HARVESTING TIDAL MARSH “SALT HAY” (November 7/03)

According to Eaton’s Kings County history, in the year 1900 Kings County farmers harvested 57,658 tons of hay. Eaton doesn’t say how much of this was tidal marsh grasses or salt hay, but much of it must have been. Lewis Downey, who was born in 1908, recalls that when he was in his teens on his father’s Highbury farm they were still harvesting great quantities of salt hay.

The annual harvesting of tidal marsh grasses saw its last days about two generation ago. However, Lewis Downey, who is 95, remembers it well. When I talked with him recently at his nephew Wayne’s residence on Belcher Street he clearly recalled the harvesting, remembering that it was a lot of hard work for something that really wasn’t all that good nutritionally as cattle fodder. “It would physic the devil out of them, run right through them,” Downey said.

Farmers owning marshland would harvest salt hay every autumn during periods of low running tides. Lewis’ father, Frank, owned nearly three acres of marshland north of Wolfville and Lewis says it took at least a week to harvest the hay on it and haul it back to the farm. The hay was mowed by hand using scythes, then piled on poles and carried to ground above the high tide mark where it was allowed to dry. “We went out at low tide and had to cut the hay and get it off the marsh before the tide came in again,” Lewis said. “Everything had to be done in a hurry or we’d lose what we cut.”

Some farmers harvesting the hay took their wagons out on the marsh to collect the hay, Lewis recalls, using “mud shoes” on the horses to keep them from getting stuck on the marsh. “Only the quieter, older horses were fitted with shoes and taken on the marsh,” Lewis said. “The older horses were easier to handle.”

Once the strenuous task of mowing the hay and moving it to high ground was completed, the hay was carried by wagon to the Downey farm. “We used a team of two horses, making up a load of about a ton and a half of hay each time,” Lewis said. “Then we had a seven mile haul back to the farm.”

Back at the farm, Lewis said, the salt hay would be stacked in huge mounds by the outbuildings and was never mixed with upland hay. The salt hay was used as cattle fodder through winter. Lewis said that the general practice at the time was to feed the cattle two or three times a day, once or twice with upland hay and once with salt hay.

Not all the salt hay was immediately hauled off the marsh after it was cut. Lewis said that some farmers stored hay on upright poles called staddles which were driven into the mud. The poles were placed about a foot apart in a circle. Hay was placed on the poles in a rounded stack and secured with wire. Once the marsh froze, the hay was taken off the staddles and hauled to the farm by sled.

The custom of harvesting marsh grasses on the Minas Basin was begun by the Acadians who used salt hay as fodder for livestock. The Acadians harvested the hay with large flat-bottomed boats or by tying the grass into bundles and letting it float ashore. The Acadians passed on the art of dykeing to the Planters, and we can surmise that the Acadians also told the Planters about the great crops of marsh grass that were there for the taking.

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