July and August are arguably the two busiest months here on our farm. We generally work seven days a week, 10 or 12 hours a day. We usually start the month of July by putting up our second cutting of alfalfa hay and finish out the month of August seeding our winter wheat crop for next year into our fallow lands.

In between, we harvest our wheat and/or barley crops and this year — as with many in the recent past — I was able to help a friend install a new roof on his house in the first few days of July. Although the house is modest in size, it still required, according to my informal and rudimentary calculations, driving approximately 13,000 nails to fasten the new sheathing and shingles.

My World Book encyclopedia informed me — don’t bother “Googling” nails, all I found was places to get a manicure or suggestions regarding colors of polish — that nails were developed more than 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia to aid in construction of artwork. Since then, most nails have evolved from being “cut” (out of sheets of iron or steel) and square in shape to being made from rolls of wire, which are round and manufactured in a far more efficient manner. I recall reading a book many years ago by Eric Sloane in which he discusses different types of nails used in barn construction in Colonial America. Making a hand-wrought-iron nail was a time-consuming task and produced a valuable product that was likely never simply tossed on the ground only to find new life as the mortal enemy of a pneumatic tire (yes, I realize there were no flat tires in Colonial America mainly due to the fact that there were no tires, period).

Several years ago, I was assisted in a building project by my esteemed cousin Jerry who observed, quite accurately, that “humankind has yet to improve upon the nail.”

I set upon pondering other things that have likely reached their zenith. At a recent farm event I attended in the Walla Walla Valley, host Robert McKinney, in his interesting and informative lecture on the evolution of farm equipment, stated that the sickle mower — invented by either Obed Hussey or Cyrus McCormick, depending upon what source is cited — has changed very little since it was invented in the first half of the 19th century. Either fellow would recognize his invention’s direct lineage still present on my combine header’s cutting apparatus. My machine qualifies as an antique, but my neighbor’s new machine is basically unchanged.

Another important agricultural device that remains essentially unchanged from its invention by John Francis Appleby in the 1870s is the twine knotter. An absolute stroke of genius, the knotter was first developed for grain binders and literally made possible the early fortunes of the McCormick Co., one of the five concerns that consolidated in 1902 to form International Harvester. It would require far more ink, space, and time than is available here to explain how needles, twine disks, tucker fingers, bill hooks, intermittent knotter gears, and knives operate in perfectly timed concert to mechanically tie and knot and make consistent hay bales.

In truth, I would need to enlist the expertise of son Willie to even attempt to explain the process. He is our farm’s baler mechanic — all I do is manually and slowly turn over the fly wheel so he can make all the necessary adjustments to keep everything in time.

Anyone who has even run a hay baler truly can appreciate the old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Here’s to the anonymous Mesopotamian artist Obed Hussey, Cyrus McCormick, John Appleby and everyone else who made our lives easier and our work more productive via their ingenuity. Now, if you’ll pardon me, I’ve got to get back to loading hay bales.


J.D. Smith is an accomplished writer and jack-of-all-trades. He lives in Athena.

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