Zac McDorrMy friend Patrick Shekleton, who runs the Phippsburg History Center on Facebook, is fascinated by the idea of Viking visitors to the Midcoast. Why would Vikings come to Maine? His theory is that they came here to harvest salt hay, which did not grow as far north as Newfoundland.

Whether or not Viking warriors ever cut hay on the Phippsburg shore, salt hay was a very important crop for the farmers who came later. One of the reasons that raw land was so cheap in colonial days is that it had to be painstakingly cleared by hand before any crop, including hay, could be grown. Farm animals needed something to eat in the meantime, and salt hay provided a ready source of food. Salt hay was impervious to mold, unlike hay grown on land. It could also be used as animal bedding, and as insulation.

The hay was harvested at low tide, during dry periods. A skilled farmer with a scythe could harvest four tons of hay in a day, which made four haystacks. Horses had to have large boards attached to their feet to keep them from sinking in the mud while pulling hay wagons.

Platforms were constructed on poles in the marsh, and the hay was stacked on top to dry. The platforms kept the hay safe from the tides. When winter came and the marshes froze, farmers could easily retrieve the crop.

Salt marshes are extremely important habitats for all kinds of sea creatures. Two-thirds of Maine’s commercially harvested fish, shellfish, and worms spend some or all of their lives there.

Unfortunately, early farmers dammed the marshes, cut channels in them, and otherwise altered the environment. Industry and development have also had a terrible impact on marshes. Restoring them is a challenge we will face for generations.