The Larson Hayrack/Bundle Wagon
Brian Wayne Wells
(As published in the March-April 1996 issue of Belt Pulley magazine.)
Threshing shows are appealing because of the opportunity they offer to step back into the past. At these shows, most public attention is usually given to the threshing machines being powered by an un-styled tractor of the pre-World War II era as opposed to a styled tractor from the post-war era. When un-styled tractors are used, amateur photographers can often position themselves away from the crowd and take pictures that look like they could have been taken in the 1930s. Anything that adds a 1930s touch to a threshing scene will appeal to the public.
Generally, at the LeSueur County Pioneer Power Show in LeSueur, Minnesota only modern hayracks built for hauling bales have been employed for hauling bundles of grain to the threshers. These hayracks, with their rubber tires and lack of side supports and front standards, are of a design that definitely date from the post-World War II baled-hay era. In recent years, one touch that added authenticity to the threshing scene at the LeSueur Show, was the bundle wagon built by Dennis Waskovsky of Faribualt, Minnesota. The Waskovsky bundle wagon, with its steel wheels, side supports, and front and rear standards, was a definite addition to the show. Because it was the only authentic bundle wagon at the LeSueur Show, the Waskovsky wagon was moved from thresher to thresher to allow authentic photos to be taken.
Currently, there is a definite need for more “pre-war” style bundle wagons. To make the matter even more urgent, the Waskovsky wagon was heavily damaged at the 1995 Show when a strong gust of wind picked it up and flipped it over on its top. Although Dennis Waskovsky is rebuilding the bundle wagon, interest was kindled for the addition of other genuine bundle wagons. One such bundle wagon which could be built is the “Larson wagon.”
Not much is known about Mr. Larson, the man who designed the wagon. Indeed, even Mr. Larson’s first name has been lost over the period of time since he was last contacted by members of the Hanks family in 1935.
The Larson wagon had a good reputation in Faribault county and southern Blue Earth County, Minnesota, as being a very strong and dependable hayrack/bundle wagon. Building a Larson wagon would not only serve to add authenticity to the LeSueur County Pioneer Power Show, but would preserve another small part of the history of rural Faribault and Blue Earth Counties.
The story of the Larson wagon first intersects with the family of Fred Marshall Hanks starting in 1919. Fred Marshall Hanks had farmed his parents’ farm in Verona Township, Faribault County, near Winnebago, Minnesota, since the untimely death of his father on January 11, 1916. Indeed, he had gradually taken over more and more of the operation of the farm long before that time. He had married Jeanette More Ogilvie from Pilot Grove Township in Faribault County on October 13, 1889, and together they moved into the Hanks farm house with his parents. They had a son, Howard Bruce Hanks, on October 7, 1895. Three other sons would follow: John Stanley, on July 27, 1902; Harlan David, on February 21, 1905; and Kenneth Warner, on December 16, 1908. The Hanks family operated a diversified farm, like most others in Verona Township, raising oats, wheat, corn, and hay. The livestock consisted of a milking herd, sheep, hogs, and chickens. Fred Marshall’s father was a master at woodworking, and put this skill to work in a profitable way, building many of the barns in Verona Township and the surrounding area. In 1900, the Hanks family purchased the 40-acre Baldwin farm which bordered the Hanks farm to the east and moved the Baldwin barn to the Hanks farm building site where it became the “bull barn.” The Baldwin house was also moved to the Hanks farm where it became a woodworking shop.
Fred Marshall was not interested in woodworking, as was his father. His interest was consumed in farming. He loved farming and was constantly looking for ways to improve his methods of farming. In 1900, as he began to assume more responsibilities of the farm, Fred Marshall gradually began changing the dairy from a cross-bred herd to a purebred Polled Shorthorn herd, schooling himself on the proper traits to develop in an animal for purebred livestock. A 1904 advertising card (which still exists in the possession of Fred’s son Harlan Hanks) shows that by 1904 Fred Marshall was not only raising his own stock, but was selling purebred Polled Shorthorn cattle and purebred Duroc hogs to other farmers in the area. By 1910, his reputation had grown to the point that buyers of purebred cattle and/or purebred hogs showed up on the Hanks farm on a regular basis from across the nation to buy breeding stock.
One day in 1919, a farmer by the name of Larson, from Frost, Minnesota, arrived on the Hanks farm to buy one of the purebred Polled Shorthorn bulls. During the conversation, Mr. Larson divulged that he had devised a new design for a horse-drawn hayrack/bundle wagon. His “Larson” hayracks were made with curved pieces of metal which served as supports for the sides of the hayrack. These metal supports connected the sides of the hayrack with the floor.
The sides of earlier hayrack/bundle wagon had been supported by 2 x 4 vertical pieces of wood which were attached to the floor of the wagon. When this design was found to be too flimsy, diagonal pieces of wood were added to the vertical sides, connecting the sides to the floor at two separate locations about a foot from the outside edge, thus making the wagon stronger because of the triangle that was formed by the support with the floor of the wagon. However, these diagonals interfered with the men working inside the hayrack unloading loose hay or bundles of wheat or oats with a pitchfork. The solution to this problem, followed by some hayrack designs, was to have the vertical side supports protrude beneath the level of the floor of the hayrack and to connect the triangulation diagonals from the bottoms of the vertical side supports to the underside of the floor of the hayrack. The bothersome diagonals were then under the floor of the rack. This was a better design, but still farmers found that the side supports interfered with any work that had to be done under the wagon, such as removing a wheel on the wagon gear to grease the axle. The metal supports in the Larson-designed hayrack were the key to the design that made the Larson hayrack/bundle wagon unique. They eliminated the need for any triangulation support either above or beneath the floor of the hayrack. This made for a much lighter and cleaner designed hayrack.
Based on this design with the metal supports, Mr. Larson made hayracks for use on his own farm. His neighbors, having seen the benefits of his design, had requested that he build hayracks of the same style for them or that he provide them with the metal supports so that they could build the hayracks themselves. As a consequence, the Larson design became quite popular around the Frost area of Faribault County.
Fred Marshall Hanks saw immediately the benefits of the Larson designed hayrack/bundle wagon. The hayrack, with its gently curved floor, was much lighter than the bulky hayracks that the Hanks family were currently using.
After Mr. Larson and Fred Marshall concluded their conversation, Mr. Larson purchased the bull and agreed to supply Fred Marshall with eight metal supports for a Larson wagon. Listening to the discussion between his father and Mr. Larson was 23-year-old Howard Hanks, Fred Marshall’s oldest son. Howard had inherited the outgoing nature of his father, but had inherited his interest in woodworking from his grandfather. Following the death of his grandfather, Howard had taken over the woodworking responsibilities on the farm, already making a number of objects which had aided the farming operation. For example, he had built an ingenious “removable silo room” which connected the barn with the silo. The silo room could not be permanent, because on the Hanks farm the silo was positioned directly in front of the barn and the haymow door. There was just enough room for a hayrack to pass between the silo and the barn. The removable silo room allowed silage to be moved from the silo to the barn in relative comfort in the winter; in the summer, during hay season, the entire silo room could be removed temporarily to allow the hayracks to be unloaded without difficulty. By 1919, it was taken for granted that any woodworking on the Hanks farm would be handled by Howard. Indeed, it was understood that the task of building the Larson hayrack would fall to Howard.
Part of the beauty of the Larson hayrack was the simplicity of the design. Building of the hayrack took only one day to complete. Although native lumber was the usual medium for most woodworking and construction performed around the farm, Fred Marshall decided to use store-bought lumber for this project. Using store-bought lumber rather than native lumber added to the pleasure and ease of constructing the Larson hayrack.
When the hayrack was completed, it was painted green and mounted on steel-wheeled wagon gear. The curved floor design, which flowed gently into the sides of the Larson hayrack, gave it a unique basket-like appearance. The sturdy standard in the front made of 2 x 4s, with cross members made of 1 x 6s or 2 x 4s, looked like the handle for the giant basket. The light appearance of the Larson hayrack belied its sturdy nature. The construction of these wagons would gain the Hanks brothers a reputation in the neighborhood of building and working only with safe heavy-duty standards and hayracks.
The standard was actually a large heavy-duty ladder permanently attached to the front of the wagon. One of the main purposes of the standard was to provide a safe means by which the workers could get to the top of a full load of hay or oat bundles and also served as a seat for the driver while the hay or bundles were being loaded onto the wagon. The driver would put his legs between the top two rungs of this huge ladder and sit on the second rung while putting his arms over the top rung to hold onto the reins. In this way, the top rung would pass across the chest of the driver and he could not be pulled forward off the load while operating the reins. However, sitting all day on the narrow edge of a 2 x 4 could be uncomfortable. Therefore, Howard later modified the standard to include a short 1 x 8 or 1 x 10 securely attached to the second “rung” of the standard. This provided a wider and more comfortable seat on which the driver could sit. The standard for the Larson hayrack was held together by bolts, rather than mere nails.
Howard easily accomplished the construction of the hayrack, and by the time hay season rolled around in the summer of 1919, the Larson hayrack was ready for the field. One summer day in 1919, after milking and chores around the barn were done, one of the Hanks brothers headed to the hayfield with a team of horses and the Keystone side rake. The day before, a team of horses and the 1916 Minnesota mower had laid down most of the hay in the field. After a day of drying in the hot sun, the sweet smelling hay would be rolled up into windrows by the side rake.
Behind the rake came a team of three horses pulling the new Larson wagon and the 1912 Sandwich Company hay loader. Thirteen-year-old Kenneth Hanks, the youngest son, sitting on the specially-made seat at the top of the standard of the wagon, was driving the team. Stanley (nicknamed “Speck”) stood on the floor of the wagon with a pitchfork. When Kenneth pulled up the team at the first windrow, Stanley took a pair of hay rope slings down from the standard and laid it out on the floor of the hayrack. Then he engaged the ground drive of the Sandwich hay loader and signalled Kenneth to start the team. As the horses walked along, the windrow passed underneath the Larson wagon and between the four steel wheels to be picked up by the steel teeth of the wooden cylinder of the hay loader at the rear of the wagon. The pickup cylinder of the hay loader picked up the windrow of hay and started it up the steep incline of the hay loader where the alternating rake bars carried the hay to the top of the loader and onto the wagon. At the first corner of the hayfield, Kenneth had to steer the horses as wide as he could around the corner without hitting the fence so that the Sandwich hay loader, trailing along at the end of the procession, would not cut the corner and leave some of the hay on the ground.
While Kenneth steered the horses along the first windrow of the hay field, his older brother Stanley stood on top of the growing load of hay with a pitchfork and spread the hay into even layers on the new hayrack. When each layer contained sufficient hay, Stanley took another pair of hay slings down from the standard and laid it on top of the previous layer of hay and continued to spread the oncoming hay into a new layer until the load was then about as full as Stanley dared make it. Kenneth then reined the horses to a stop and both he and Stanley crawled down the standard to unhook the hay loader from the wagon. Meanwhile, another brother, Harlan (nicknamed Butch), was driving up to the hay loader with another team and an empty hayrack and the loading process would continue as before.
Meanwhile, Stanley would be making his way to the barn with the Larson hayrack and the full load of hay. Pulling up into the yard, he would direct the team to the space between the silo and the barn just beneath the door to the hayloft. Howard and his father would already have the “removable silo room” between the barn and the silo removed and would have the hay door open and the hay rope laid out. At the other end of the rope would be another team of horses ready to hoist the first load of hay into the hayloft. The carriage would be pulled out of the hayloft to the end of the rail, and then the coupler on the carriage would be pulled down to the top of the load of hay on the wagon. The ends of the slings for the top layer of hay would be drawn together from the front and the rear of the wagon and attached to the coupler suspended from the carriage which was temporarily locked in place at the end of the track high above the wagon load of hay. The team hitched to the other end of the rope was then led away from the barn, and as they pulled the hay rope, the first sling full of hay from the new Larson wagon began its ascent. When the coupler holding the ends of the sling reached the carriage, it triggered the release on the carriage and caused the carriage with the sling full of hay to be pulled into the barn. Once the sling full of hay was inside the barn loft door, Fred Marshall gave a strong tug on the trip rope which opened the sling and released the hay onto the floor of the hayloft. The process was then repeated until the hayrack was empty. (This process of unloading hay from hayracks with rope slings is not commonly known these days. However, the process can be seen in the John Deere promotional movie, Shortcuts in Forage Harvest, located on Tape 91-2 available from Two-Cylinder Center, P.O. Box 10, Grundy Center, Iowa 50638-0010, Telephone: 1-800-831-5176.)
In this manner, the hay crop of 1919 was harvested and stored on the Hanks farm. In June of 1920, Howard married Ethel Buck, a local school teacher. They lived with Howard’s family until March of 1923 when they moved onto the Foss farm, about 1½ miles northeast of the Hanks home farm. (There on the Foss farm on May 15, 1923, Howard and Ethel’s first son was born. He was named Fred, after Howard’s father who had past away quite suddenly in March of 1922.)
The Larson hayrack remained on the Hanks home farm when Howard and Ethel moved to the Foss farm. Although Howard would continue to work together with his brothers who were operating the Hanks home farm, it was clear that he needed a lot of his own machinery to effectively operate the Foss farm. At this point, he contacted Mr. Larson to obtain some more metal side supports and built another Larson wagon for use on the Foss farm. He took the second Larson wagon with him when he and his family moved to the Slater farm near Huntley, Minnesota, on March 1, 1933.
In 1933, the great depression was bearing down hard on most farm families. At this time, the Slater farm was being rented to the Howard Hanks family by the First National Bank of Winnebago, Minnesota, following a repossession from the former owner. However, the bank sold the farm to another owner who intended to operate the farm himself. This meant that the Hanks would have to move again, on March 1, 1934. Thus, they signed a contract to rent the John T. Goff farm near Mapleton, Minnesota. However, because John T. Goff was not planning to move off his farm until March 1, 1935, the Hanks family had to “just exist,” or “tread water” for an entire year. Accordingly, Howard sold the second Larson wagon, most of his other machinery, and two of his work horses at an auction in the Spring of 1934 to raise money for necessities. (Howard later joked that following the auction was the only time in his entire life that he was “entirely debt free.”)
When the family finally moved onto the Goff farm on March 1, 1935, Howard decided to build another Larson hayrack/bundle wagon to use there. (The John T. Goff farm is described in an article on the Model 127 Papec silo filler carried in the January/February 1996 Belt Pulley magazine.) Howard once again contacted Mr. Larson to get eight more metal side supports. This time, however, the new side supports were different than the ones his father had purchased in 1919 or that he had purchased in 1923. Over the years, Mr. Larson had changed the design of the side supports from the concentric arc shape of the earlier wagons to more of a “J” shape. This meant that the floor of the new (1935-style) Larson wagon was flatter and the wagon lost some of its “basket-like” appearance. Still, the new Larson design retained all the strength and simplicity of the older (1919) Larson design.
The Howard Hanks family used this 1935 Larson wagon throughout the time that they rented the Goff farm–from 1935 until 1945. During hay season, Howard’s sons Fred and Bruce would drive the team pulling the wagons while Howard or the hired-hand, Carl Nelson, would load the hay onto the wagon from John T. Goff’s McCormick-Deering. Later, when the boys were older, they would help with the loading of the hay themselves. As noted in the article on the Papec silo filler, the Goff farm featured a round barn. In the round barn, the hay was unloaded from the hayracks into the hayloft by means of a hay rope and slings, just as it had been done on the Hanks home farm in Verona township; however, on the Goff farm, the entire process took place inside the barn. The Larson wagon loaded with hay would be pulled inside the barn where each sling would be lifted from the hayrack, pulled up into the hayloft, and released into a pile on the floor of the loft when the trip rope was pulled.
During the small grain harvest, the Larson wagon would once again be employed hauling bundles of oats or wheat from the fields. Both Fred and Bruce would once again find themselves driving the hayrack/bundle wagons to the fields, loading the bundles from the shocks onto the wagon, and then driving the team and the loaded Larson wagon to Ira Whitney’s 28″ Case thresher which would be belted up to a Minneapolis-Moline MTA row-crop tractor. The Larson wagon had gained a reputation in the Mapleton neighborhood, just as it had in Verona Township, as a sturdy, dependable wagon.
The Howard Hanks family purchased the Bagan farm near LeRoy, Minnesota, in 1944, where they continued to use the 1935 Larson wagon until they converted to baling hay and straw in 1947. (The story of 1947 baling season is related in the article “The Case NCM” in the January/February 1995 issue of Belt Pulley magazine.) With the advent of baled hay and of combining small grains, all hayrack/bundle style wagons were rendered obsolete. The front standard and sides of the hayrack/bundle wagon were now regarded as obstacles in the loading of hay bales. Consequently, the 1935 Larson hayrack fell into disrepair on the Bagan farm–the current Fred Hanks farm.
Recently, five of the eight remaining metal side supports have been located and have become the object of discussion regarding possible restoration of the 1935 Larson wagon. If successful, the Larson wagon could become part of the exhibits at the LeSueur County Pioneer Power Show in LeSueur, Minnesota. The Larson wagon would be more than a stationary exhibit at the Show; it would be a functional part of the operations and field demonstrations at the Show grounds. Mounted on a set of steel wheels, the restored 1935 Larson wagon would add much pre-war authenticity to the Show each year.