It started with one bale… What the Hay celebrates 28th anniversary

Hunters and prey are frozen in time at the Montana Bale Trail’s Buf-HAY-lo Jump. The entry, created by Clint Carr, took first place last year.

Photo by Jenny Gessaman


Managing Editor

For 28 years, viewers have flocked to an art gallery like no other: the 22-mile-long Montana Bale Trail between Hobson and Windham forms the outdoor display space for as many as 50 examples of how to turn hay into art.

Once again this year, fodder artists are primed and ready to install their displays on Saturday night for the opening of the event Sunday morning.

Those traveling the Utica highway are treated to unique examples of creativity, humor and engineering prowess. Do any of them wonder how in the world this all got started?

According to Marilyn Derks, it all started in the late 1980s with a hay bale and her husband’s quirky sense of humor.

“Don was picking up bales in a field near Highway 87, east of Hobson,” Marilyn recalled. “There was one bale left over, and for some reason it got him thinking, ‘I could make a bull rider out of this.’”

Just for kicks, Don made a bull’s head to attach to the front of the lone bale, added horns made out of branches, and created a “cowboy” out of old clothes stuffed with (what else?) hay.

The response was unexpected. People stopped on the highway, off the highway, in the ditches, even climbed over the Derks’ fence to take photos of the bale.

“It was creating a traffic hazard,” Marilyn said. “You know how busy that highway is.”

So the bull riding sculpture had to be removed, but the seed was planted.

The next year Don had another idea for a bale sculpture, and when his neighbor, Rod Mikkelson, also did one, the contest was born, but this time in fields near the Utica highway in order to avoid traffic jams.

In a story in the Sept. 9, 1990 issue of the News-Argus, Sarah Hollatz of the Circle Bar Ranch in Utica described the genesis of the competition this way:

“The idea started last fall with good moisture and a productive hay harvest,” Hollatz said. “High spirits led to neighbors goofing on each other, which produced a swimmer who dove headlong into a round bale, a bull rider and a cute little ‘dollie’ all duded up for a date.”

According to the News-Argus story, by 1990, the contest had 20 entries and a name: What the Hay. The event that year was held over Labor Day weekend, and cash awards were given, with Tracy Mikkelson’s entry, “Day Care,” winning first place in the single bale category, and Chuck Thomas’s entry “Bale Bowl” taking first place in the multiple bale category.


Event grows

Over the years, new categories have been added and there are now two divisions (youth and adult), with categories including round bale, square bale and even loose hay art. Most artists also name their creations, including the use of the words “hay” or “bale” in the title.

One of those artists is Clint Carr, whose detailed and inventive sculptures literally stop traffic. Carr enjoys the creative process, but says actually producing what he sees in his mind is a lot of work.

“If you want to win or do something interesting, it takes quite a bit of work,” Carr said. “I’ve been doing it for over 20 years, and I’ve found that to do a good one, you need it to make a good picture. A few years ago I built the Medus-hay, and people still stop on the road to take pictures of it, even though it is not in good shape an longer.”

“I have quite a few ideas I’d still like to do, although sometimes it feels like too much work,” Carr added. “But then when it gets to the last couple of weeks, I always get one pulled together. I would hate to see it [What the Hay] end.”


Carr’s sculptures are often crowd favorites, even including music and moving parts, pushing the limits of building with hay.

Over the years, other artists have joined the challenge, and this year close to 50 entries expected.

In 2010, What the Hay gained national visibility when Travelocity featured it as one of it’s recommended events for tourists. The Travelocity gnome, recreated in hay, greeted visitors along the route, and an estimated 6,000-plus people toured the Bale Trail that year.

All this from one quirky piece of bale art…Marilyn Derks said she can’t quite believe how the event has grown.

“I do worry that we don’t have enough volunteers,” Marilyn said. “It’s a lot of work. It’s really good for all the communities involved, but it is a lot of work. We could use more help.”

For the past several years the event has been overseen by volunteers from the Friends of the Hobson Library/Museum. Due to a lack of volunteers, the Midway Caf-Hay hasn’t been open the past couple of years, but the hay maze that accompanies it is still going strong, manned by members of the Hobson school’s Business Professionals of America club. Food and drinks are available in Hobson, Utica and Windham.


Visit “What the Hay” Montana Bale Trail

Opens Sunday, Sept. 10 at 8 a.m.

Enter from either end: Hobson or Windham

Pick up your ballot for People’s Choice award at either entry point and return it at the other end

Stop at Utica for the Utica Day Fair

Be courteous – traffic will be heavy

Don’t forget: Stage II fire restrictions are in force

Bales will be up for a few days after the event, but not earlier.




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