Rack-lifters re-installed in local barn restoration

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Ontario’s historic timber-frame bank barns are wonderful examples of architectural economy and practicality… at least for the era during which they were constructed.
In the days before electricity and fossil-fuel power, it made a lot of sense to use gravity throughout the winter as a means of transporting hay (and straw) from the barn’s mows to the livestock within the byre below. But the catch was that you had to get that hay up into the mows in the first place.
I’m sure many of you have had the ‘pleasure’ of working at the end of a bale elevator stacking bales in a mow during the heat of haying season and can appreciate that minimizing the effort of hand-bombing this crop must have been on the minds of many a farmer throughout the history of agriculture.
In the earliest barns, loose hay was laboriously ‘pitched’ up into the mows from the bed of the wagon with pitchforks and a lot of muscle. The pitched material would be received by other workers up in the mow who would then transfer it throughout the mow and pack it down to create a large monolithic mass.
Then at some point in time, I’m not sure when but am thinking after the mid-1800s, somebody came up with a great idea; it would be a lot easier to pitch the hay across into the mow rather than up into it – all that was needed was a way to get the wagon rack full of hay up higher above the threshing floor.
The game-changer was the invention of the ‘rack-lifter’ and the use of horse-power to lift the full load of hay up to the level of the barn’s tie beams so that the hay could then be pitched much more easily across into the mow – a great labour-saver!
Rack-lifters came in pairs and are essentially large cogged wheels secured to an axle – winches may be another term people have used for them. I have heard from (Ontario Barn Preservation) OBP secretary Will Samis that he has encountered single rack-lifters which were used in combination with pulleys secured to the barn frame that together would perform the same task as a pair of lifters.
Rope was secured to the circumference of the wheeled portion would be drawn by horses out through the barn doors and down the gangway, thus simultaneously drawing up another set of ropes secured to the axles that were also attached to or slung around the wagon rack. After several revolutions this would eventually elevate the rack full of hay to just below the height of the rack-lifters. The rack-lifter axles are typically mounted in hardwood bearings on top of the tie beams and would have been lubricated with lard or other forms of grease. A ‘dog’ – something like a 4×4, pivoted at one end by a bolt or similar secured into the side of the tie beam – would engage its other end with the cogs of the rack-lifter wheel as it moved upward thus providing an emergency brake enabling the horses to rest as they pulled the load upward as well as hold it securely in place once it had reached its destination. After the load of hay was removed from the rack, these dogs could be disengaged from the cogged wheel thus permitting the rack to be lowered back down onto the wagon chassis.
Later developments in moving hay within the barn incorporated tracks, either wooden or steel, suspended below the ridge of the roof and hay-slings or hay-forks which would carry smaller bunches of loose hay up from a wagon sitting on the threshing floor, but then transport it laterally as well and drop it directly into the mow, thus saving one full stage in the pitchforking work.
I’ve had the pleasure of working on a few barn projects where we re-installed “rack-lifters,” which really are things of beauty and always attract the attention of visitors and the question “What are those?!!!”
The image shows a wonderful pair of exceptionally large 6’ diameter rack-lifters which are original to this barn frame from Glen Morris. We rebuilt this frame for use as a residence near Creemore for a descendent of the original owners/builders.

Jim Campbell, of Rockside Campbell, is a director for Ontario Barn Preservation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving heritage barns. This article first appeared as a blog post at ontariobarnpreservation.com.

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