Hay press: key part of county history, moves to museum

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There was a time when hay was King in Switzerland County; and a specialized piece of machinery that was patented here was a big part of that coronation.

Now, over 170 years later, one of the few remaining pieces has made its way to the Switzerland County Farmstead Museum – where it will tell the story of its history and importance for generations to come.

On Monday of this week a hay press was moved from the Tapps Ridge barn of Steve and Martha Bladen to the Switzerland County Farmstead Museum, where it will be the centerpiece of a barn that will be accessible to visitors. As the massive structure moved carefully along the River Road and through Vevay, escorted by the Switzerland County Sheriff’s Department, many residents seeing it probably had no idea what it was – let alone the importance that it played in Switzerland County history.

A hay press, which was invented and patented here in Allensville by Samuel Hewitt in 1843, was a revolutionary way to prepare hay for shipping back then. Before the hay press was invented, hay was shipped loose; but by putting the hay – Switzerland County had Timothy hay that was desired all around the country – into the press, it could be compacted into bales weighing as much as 300-400 pounds each. Those bales made it possible for even more hay to be loaded and taken down river to cities like New Orleans and others – and made people like U.P. Schenck very rich men.

“Before the invention of the hay press, hay was primarily shipped regionally,” Martha Bladen of the Historical Society said. “But the hay press changed all that. Not only did it create a market for the hay, but it also made other industries pop up, like builders of hay press barns and the manufacture of the iron hoops and the manufacture of the jack screw. It wasn’t just in Switzerland County, Ohio County was also strong in it. So it made all of these things build up around it.”

At its hay day (turn of phrase intended), there were more than 200 operating hay presses here in the county, making the growth, production, and shipping of the hay more than farming, it was an industry.

Today, there are only three known hay press barns still in existence here in Switzerland County, and one of those hay presses was saved more than a decade ago by the Switzerland County Historical Society; which has kept its stored in a barn owned by Steve and Martha Bladen, waiting on the right situation to have it resurrected and once again telling the story of early hay production here.

A central element of the entire barn, a hay press stood about 2 1/2 stories tall, and was in the center of the barn. In the basement of the barn was a wheel that was turned by horses; and as the horses moved around, they turned a large jack screw that was in the bottom of the press. As the screw turned, it drew the upper and lower portions together, compacting whatever was in between them with great force.

“The fact that Switzerland County was located on the river, that made it the perfect opportunity to ship it to Southern markets,” Bladen said. “It opened up a broader market. Then – like we need gasoline today for our transportation – they needed hay for horses and draft animals and raising beef in Southern areas. That’s why it became a cash crop, because we could produce more than we needed and ship it to those areas that needed that product.”

Bladen said that other items were also shipped from Switzerland County along with the hay, including potatoes and apples and other things.

Bladen said that the historical society and other individuals are always on the lookout for hay press barns still in the county and the area, and work to keep the ones that are here as many times individuals will purchase and move the barns and the accompanying hay press to make it the central unique item in a home.

“One that is no longer in the county that was dismantled and sold out of the county this last summer was in Allensville,” Bladen said. “We don’t know for sure, but it could have been Hewitt’s barn. It went to Ohio County, so it’s not far away, but it’s gone.”

Bladen said that there are only three left, including the one that will be located at the Farmstead. One is on State Road 250 near Quercus Grove; and the other is on Markland-East Enterprise Pike.

The one that will be at the museum came from the Joe Black farm on McCreary’s Ridge.

“That was back when Denver Markland was still alive,” Bladen said. “The people who had purchased the farm wanted a new pole barn, they didn’t want this old, ratty barn with a big press in the middle of it because it wasn’t an economical, efficient use of the barn. Denver became aware of it, and pursued making sure it didn’t leave the county and preserve it.”

Prior to that, there was a hay press barn in the area where the Switzerland County YMCA currently stands, and it is now in a private home near Dry Ridge, Kentucky.

The Historical Society secured the purchase of the hay press in order to preserve it and keep it here in the county – but at the time of the purchase, the society had not yet secured the Bear Farm that is now the Farmstead Museum, so the press went into storage.

The society also had the need to raise the funds needed to restore the barn.

“When we first got the barn, we weren’t looking for a farmstead property,” Bladen said. “We were looking for a few acres from ground, not too far from town, on a main road, and if it had a meaningful historic context, that would be great. We weren’t having much luck. We had checked with property owners up towards Markland, and it just wasn’t happening.”

That’s when Steve ‘Bear’ Bladen, Martha’s husband, stepped into the discussion, and told his wife that the society was going to try and save something, they might want to try and save the Bear Farm.

The farm sits on State Road 56 west of Vevay, and had sat empty for almost 20 years after it had been purchased by the Dow Corning Corporation. The company bought the farm because it is located directly across the river from the company’s Carrollton plant, and all of the lights associated with an operating industry made it difficult for a family to live on the land. In purchasing it and leaving it empty, the company didn’t have to worry about that; and when Dow Corning agreed to donate the property to the Switzerland County Historical Society for the development of a Farmstead Museum, one of the covenants in the agreement is that no one would live in the home.

Bladen said that the Bear Farm fits perfectly into the society’s mission because it was originally the Thiebaud family farm, which came over from Switzerland with the Schencks; and Justine Thiebaud ended up marrying U.P. Schenck – the ‘Hay King’.

A perfect fit for a monument to a hay press and the era where the production and shipping of hay made Switzerland County grow and prosper.

“Justine’s brother was the second generation of the family to settle on the farm, and he built the hay press barn that had been there,” Bladen said. “It couldn’t have been a more perfect setting for us.”

After securing the property, the Historical Society began the process of restoring the house on the land, which came after securing a grant. Bladen said that several grants given to the society will now allow the barn to be rebuilt on the property with the hay press at its center, and soon all of this will become a reality.

“Now, we’re able to do the next step,” she said.