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Salt Hay In The Marshes Once Like Money In Your Pocket
The New Jersey shore was a primary source of salt hay in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. The harvesting of such brought money into the local economy with minimal expense associated with growing because it was a natural resource.
Salt hay grows in the wetlands and forms meadows that stretch across the entire bay-shore region. These wetlands contain brackish water that moves with the tides. The further up the tributaries one goes, the salinity decreases and eventually turns to fresh water. The salt marshes play a significant role in this transitional ecosystem.
Cutting salt hay
Early colonial settlers discovered that salt hay had a myriad of uses and was basically impervious to rot. The gathering of such was a most unpleasant task. It required cutting, raking, and transporting the hay from wet, muddy, and insect infected marshes. It was then pitchforked into haycocks and left to dry for about a week before loading on to shallow draft hay scows and towed by one or more pole boats or sailing garveys to be shipped to bigger markets. However, this unpleasant process was offset by the fact that literally tons of salt hay could be harvested annually without cultivation. The best producing salt meadows could yield up to three tons of salt hay per acre and could be harvested twice during the growing season. It was pure profit for one’s labor.
The first uses of salt hay included home insulation, and occasionally contractors renovating older homes will still find walls filled with salt hay. It was also used as bedding in stables, mulch and compost, and packing material for glassware and pottery vendors. Salt hay was the first insulatory material for the early ice houses in southern New Jersey – many of which were located in what is now Ocean County. The salt meadows could also double as pasture land for cattle, and a century ago, salt hay was used to wrap packed barrels of duck and geese shipped by train to fine restaurants in New York and Philadelphia. Later uses included erosion protection of construction sites, insulation of plants against frost, and seeding cover.
Horse-drawn wagons hauled salt-hay loaders before
mechanization; mired horses were often destroyed.
In the latter part of the twentieth century, commencing under President Reagan, wetlands became a source of preservation concern to save the tidal ecosystems. Marshes became protected ending cultivation and thereby bringing a rapid close to the salt hay industry.
So the next time you drive by a marsh near the coast line and see that abundant grass – don’t think about mosquitoes – think like the early settlers who created commerce by taking a natural resource and bringing it to market!
From your “Running Realtor” Andrew Gonzales...