval plough, it piled the soil up into a ridge...


Oil painting on canvas, entitled 'Country around Dixton Manor', by an unknown artist of the British (English) School, 1715, The Wilson Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum, Cheltenham, UK

Dixton Manor haymaking: a visual encyclopedia, Hay In Art: A collection of great works of hay. Alan Ritch, July 24, 2004 

"The Dixton Paintings" article by Jane Sale, Gloucestershire History #6 (1992)

Essay titled "Art and agrarian change" by Hugh Prince, appearing in The Iconography of Landscape: Essays on the Symbolic Representation, Design and Use of Past Environments, edited by Denis Cosgrove and Stephen Daniels, Cambridge University Press, 1988

BBC Four television series Talking Landscapes, Episode 6 of 6, The Vale of Evesham, with Aubrey Manning, Julian Parsons, John Hoyell, Charles Martell... broadcast 14 Aug 2012. Subtitles appear at