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Digital Antiques Journal - In My Opinion: Of Stacks and Staddles

We are delighted to announce that we have revived our rather historic relationship with the eminent US publication New England Antiques Journal, now Digital Antiques Journal.

Editor John Fiske is an expat Brit having lived in New England for many years but he is well known in the trade here as he continues to visit UK on his buying trips for his own antiques business Fiske & Freeman.

John writes a regular In my Opinion column for the paperand we will share some of his musings from time to time.  The first piece, Of Stacks and Staddles, leapt out to us given the the perennial interest in staddle stones in the trade here.


The team at DAJ say:

Digital Antiques Journal speaks to you, the average collector and lover of antiques. We know that you love antiques and their histories; we know that you are interested in how antiques circulate around shops and shows and auctions; and we know that you value our unique heritage and wish to preserve it. We know that you want information, ideas and knowledge, and you’ll find them in DAJ.

 

Digital Antiques Journal is free, it drops into your Inbox twice a month, and all you have to do to receive it is hit the Subscribe button and enter your email address.

 

We hope we’ll meet you twice a month as you open us in your Inbox.

John, Mary, Mark & Val


Of Stacks and Staddles: Making (Salt) Hay While the Sun Shines

All images courtesy Newburyport Press unless otherwise credited.

 Antiques News & Fairs - Digital Antiques Journal - In My Opinion: Of Stacks and Staddles
Remains of a staddle. Courtesy Manayunkia.wordpress.com

Lisa and I frequently spend a hot, long evening on Plum Island, our local barrier island that runs some 12 miles up the coast from Ipswich. The views are calming, and the sunsets can be special.

Antiques News & Fairs - Digital Antiques Journal - In My Opinion: Of Stacks and Staddles

The Plum Island sunset on the day I was writing this. Courtesy the author.


Whenever I’m in a place that I enjoy, I can’t help myself, I just have to dig out its history. History gives depth to a view. I was lucky, I came across a history of Plum Island that was ideally suited for a long, slow evening. The history was minimal, just a few local anecdotes and memories that were fleshed out with lots of old sepia photographs.

I don’t want to sound at all dismissive here. Of course, I love “official” history – thoroughly researched by professional historians where every detail is verifiable. But this sort of history is limited – it misses out on what a grey-haired woman’s mother told her about riding a pleasure steamer from Ipswich to Plum Island to spend a day on the beach there. It’s highly unlikely that a memory like that would be archived in a library: What those memories remember is not verifiable; and it’s unlikely they’ll be published by a university press. If they’re published at all, it’ll be by a small local publisher or historical society. But they put the flesh on official history, they bring it to life.

Antiques News & Fairs - Digital Antiques Journal - In My Opinion: Of Stacks and Staddles

Cover of Nancy Weare’s book showing stacks at high tide and a gundalow.

The book I had come across was Plum Island: The Way It Was by Nancy Weare, published locally in 1993 by the Newburyport Press. Nancy ends the Preface: “I hope that these explorations into Plum Island’s past will evoke warm and happy memories in older readers and that those who are new to the island will enjoy learning about ‘the way it was.’” Can you imagine an official, academic historian hoping that her work will “evoke warm and happy memories”? Good on you, Nancy.

Our view was over the salt marshes at the northern end of the island. So, of course, I flipped to the chapter titled “The Marshes.”

Antiques News & Fairs - Digital Antiques Journal - In My Opinion: Of Stacks and Staddles

The salt marsh. Courtesy the author.

Today, the marshes are notable for their beauty, their peace and all the birds and wildlife that live in them. But Nancy begins her chapter with the bold assertion that “The salt marshes of Plum Island were a tremendous asset to the colonists.” They provided grazing for cattle, sheep and horses; they grew building materials; and hay for winter fodder. The waters between them and the mainland “fed both shellfish and finfish, and they in turn nourished large numbers of waterfowl. The settlers were thereby insured [sic] an abundant supply of fish and fowl.”

Antiques News & Fairs - Digital Antiques Journal - In My Opinion: Of Stacks and Staddles

Informational sign in the Wildlife Reservation on Plum Island. Courtesy Parker River National Wildlife Refuge.

That is the context: But the chapter on the marshes is really about marsh grasses and the salt hay that was harvested from them.

One sort of grass that grew along the low water mark was known as “thatch” – I’ve not been able to find the name used anywhere else, perhaps it’s unique to Plum Island. Thatch, as its name implied, was used for thatching roofs: it was also stacked around the foundations of houses to insulate them during the harsh winters, and it provided good bedding for animals and gardens. Thatch was good stuff, but I can’t find it today.

Certainly, the marshes are covered in grass, and there are still a few farmers who harvest these grasses for salt hay. You can buy it by the bale, and it makes excellent mulch for a garden. Beside them, however, the harvesting of marsh grass for sustenance and profit has all but died out. But from the seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries, salt hay was the mainstay of the island. Harvesting it was a major operation that required the skill and strength that men and horses could only acquire by hard experience.

Antiques News & Fairs - Digital Antiques Journal - In My Opinion: Of Stacks and Staddles

Stacks on staddles.

The first skill was finding good bottoms for the horses. A good bottom, I must quickly add, was firm ground for the horses to work on. In the late 1800s, local ingenuity came to help: two farmers, Joseph Dodge of Rowley and George Randall of Newbury, independently devised dinner-plate sized oak clip-ons for horseshoes that enabled horses to keep going despite their watery bottoms.

Later, a network of ditches took much of the water out of the marshes, so men, tractors and horses in normal shoes were able to cross it regularly.

Horses helped, but basically the hay harvest was done by hand. Gangs of men with scythes would cut the grass, which was allowed to dry for a day or two before being raked up into small piles called “cocks.” A couple of cocks were pulled together, two poles were slid underneath them, then a man lifted each end and carried them to the staddle.

Ah yes, the staddle: The staddle was the key to the whole enterprise. A staddle was a circle of cedar piles driven into the marsh. The piles around the perimeter were thick and strong, and a few have survived today. The ones that filled the interior appear to have been lighter and have generally rotted away. The staddle was the foundation for the haystack: it kept the bottom of the stack off the wet marsh and above the flood tides that came with each full moon.

Antiques News & Fairs - Digital Antiques Journal - In My Opinion: Of Stacks and Staddles

Left: Building a staddle. Right: Even at flood tide the staddle (just) kept the hay above the water.

The first hay cocks to arrive at the staddle were laid tightly on the perimeter piles. Subsequent cocks were thrown into the center where the stack builder stood. He stacked them into a low dome shape, so the interior was higher than the perimeter.

The stacker continued this process, building layer by layer under his feet until he was some 18 feet up in the air. A lot of winter feed in a stack on a staddle.

Antiques News & Fairs - Digital Antiques Journal - In My Opinion: Of Stacks and Staddles

The stacker on top of a completed stack.

The stacks were left until winter when the marsh and the channel between the island and the mainland were both frozen over and horse-drawn sleds could transport the hay directly to the farms.

Antiques News & Fairs - Digital Antiques Journal - In My Opinion: Of Stacks and Staddles

A gundalow loaded with salt hay.

This was the common, but not the only, method of harvesting marsh hay. Where the hay was close to a channel the cocks would be loaded onto a flat-bottomed boat called a “gundalow” that sat on the marsh or creek bottom to be loaded and then rose with the tide. Gundalows were propelled by long oars called “sweeps” and some had a mast and sail for use when the wind blew in a helpful direction. Each of the towns had a landing where the gundalows could transfer the hay to wagons that took it straight to the farm: no need for stacks and staddles at all. The last gundalow known to have been used on Plum Island went to West Newbury, a distance of 15 miles.

Antiques News & Fairs - Digital Antiques Journal - In My Opinion: Of Stacks and Staddles

A modern replica of a 65-foot gundalow. Courtesy Daily News, Newburyport, Sept 8, 2017.

I’m sorry. I’m sure that all this is way more than you wanted to know about salt hay, but I thought I’d share it with you for two reasons.

First because it demonstrates that history carried only by memory is a valuable addition to history carried by documents. The history that is told around a farmhouse fireside or a table in the local pub is every bit as important as the history in archives and libraries.

Second because it reminds us of a time, not too long ago, where nature, its seasons and its weather, was the prime influence upon how humans behaved. Today, we do everything we can to overcome those inconveniences of nature so that we can behave, eat, travel and do whatever we want to whenever we want to. Hoover Dam watering the desert, snowmaking on ski mountains, “fresh” strawberries in December – even on the salt marsh: do you solve the problem of wet bottoms by putting dinner plates on the horses or by draining the marsh? We’re much more concerned about controlling what nature does to us than what we do to nature. We call it “progress.”

The hay makers of old Plum Island had a different relationship with nature, it involved harder, slower work and we can’t return to it, and wouldn’t want to, but I’m very glad that it hasn’t disappeared without trace. I’m happy to be aware of those traces as I watch the sun go down over the western marsh. Thank you, Nancy Weare: you’ve added a huge dimension to our view over the salt marshes.

Antiques News & Fairs - Digital Antiques Journal - In My Opinion: Of Stacks and Staddles

Grainary on Staddle Stones.

The word “staddle” comes from the Old English stathol, a foundation. In England staddle stones go back to at least the medieval period. They were stone supports that raised granaries or hayricks off the ground to ensure good air circulation that kept the contents free from damp – and from vermin (the design was rat-proof.)

The early settlers of New England brought the idea with them – the idea, but not the form. As was often the case, what in old England was built of stone, in New England was built of wood. Think churches, bridges and, of course, staddles.

Antiques News & Fairs - Digital Antiques Journal - In My Opinion: Of Stacks and Staddles

Nineteenth-century granary on staddle stones. Courtesy Somerset Rural Life Museum, England.



News & Fairs Previews

Digital Antiques Journal - In My Opinion: Of Stacks and Staddles

We are delighted to announce that we have revived our rather historic relationship with the eminent US publication New England Antiques Journal, now Digital Antiques Journal.

Editor John Fiske is an expat Brit having lived in New England for many years but he is well known in the trade here as he continues to visit UK on his buying trips for his own antiques business Fiske & Freeman.

John writes a regular In my Opinion column for the paperand we will share some of his musings from time to time.  The first piece, Of Stacks and Staddles, leapt out to us given the the perennial interest in staddle stones in the trade here.


The team at DAJ say:

Digital Antiques Journal speaks to you, the average collector and lover of antiques. We know that you love antiques and their histories; we know that you are interested in how antiques circulate around shops and shows and auctions; and we know that you value our unique heritage and wish to preserve it. We know that you want information, ideas and knowledge, and you’ll find them in DAJ.

 

Digital Antiques Journal is free, it drops into your Inbox twice a month, and all you have to do to receive it is hit the Subscribe button and enter your email address.

 

We hope we’ll meet you twice a month as you open us in your Inbox.

John, Mary, Mark & Val


Of Stacks and Staddles: Making (Salt) Hay While the Sun Shines

All images courtesy Newburyport Press unless otherwise credited.

 Antiques News & Fairs - Digital Antiques Journal - In My Opinion: Of Stacks and Staddles
Remains of a staddle. Courtesy Manayunkia.wordpress.com

Lisa and I frequently spend a hot, long evening on Plum Island, our local barrier island that runs some 12 miles up the coast from Ipswich. The views are calming, and the sunsets can be special.

Antiques News & Fairs - Digital Antiques Journal - In My Opinion: Of Stacks and Staddles

The Plum Island sunset on the day I was writing this. Courtesy the author.


Whenever I’m in a place that I enjoy, I can’t help myself, I just have to dig out its history. History gives depth to a view. I was lucky, I came across a history of Plum Island that was ideally suited for a long, slow evening. The history was minimal, just a few local anecdotes and memories that were fleshed out with lots of old sepia photographs.

I don’t want to sound at all dismissive here. Of course, I love “official” history – thoroughly researched by professional historians where every detail is verifiable. But this sort of history is limited – it misses out on what a grey-haired woman’s mother told her about riding a pleasure steamer from Ipswich to Plum Island to spend a day on the beach there. It’s highly unlikely that a memory like that would be archived in a library: What those memories remember is not verifiable; and it’s unlikely they’ll be published by a university press. If they’re published at all, it’ll be by a small local publisher or historical society. But they put the flesh on official history, they bring it to life.

Antiques News & Fairs - Digital Antiques Journal - In My Opinion: Of Stacks and Staddles

Cover of Nancy Weare’s book showing stacks at high tide and a gundalow.

The book I had come across was Plum Island: The Way It Was by Nancy Weare, published locally in 1993 by the Newburyport Press. Nancy ends the Preface: “I hope that these explorations into Plum Island’s past will evoke warm and happy memories in older readers and that those who are new to the island will enjoy learning about ‘the way it was.’” Can you imagine an official, academic historian hoping that her work will “evoke warm and happy memories”? Good on you, Nancy.

Our view was over the salt marshes at the northern end of the island. So, of course, I flipped to the chapter titled “The Marshes.”

Antiques News & Fairs - Digital Antiques Journal - In My Opinion: Of Stacks and Staddles

The salt marsh. Courtesy the author.

Today, the marshes are notable for their beauty, their peace and all the birds and wildlife that live in them. But Nancy begins her chapter with the bold assertion that “The salt marshes of Plum Island were a tremendous asset to the colonists.” They provided grazing for cattle, sheep and horses; they grew building materials; and hay for winter fodder. The waters between them and the mainland “fed both shellfish and finfish, and they in turn nourished large numbers of waterfowl. The settlers were thereby insured [sic] an abundant supply of fish and fowl.”

Antiques News & Fairs - Digital Antiques Journal - In My Opinion: Of Stacks and Staddles

Informational sign in the Wildlife Reservation on Plum Island. Courtesy Parker River National Wildlife Refuge.

That is the context: But the chapter on the marshes is really about marsh grasses and the salt hay that was harvested from them.

One sort of grass that grew along the low water mark was known as “thatch” – I’ve not been able to find the name used anywhere else, perhaps it’s unique to Plum Island. Thatch, as its name implied, was used for thatching roofs: it was also stacked around the foundations of houses to insulate them during the harsh winters, and it provided good bedding for animals and gardens. Thatch was good stuff, but I can’t find it today.

Certainly, the marshes are covered in grass, and there are still a few farmers who harvest these grasses for salt hay. You can buy it by the bale, and it makes excellent mulch for a garden. Beside them, however, the harvesting of marsh grass for sustenance and profit has all but died out. But from the seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries, salt hay was the mainstay of the island. Harvesting it was a major operation that required the skill and strength that men and horses could only acquire by hard experience.

Antiques News & Fairs - Digital Antiques Journal - In My Opinion: Of Stacks and Staddles

Stacks on staddles.

The first skill was finding good bottoms for the horses. A good bottom, I must quickly add, was firm ground for the horses to work on. In the late 1800s, local ingenuity came to help: two farmers, Joseph Dodge of Rowley and George Randall of Newbury, independently devised dinner-plate sized oak clip-ons for horseshoes that enabled horses to keep going despite their watery bottoms.

Later, a network of ditches took much of the water out of the marshes, so men, tractors and horses in normal shoes were able to cross it regularly.

Horses helped, but basically the hay harvest was done by hand. Gangs of men with scythes would cut the grass, which was allowed to dry for a day or two before being raked up into small piles called “cocks.” A couple of cocks were pulled together, two poles were slid underneath them, then a man lifted each end and carried them to the staddle.

Ah yes, the staddle: The staddle was the key to the whole enterprise. A staddle was a circle of cedar piles driven into the marsh. The piles around the perimeter were thick and strong, and a few have survived today. The ones that filled the interior appear to have been lighter and have generally rotted away. The staddle was the foundation for the haystack: it kept the bottom of the stack off the wet marsh and above the flood tides that came with each full moon.

Antiques News & Fairs - Digital Antiques Journal - In My Opinion: Of Stacks and Staddles

Left: Building a staddle. Right: Even at flood tide the staddle (just) kept the hay above the water.

The first hay cocks to arrive at the staddle were laid tightly on the perimeter piles. Subsequent cocks were thrown into the center where the stack builder stood. He stacked them into a low dome shape, so the interior was higher than the perimeter.

The stacker continued this process, building layer by layer under his feet until he was some 18 feet up in the air. A lot of winter feed in a stack on a staddle.

Antiques News & Fairs - Digital Antiques Journal - In My Opinion: Of Stacks and Staddles

The stacker on top of a completed stack.

The stacks were left until winter when the marsh and the channel between the island and the mainland were both frozen over and horse-drawn sleds could transport the hay directly to the farms.

Antiques News & Fairs - Digital Antiques Journal - In My Opinion: Of Stacks and Staddles

A gundalow loaded with salt hay.

This was the common, but not the only, method of harvesting marsh hay. Where the hay was close to a channel the cocks would be loaded onto a flat-bottomed boat called a “gundalow” that sat on the marsh or creek bottom to be loaded and then rose with the tide. Gundalows were propelled by long oars called “sweeps” and some had a mast and sail for use when the wind blew in a helpful direction. Each of the towns had a landing where the gundalows could transfer the hay to wagons that took it straight to the farm: no need for stacks and staddles at all. The last gundalow known to have been used on Plum Island went to West Newbury, a distance of 15 miles.

Antiques News & Fairs - Digital Antiques Journal - In My Opinion: Of Stacks and Staddles

A modern replica of a 65-foot gundalow. Courtesy Daily News, Newburyport, Sept 8, 2017.

I’m sorry. I’m sure that all this is way more than you wanted to know about salt hay, but I thought I’d share it with you for two reasons.

First because it demonstrates that history carried only by memory is a valuable addition to history carried by documents. The history that is told around a farmhouse fireside or a table in the local pub is every bit as important as the history in archives and libraries.

Second because it reminds us of a time, not too long ago, where nature, its seasons and its weather, was the prime influence upon how humans behaved. Today, we do everything we can to overcome those inconveniences of nature so that we can behave, eat, travel and do whatever we want to whenever we want to. Hoover Dam watering the desert, snowmaking on ski mountains, “fresh” strawberries in December – even on the salt marsh: do you solve the problem of wet bottoms by putting dinner plates on the horses or by draining the marsh? We’re much more concerned about controlling what nature does to us than what we do to nature. We call it “progress.”

The hay makers of old Plum Island had a different relationship with nature, it involved harder, slower work and we can’t return to it, and wouldn’t want to, but I’m very glad that it hasn’t disappeared without trace. I’m happy to be aware of those traces as I watch the sun go down over the western marsh. Thank you, Nancy Weare: you’ve added a huge dimension to our view over the salt marshes.

Antiques News & Fairs - Digital Antiques Journal - In My Opinion: Of Stacks and Staddles

Grainary on Staddle Stones.

The word “staddle” comes from the Old English stathol, a foundation. In England staddle stones go back to at least the medieval period. They were stone supports that raised granaries or hayricks off the ground to ensure good air circulation that kept the contents free from damp – and from vermin (the design was rat-proof.)

The early settlers of New England brought the idea with them – the idea, but not the form. As was often the case, what in old England was built of stone, in New England was built of wood. Think churches, bridges and, of course, staddles.

Antiques News & Fairs - Digital Antiques Journal - In My Opinion: Of Stacks and Staddles

Nineteenth-century granary on staddle stones. Courtesy Somerset Rural Life Museum, England.