A haycart, with the North River in the background. Photo courtesy of Ray Freden.

The harvesting of salt marsh hay was an important operation in the North and South Rivers watershed for the first 250 years of European settlement here. It has been said that were it not for the freely-available marsh hay that grew along the rivers, our forefathers would not have survived their first few years on these rocky shores.

When settlers arrived in the area in the 1630’s and 40’s, there was very little open (unforested) land. Clearing the land to allow for agriculture was a priority, but it was a slow and difficult process. In order to provide enough food to ensure their survival, the early settlers were required to reserve every tillable parcel for the growing of beans, squash, corn and other staples.

With such dedication to raising crops for their own survival, our forefathers were not able to grow the forage grass they were accustomed to feeding their livestock. Thus they turned to the salt meadows, where black grass and marsh hay were abundant, to obtain food for their horses, cattle and oxen. An additional variety of marsh grass was used as roof thatch and wall insulation.

Salt hay is a wild crop, and thus requires no planting, plowing, or weeding. Its roots extend up to eight feet into the ground, and barring extreme outside influence, it will continue to grow year after year. The peat in which it grows does not deteriorate like other soils as it is constantly nourished by decaying grasses and the nutrients contained in the salt water in which it grows.

Salt meadows were extremely valuable to the early settlers of the South Shore. While the towns of Marshfield, Duxbury, and Scituate included vast expanses of marshland, inland communities such as Norwell and Hanover contained only small strips of salt marsh, along the rivers. As compensation, the County Court reserved salt meadow parcels for these communities within the boundaries of other towns. This is why, to this day, the town of Norwell owns a section of marsh near the mouth of the North River in Scituate. This also explains the 17th and 18th-century transfers of ownership of the stretch of marsh known as “Two Mile” from Marshfield to Norwell (South Scituate) to Marshfield again.

By the late 1600’s, the County Court had granted rights to all of the salt meadow land in the North and South Rivers Watershed. Especially in the more expansive marshes nearest the ocean, land owners did not always live adjacent to their salt meadow allotment. Rights of way across private land were often required, causing many a legal battle. The ditches we see criss-crossing salt meadows today were originally dug to mark boundaries, to prevent “the indiscriminate cutting of hay.” At first the meadows were divided into rectangles, however the changing nature of the marsh, with its shifting mud and toppling banks, made it difficult to keep these boundaries in order. Todays ditches, created largely by WPA workers in the 1930’s, exist for drainage purposes — to help alleviate the marshes of the stagnant waters favored by breeding mosquitoes.

The harvesting of salt hay was a complex process, involving special tools and small teams of workers. If a salt meadow was accessible by land, a hayer would drive a horse or oxen-drawn haycart to the meadow, where he would mow, rake, and then bunch the grass. This generally involved a scythe and pitch fork, although some hayers employed horse drawn mowers and rakes. Once gathered into “haycocks”, a team of at least two men, armed only with a set of 8-10 foot hemlock or white cedar poles, would then transfer the grass to the cart, by which it would be carried back to the farm. As traveling across the marsh, with its ditches and mud, was often a tricky process, hayers were known to fit their horses with “meadow shoes” of wood, iron, and leather, which allowed a creature to move across the mud, much like snowshoes help us walk on the surface of snow.

In general, only the meadows west of Little’s Bridge (today’s Route 3A) were accessible by land. Further downstream, salt haying required the use of a small boat known colloquially as a gundalow (probably derived from “gondola”).

A gundalow was a large, flat-bottomed boat, about 30-40 feet long, that drew very little water and could transport 2-8 tons of hay at a time. Propelling a gundalow generally required five men: two on each sweep oar, plus another to steer. Whether empty or full, these crafts were unwieldy, and hayers were known to take advantage of rising and falling tides whenever possible to facilitate their work. Gathered hay was poled onto the gundalow over a gangplank, which prevented the boat from running aground. Once loaded, the gundalow would then be rowed upstream to a landing, where the hay was transferred to a cart.

Salt haying continued on the North and South Rivers until November 1898, when the Portland Gale relocated the river mouth and permanently changed the nature of the salt meadows. Before the storm, the marshes were subject to significant flooding only a few times each month, around the spring tide, as the size and location of the mouth permitted a much less significant tidal influence. However when the river mouth moved, greater volumes of salt water began to enter the marshes, flooding the meadows twice each day.

These changes made salt haying difficult, as harvesting could not take place when the marshes were flooded. As numbers of livestock declined and more land was made available for growing forage grasses, farmers chose to raise their own hay crops rather than contend with the newly-complicated process of harvesting it from the salt marsh.

Today salt haying continues on a smaller scale, as it is harvested primarily by private individuals for use as garden mulch.

by Kezia Bacon, Assistant Director, North & South Rivers Watershed Association
February 1997