The Marsh Grass and The Ditches

By John D. Fogg

'Recollections Of A Salt Marsh Farmer'

Edited by Eric N. Small -- 1983

Section 8

The early farmers soon found that by proper ditching of the marsh, there would be a better quality of grass come in, like the fox grass and branch grass, yielding one and one-half tons to the acre.

Now, the black grass was the best of all the marsh grasses. It grew where the marshland joins the upland. This grass grows taller, not too thick, and blooms in June like any English hay, so it had to be cut when in bloom and with the best care in the curing. I have heard my father say that a heavy dew could hurt black grass after cutting, so for that reason the farmers liked to get it raked and calked as soon as it was time to rake. The black grass is a cross between English and salt marsh hay and was one of the very best feeds for milking cows. We had little on the Hampton Falls marsh, when Seabrook had quite a lot of that good black grass.

The thatch grass was a tall, coarse grass that grows in the low marshlands where the tide flows every day. The farmers would cut that grass and load in on one of those big flat-bottom boats called a gundalow. The thatch grass was cut with scythes and loaded on gundalows ready to be floated up to a dock where it could be spread out on a spreading ground.

The regular salt marsh hay stays the same in feed value until a frost hits, freezing the juices. The sun can do the same to the salt grass if it lays too long flat after being mowed. That's why the older folks would get that grass raked and calked soon after it was mowed. Then it could lay in calks for days or a week. The sun would do what the frost did -- dry the juices.

The ditching was done in the October and November seasons. If the ditches were kept clear, you could have a good crop of hay. Most of the tools used were made by hand at home with the help of a blacksmith. The ditching knives and narrow spades were made from old scythes and broken shovel handles. Capt. Stephen Brown used to clean out the ditch with a long scoop-like tool, getting all the loose pieces of sod. It was made of wood and showed signs of a lot of wear.

Leavitt W. Brown was telling that when he was a small boy he climbed up the wheel of the wagon his father and grandfather had used that day down on the marsh ditching. All he remembers seeing is those ditching tools. They used a wheelbarrow with a wooden plank sawed for a tire and bolted on each side of the regular wheel.

After the horses were used on the marsh, they used a drag to haul the sods away to a salt pond or a low place. Those folks usually worked in pairs. One could pull the ditching knife along with a rope and the other kept it straight with the line. They used that strong codfish line to stretch out in getting ditches straight. Those ditches were not deep. They were just deep enough to get that tide water off the grass quickly. The ditches would partly close at the top while the bottom would stay the same or wash out wider.

When they were ditching and had filled a salt pond, they had those "tampers," I call them, to help when leveling off those places just filled, punching down the high places of the sods. I found a pair of tampers in our attic. They were made crude of oak to be a little heavy with handles about waist high. They were made open enough so no water would get trapped to make them too heavy.

I have seen a ditching spade with one side having a 5" wide piece of iron sharpened on the outer edges as long as the spade and welded on the left hand side of the spade. The idea was to spade out the ditch with only one side out with the ditching knife.

I read about a man, William A. Hopkins, an Englishman, who came to Hampton Falls in 1848 and dug miles and miles of ditches, which was his principal occupation, until his death in 1875. He built the house on Murray Row. Later on, this house was occupied by William Brown. George A. Philbrick had another piece of marsh bordering ours on the southeast near Hunts North Creek which I mentioned previously. The man from Salisbury came to cut with his black mare. Now, down near the end of our piece was a wide-open ditch, a drain-off for the Fellows marsh, then ours, and across Philbrick's into that Hunts North Creek. Where that ditch crossed ours it was lower than the marsh ground so that would mean a thatch bottom. A thatch bottom is always as hard as a road, making edges of ditch good and hard also.

Father had just finished mowing out that thatch with a scythe when the Salisbury man came down and talked to father, leading his mare down to that ditch. She took one look, walked up to it, took a long quick step and a longer step with the hind foot. Now we wouldn't have thought of crossing a ditch on the other side, so I thought I would try to get Brownie to cross. She looked at the ditch, took a good long front step, but she jumped both hind feet at once and banged a front shoe.

I had more courage in trying to get across with Brownie, having that Salisbury man so near to help if we did have any trouble, but everything went just perfectly. Got it mowed over there and got back the same way. The year before we had looked for a way across the ditch but had gone around on Fellow's marsh and other marshes to get there.

Now after they got all that ditching done, that meant more grass and would mean more staddles to stack the extra hay. Well, they were ready for that. Most farmers had those staddles already stockpiled. When cutting the winter's supply of firewood and they came to an old growth of pine, not good lumber, crooked, etc., these made good staddle stakes. They would be hauled out on some high place to dry. Then by the next August season the stakes would be dry and light to haul with the wheelbarrow out to the place where needed.

We once had a stack of hay burned down on the marsh, staddles and all. Father replaced them with some staddles from a pile up in the pasture near the fence bars which had been there for a long time. We were using horses at that time, so we just piled those staddle stakes on the drag and took them down to the marsh. It took quite a pile -- had to use a rope to tie them down, there were so many. But now there were plenty to use at the marsh.

It was easy to find your own marsh. Most of the lines were ditches and in the old days the farmers would place a rock in both ditches to make sure of the width and if necessary another rock to show the length. Our 6 acres had three rocks, one in the corner of our 2-acre piece and Ralph Fish's 2½-acre piece. Another in the corner of Ralph's 5 acres and our own 1-acre piece. The other was on the marsh (no ditch there), showing about 2 feet out of the ground. This was the corner of Fish, Fogg, and Frank Poor's marsh. Father said the rocks were there when he bought the marsh. We were down there in 1968 and the rocks were just as they were when we were haying. Rocks were no deeper in ditches. The top of the rocks were level with the bottom of the ditch.

Father would tell how the farmers took those rocks down in the winter when hauling the hay home with ox teams and horses. They would place them on the ice near where they were to be set the following spring. The rocks seemed like good sized - 50 to 100 pounds. They liked a square-shaped rock.