One of my interests (obsessions?) is with skilled practices of the past that have fallen into disuse, especially those related to agriculture from before the industrial revolution relieved us of doing everything by hand. I mentioned to my brother that I’d recently been researching the use of scythes and sickles for mowing and harvesting crops. Much to my surprise, he said he had a scythe. Some would wonder why he’d have such a tool since using it for its intended purpose, for him, would have been unlikely. He said he had no idea where he’d gotten it, but probably at an auction, bundled with something else wanted, and had come home to gather dust in his shed.
Long before mowers, weed eaters, and machinery were used to harvest hay and grains, sharp scythes were used to cut everything. An eighteen to thirty-inch blade was attached to a two-handled, curved wooden staff, held in both hands, swung by men in a rhythmic manner in the field. It sliced through the plants, cutting them near the ground, much more like you would cleanly slice meat or vegetables rather than chop them. You can see men using scythes every so often in TV shows depicting earlier eras or in YouTube videos.
My brother gave me the scythe. It still had the manufacturer’s label on it, and other than a bit of rust and being dull, the blade was in excellent condition. Using the internet, I found the manufacturer, an American company still making that exact style. It was estimated to be over fifty years old. There are three types of blades – for mowing, weeding, or brush clearing. Mine is a weed blade of twenty-four inches, which will work well for grass. I found a dealer in Maine that can restore the blade to full working condition for only $24.00 plus shipping. I am beside myself with excitement!
I know you won’t likely share my passion. At the risk of boring you with more than you probably want to know, here’s a bit more about scythes. There’s a fundamental difference between the European scythe and the American one. The European ones have a different, softer metallurgic structure, and to sharpen the blade, they use a method called “peening.” This is done on a particular type of anvil with a special hammer. The edge of the blade is tapped repeatedly down the entire length to stretch and thin it, restoring the bevel. It is then dressed with a stone (a finer sharpening) every so often while mowing until the blade is too dull, and peening must be repeated, commonly every few hours.
American scythes are heavier, and the metal is harder, so the blade edge does not dull as quickly. It is sharpened with a large wheel grindstone, turned slowly through a water trough. When sharp, it is field-dressed with a stone as well. The American scythe will mow for much longer periods between sharpening. There is much debate about which is better, the American or the European tool. I suspect this is a “Chevy or Ford” type of argument during which neither side will soundly win.
I have an American scythe and will be sending it to have the blade restored very soon. I can’t wait to get it back and try my hand at cutting some grass and weeds! I will post a video on Facebook this fall when I get skilled enough not to embarrass myself. I will be the guy swinging the scythe with a big grin on my face.