Salt marsh hay is still gathered on the North Shore today. Eva Jackman writes, “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.”
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 black 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.
Illustration by Ipswich artist Arthur Wesley Dow in By Salt Marshes written by Everett Stanley Hubbard, 1908
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.”
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.