A favorite food! Timothy hay – nutritious, palatable, and hundreds of years old!

Stacking hay bales in the barn, I was thinking about how important good-quality hay has always been for maintaining domesticated horses. I can remember helping my parents cut and cure hay when I was a pre-teen, learning to drive the tractor when I could barely reach the pedals to help rake and pick up the hay they baled in local fields. So, most of my life, I have fed my horses baled hay of some form or another. Hay has been fed to horses since they were domesticated. The history of hay is rather interesting, and I read a recent article in Equus magazine that delved into this subject. In it, they mentioned a man named Timothy Hanson, after whom “timothy” hay is named, and it turns out this all happened very close to my farm!

Timothy Hanson (sometimes spelled Hansen) may have immigrated from Scandinavia, but he was British in origin and may have come from a New Hampshire family. In New England, most of the farms were small at that time, carved out of the woods with rocky soil and the growing season was short. New lands were opening up west and south and many young farmers wanted to try to find better land for production and the opportunity to make a living. Hanson must have thought he could do better in Maryland, so he migrated from New England to Maryland sometime around 1720.


Seed head. Photo by Holly.

Timothy hay’s scientific name is phleum pratense, and is a type of perennial grass. Originally, timothy hay was probably brought to America by early settlers, because it is found in European soil. It was rediscovered in New Hampshire. A farmer named John Herd (or spelled Hurd) found timothy growing in 1711 in a swamp near the Piscataqua River in Portsmouth. He probably cultivated it as a good hay source – the stem was strong, it grew long with good leaves and a tall seed head, probably cured well in the short summers of New England, and probably stacked well in the hay mows which were the storage method of the time. It became known as Herd’s grass.

It is clear that Maryland was where timothy seed became one of America’s first agricultural commodities, but my research online suggests that the Maryland Hanson may have a little help in marketing. Bear in mind we are talking about the late 1700’s! The “help” might have been from a relative – a Quaker named Timothy Hansen, whose family also came from New Hampshire, and who farmed near Dover, Delaware. While writings about this Timothy came later, it seems because he was Quaker, he may have lent his name to this hay. It was the Quaker custom of the time to refer to fellow Quakers by their first names to avoid what was perceived as airs in referring to surnames. Thus, “friend Timothy’s hay” was considered a remarkable new crop and fellow Quakers and farmers far and wide came to Dover, Delaware to visit his fields and examine this new hay.


Photo by Holly

“Friend Timothy’s grass” was shared through farmers to many regions, especially to the bread basket regions of Chester and Lancaster counties, Pennsylvania. Quaker John Kirk is reported to have attended the yearly meeting of Friends in Philadelphia in 1789, from which he took home several bushels of timothy seed. The word about “Timothy’s hay” grew. Benjamin Franklin called it “Timothy’s Hay” in correspondence from 1747, but it may have been called that name even earlier, perhaps as early as 1736.

Hanson of Baltimore is considered one of the first producers of seed to be sold commercially. His son Jonathan was also an entrepreneur, building the first grist mill established at the Jones Falls River near Baltimore, which later became part of the industrial era. The Hansens of Baltimore look like smart businessmen, so it makes sense that while they produced the seed from their fields, the hay may not have originated there – they just figured out a way to make money on it.

Nonetheless, Baltimore is considered the birthplace of timothy hay. It was distributed throughout the United State’s central colonies of Delaware, Maryland, upstate New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia. George Washington also fed “Timothy’s Hay” to his race horses.

In 1790, British immigrant Colonel Nicholas Merryman Bosley established a farm near Cockeysville, Maryland. The Bosley and Merryman descendants specialized in growing timothy hay on the farm, and won an award in 1824 for being a “premium farm” from the Maryland Agricultural Society. It was also the first farm to import Hereford cattle to Maryland, and survived until after the Civil War. The hay was so famous that the farm was given the name “Hayfields.” In the 1980’s the property became part of the Hayfields Country Club and golf course. This is located around the corner from Shawan Downs which exists today as a preserved steeplechase course and eventing facility used by the Maryland Combined Training Association. This is the beautiful grassland of the Cockeysville area, and a section of Maryland with a long agricultural and equine history.

Me and Rugby at Shawan Downs competing in the MCTA Horse Trials in 2009. Photo by GRC Photos

Me and Rugby at Shawan Downs competing in the MCTA Horse Trials in 2009.  That’s the land that produced timothy hay. Photo by GRC Photo.

Maryland farm preservation archives list John Gittings as the “best timothy hay farmer in America” around 1798 by a visitor to his Long Green Farm, located on Long Green Pike near Hydes in Baltimore County. This visitor was Richard Parkinson, who came to America supposedly to oversee farming for General Washington, but was disappointed in the lands and cultivation that he came upon in Maryland and Virginia, and returned to England after two years. He spent a great deal of time at Mount Vernon and brought livestock with him from England, hoping to establish a good farm, but sold most of the stock when he did not find a farm to his liking and was not happy with the farming practices at Mount Vernon (among his concerns were the slaves on the farm). He wrote a book about his experiences called “Agriculture In The United States, 1798-1800” which was critical of most of the farms he saw, rating the forage and farming practices as poor. However, he understood and remarked on the importance of timothy hay in the area. He wrote about a Colonel Ricketts, who had a mill near Alexandria, Virginia. Ricketts grew timothy hay for horses and accepted Parkinson’s horses to be boarded and “fattened” on this hay.

In “The History of American Industries and Arts” by Benson J. Lossing and published in 1878, timothy hay is referred to as “the most important of our forage grasses,” and listed as originating in New Hampshire by John Herd and being distributed in Maryland and Virginia by Timothy Hanson. In “American Agriculture” written by Samuel Sands in 1850, timothy hay was listed as originating near Portsmouth, New Hampshire in a swampy area of the Piscataqua River, and was called Herd’s grass by the New England farmers. Sands says that the hay seed was distributed southward to the lower counties of Pennsylvania; this makes sense because timothy was prized from growing in swampy soil. Sands mentions the Delaware source of timothy, and then credits the Timothy Hanson of Baltimore for growing and selling the seed.

So that’s your timothy hay history. The original Climax variety, it is said, has survived nearly all these years and several other varieties have been developed since then. Timothy to this day is an excellent forage for horses but it is slow to recover after having been harvested the first time in the spring, so it is often passed over as a commercial hay because you can only get one to two cuttings, unlike legumes like alfalfa, which can produce multiple cuttings in one year. Timothy has a strong, long stalk with the tall straight seedhead at the top and broad, long leaves that cure and dry well, and it’s interesting that 400 years ago they knew this would be good for their horses — just as we know it is good for horses today.