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They made hay in Ghent

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Looking south from the Bartlett House c.1900 where Ghent’s hay press complex once stood; current home of The Columbia Paper and a store on the left that burned in Ghent’s other great fire in 1923. postcard” Photo courtesy of April and Jon Meredith

IN THE LATTER HALF of the 19th century, trains carried hay from Ghent’s farms to the tens of thousands of horses in New York City. Ghent’s hay export business centered on the area in front of the Ghent VFW and across State Route 66 from the current Ghent Firehouse.

In 1892 five hay barns and a hay shed totaling 15,000 square feet stood between the two rail lines that converged in Ghent. Three of those barns had a horse driven hay press, the nexus of the farmer and railroad, Ghent and New York City.

Boys often had the pedestrian job of operating the hay press’s power source. Late in his life, Thomas Buckley, born 1878, recalled, “For many years there was a string of buildings right in the heart of Ghent. These were known as the hay sheds, where the farmers would sell their hay and it would be pressed into bales for shipment to New York. Vacations, I drove the horse round and round to press up the bales. My compensation was 25 cents per day.”

The horse was attached to a capstan, or wheel, that wound a chain, rope or cable raising the floor of a tall rectangular compartment, maybe 20 feet high, pressing loose hay into a shippable bale.

On Saturday, May 6, 1871, James Drum put Mr. A.M. Tracy’s Ghent hay press to the test. Drum, three other men, and at least one horse, produced 64 bales totaling 24,803 pounds. Mr. Drum, the self-declared champion hay presser of Columbia County, called for word of anyone who pressed more. Mr. Drum’s declaration tells us that the average bale weight from Tracy’s press was 387.5 pounds, or roughly half that of a modern day round bale, or six times that of a small square bale. Considering the date of his achievement, we assume it was 1870s hay he was selling in order to make room for 1871’s first cut.

Sadly, on the morning of Wednesday, June 20, 1894, the entire facility burned in a fire so hot the nearby train tracks warped. Town Supervisor George Tremain, owner of three of the barns, suffered severe burns trying to save his horses and was housebound for weeks thereafter. The estimated loss to Tracy and Tremain was $6,000, or $176,000 in today’s money. Along with the hay barns and a coal shed, the post office also burned. The mail was saved.

As far as the historical record shows, Tracy’s and Tremain’s hay export empire was never rebuilt, and though a new hay press had been installed four years earlier a few miles south at Pulver’s Station, the future of hay pressing in Ghent was with portable, horse drawn, horse powered presses.

New York City’s developing public transportation and the coming of the automobile significantly reduced the need for hay export. By shifting to milk production for the Borden’s plant in Buckleyville, Ghent’s farms continued to feed the rest of the Hudson Valley.

Gregg Berninger is Ghent town historian

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