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twisting hay

Pioneer method by which dried grass is formed into compact sticks to be burned as fuel.

It really should not be given further publicity, and Mr. Warner has tried to sweeten the editor’s desk with a nice, perfumed twist of hay in the hopes it would not be reported— But it was almost life’s most embarrassing moment for W.E. Warner last week when after talking about pioneer days before the sixth grade at the local school he took a handful of hay to make one of those famed “twists” of the years when hay was fuel. With the manner of an expert in such things he made his twist, only to have Mrs. W.H. Wheat, another pioneer, get up from her chair and push him aside as she showed the pupils, and Mr. Warner, how it was done. Of course it was amusing to the pupils, and they found Mrs. Wheat, as well as Mr. Warner, could twist hay. – The De Smet News. April 1, 1938.

Instructions for twisting hay are found in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter, Chapter 19, “Where There’s a Will.” The image shows Allie Green (he was six years younger than Laura Ingalls Wilder) in 1968, demonstrating how to twist hay. Ninety-five years old that year, he was the oldest living Kingsbury County resident who remembered using sticks of hay for fuel! He died in 1972.

Ada Lorena (Dwight) Keating (1872-1964) was a daughter of Daniel Dwight, homesteader near De Smet. One of Ada’s brothers was taught by Laura Ingalls in the Wilkin School; Ada’s uncle was V.S.L. Owen, early De Smet teacher. Her grandfather was Sam Owen, De Smet blacksmith. Ada Keating wrote the following directions for twisting hay into sticks for burning.

“First you get some long stemmed medium dry hay. If the hay is too dry, you’ll likely get cuts and scratches on your hands and wrists. Hay stems up to 30 inches long is all right or you can use shorter stems by splicing them. Grasp one end of a hand full of hay and if you are right handed, place the other end of the hay under your left arm and proceed to twist the hay over and over. When it is about as tight as you can get it, let the loose end double back so it will twist itself together with the main part of the rope-like product. Do the same with the other end. When tight, tuck it under something to hold it. One who is used to it can make the twisted hay nearly as hard as wood. This takes experience. If you had a coal bin building with door, window and roof, it was often filled with twisted hay. This work would often be done during so called ‘leisure time.’ It was a job for ‘kids’ to do who were five or more years old. The loose hay was usually stored in a stall in the barn to keep it away from the rain, snow and the wind. I think you could demonstrate this twisting with a thin bath towel of the right length if you do not have the hay.”

As I was twisting reclaimed yarn (from an old wool sweater I unraveled) into a skein today, I was reminded again of how twisting hay is done in exactly the same way as twisting a skein of yarn. Yarn is wrapped either on a warping board, skein winder, or between two stationery pegs or nails, usually about three feet apart. Once all the yarn is wrapped, grab each end and twist in opposite directions. The yarn will kink in the middle and twist around itself. When it is completely twisted, you pull apart one of the sections and push the other end through it.

Of course Laura Ingalls must have seen or formed skeins of yarn and had noticed the similarities in hay and yarn twists. And no matter what the published The Long Winter says, everybody knows that Charles Ingalls didn’t invent the hay twist. Here is a bit from an article in a December 1880, Omaha Daily Herald, one of the many Hard Winter stories (it was also in the Pioneer Press, a newspaper known to have been read by Charles Ingalls) about twisting hay for use as fuel:

SOLUTIONS OF THE FUEL QUESTION. …It is essential to the settlement and development of those [western homesteading] regions that some cheaper substitute for coal and wood be found during the years that must elapse before the settlers can, or at least will, raise their own timber, and the Pioneer Press has recently been favored with a number of ingenious suggestions upon the subject by correspondents who have been impressed with the importance of the subject. It is well known that one substitute – a very cheap and useful one – has been in use for some years throughout western Minnesota. This is hay, the use of which was first introduced by the Russian Mennonites, and has now spread widely among the settlers of the prairie regions. The coarse sledge or slough grass is preferred, and when tightly twisted makes an excellent fuel, especially for cooking purposes, and is even successfully used for running engines.


twisting hay (TLW 18-19, 22, 24, 26, 28, 30, 32; LTP 2; THGY 14; PG), see also hay