Note From Lynn: I’m packing and heading to central Montana for the Lewistown Chokecherry Festival, the annual What The Hay? bale trail, and the Utica Day Fair. Thought I would share last year’s post on this fun and creative event that seems to grow every year. Hope to see you there! – Lynn
I never miss What The Hay?, an annual harvest competition in which farm and ranch families build elaborate straw sculptures in the pastures and stubble fields between Hobson and Windham in central Montana. “It’s your basic fun with bales,” explains Susan Aune, a member of the Utica Rod & Gun Club, one of many local sponsors of the event that is organized by The Friends of the Hobson Library/Museum. “I’m just floored by how many people come to our little town for it!”
Held in conjunction with the Utica Day Fair, What the Hay? was inadvertently started in 1989 by local rancher Don Derks, who was picking up bales from one of his fields. “I got to looking at one and I thought, ‘I could make a bull rider out of that!” So he shaped a head and added branches for horns. For the rider, he stuffed a pair of jeans and a shirt with straw and attached it on top. “So many people stopped to take pictures,” says Derks, “that it turned into a traffic hazard, and we had to haul it away.”
The next year, neighbor Rod Mikkelson attached a pair of stuffed pants and cowboy boots to the end of a round bale as though someone had gotten rolled up inside. Derks couldn’t resist tipping Mikkelson’s creation on end with its legs pointing skyward. He added a diving board and sign that said, “No Diving”. Again, the bale attracted so much attention that neighboring rancher Sarah Stevenson saw the potential for creating a full-blown competition. She sketched a tentative route on the back of a cocktail napkin, and the contest was born.
Held the Sunday after Labor Day, with a Saturday night kickoff barbecue at the Utica Community Hall and dance at the Oxen Yoke, the annual event features around 50 entries lining the 22-mile stretch of highway between Hobson and Windham—a lonesome two-lane with a thin shoulder that can be downright dangerous when hundreds of motorists and budding photographers stop haphazardly to gawk. The bumper-to-bumper traffic moves at a pregnant heifer’s pace through painter Charlie Russell’s old stomping grounds.
If using straw as a medium weren’t challenging enough, participants must incorporate the word “Hay” or “Bale” into their entries. ‘Hay fever’ is caught by all with attendees inevitably find themselves making horrible (hor-hay-bale) puns as they creep down the road. “That one’s un-bale-lievable!” “I’m so thirst-hay; when I get to the Oxen Yoke, I’m having a marg-hay-rita.”
Passing a fifteen-foot tall “Incred-hay-bale Hulk” or “Baled Eagle” on the prairie is pretty surreal. It’s like driving through an art installation—you’ll see sculptures like The Great Sphaynx, a gigantic bust of Hay-braham Lincoln, The Metropolhayton Museum of Art featuring Vanghay’s Star-hay Night, Monhay’s Water Lillies, da Vinchay’s Monhay Lisa and works by MicHaylangelo and PicHaysso.
“Sitting on a swather for hours on end, you try to think of a different idea every year,” explains Derks, who often chooses historical themes. Current events are always popular (Mon-hay-ca Lewinsk-hay…complete with blue dress, was a big one back in 1998. This year, I spotted Chaytlyn Jenner.
Children’s entries typically follow the shape of whole bales: Mick-hay Mouse, a Gum-Bale Machine, Taco Bale.
Popular in the late 1990’s, mechanized sculptures caused hellish traffic jams. There was a gigantic Bale-rina who delicately pirouetted in an arabesque, The Running of the Bales depicted a bow-legged cowboy being chased by a square bale with steer horns. Hay Hay We’re The Monkees—a Clint Carr creation (Carr pretty much always builds mechanized showstoppers)—was incredible. “The band members were made out of big, old springs from farm machinery,” recalls the artist. “Their arms went up and down, and they really shook! I had The Monkees’ theme song looped on a tape, and we played it full blast.” Carr and his brothers sat in lawn chairs counting vehicles. “Between 9:00 a.m. and 1:00 pm we counted over 1,000 cars and saw plates from sixteen states and Canadian provinces.”
Entries usually remain up for about a week. “Depends on the weather,” says Derks. “Many people and tour busses wait to come through after traffic’s not so thick.” Some entries stay up much longer. Jim and Sue Hicks, who ranch near Windham, built a Buff-hay-lo about fifteen years ago that’s still standing. “When we were done with the contest, we put him up on the hill above our ranch,” explains Sue. “We’ve tried to take him down, and neighbors holler and say, ‘We tell people we live a mile from the buffalo!’ We’ve become a landmark, I guess.”