by Todd Waterman
Drawings by James Heck with Photos by Allen Gage, Linda Lee, Ruth Massey, David Massey.
Some farmers in the Ozarks would cut their timber for rails between the months of July and September because they believed that if they cut while the sap was up, that worms and insects would not infest the wood. Other farmers preferred to cut and split the rails in cooler weather. Ova said, "It's best to cut the rails in the winter or early spring. If the timber is frozen, it splits better." Also the winter was a slack time. Many farmers worked in the woods all winter cutting rails and other timber products for their own use…
To build the fence the farmer needed more than just the rails, for there was more to it than simply stacking up the rails one on top of another. First he had to stake out the fence row. For this some cut a sapling about two or three inches in diameter and five to six feet long. Then with the chopping ax, they would strip the bark off of two opposite sides of the sapling to reveal the light colored wood below, making the pole more visible. They jabbed these poles into the ground along the desired fence row about sixty feet apart, or closer if the fence line ran over a hill. They jabbed the first pole in the ground at the beginning point. They placed the second pole at the other end of the fence row. To get the straight line between the poles, someone held a third pole between the two poles, while another person, squatted beside the first pole. He sighted down the line, motioning to his partner either to right or left, to get the pole lined up. That pole was then stuck in the ground. The other stakes to mark the fence row were set in the same fashion. This line dictated the point of the angle of either the inside of the fence or the outside. When using poles in this fashion, there was no need for ropes or strings…Modern farmers with high labor costs and huge acreages and large herds to care for, even using power saws cannot afford to spend the time needed to build and maintain rail fences, which when built, would have less than half the life of a wire fence.
Perhaps an even greater factor contributing to their decline was fire, especially if built near wooded areas which were usually burned off every spring. Jim said, "One trouble with rail fences, they would catch the leaves in the fall of the year and pile up sometimes two feet deep around them. Then when the fire got out, why to try to keep from burning the fence up, it was just next to impossible. We'd go down through, tearing the rail fence down, throwing the rails out trying to keep them from all burning up...
A straight rail fence on this bluff ledge keeps the cattle from being butted off as they gather under the bluff for protection from the weather. Photos by Kathy Long.
The American Farmer: A Complete Agricultural Library, with Useful Facts for the Household (1884)
“Under the usages and customs of a former generation, who, in settling their country, first cleared a field and then fenced and cultivated it, permitting the farm stock to run in the uncleared portions, this system of fencing was inaugurated. But the necessities of that remote period are not the necessities of to-day, and the customs and usages of that generation are not essential to the present…
While fences on a farm seem, to a certain extent, to be a necessity, yet, according to the former custom of fencing, they are far more extensive than is essential, except, perhaps, in the prairie regions; and that which is spent in making and keeping them in repair might much more profitably be appropriated to other purposes.
Surplus fences are not only expensive and unprofitable, but they are an incumbrance to the land. Many of them are so constructed that they take up valuable land that might otherwise be under cultivation, such as the stone walls common in many portions of New England, the zigzag or Virginia fence, etc. Besides, the general appearance of a farm that is not divided by numerous lines of fences is much more in conformity with good taste.
Fences furnish a place for weeds to grow and ripen their seed, which are scattered by the wind over the land; they also are a safe harbor for mice, rats, and other pests.
Unnecessary fences on a farm, are, therefore, not only a useless expense, and an obstruction to cultivation, but a disfigurement to the landscape, and a harbor for weeds and vermin; and if the amount of unproductive labor which they incur were reduced, great benefit would be derived, since by so doing, the productiveness of the farm would be practically increased, without any increased outlay in labor, money, or draft upon the fertility of the soil. In some parts of New England, the old division and highway fences have been removed, which has greatly increased the general attractiveness of such farms, as well as the towns in which they are located. The owners have by this means improved the general appearance of their farms, and reduced the expense of maintaining them.
In almost every State in New England there are examples of such improvements, which are gradually extending. Among the many places made especially attractive by this means might be mentioned Cherryville, in South Manchester, Conn.; also, Amherst, Mass., and vicinity. Very few fences are also seen in some of the river valleys, where the annual inundations would sweep them away.
To what extent farm fences are essential will depend somewhat upon different conditions and circumstances. The crops must, of course, be protected. This protection may be furnished by fencing the farm animals in, appropriating a certain portion of the farm to this purpose, or by enclosing the cultivated fields by fences, and thus fencing them out. Where the law requires every owner of farm-stock to keep his animals on his own land, or to be responsible for all damage done by them, highway fences will not be necessary, since the owners, being made liable for such damage, will be careful to keep them confined to their own premises. The fences required in such sections, therefore, are those that will keep each owner's animals confined on his own premises, and not such as shall fence out those of his neighbors; consequently, pasture fences, and fences about some of the farm buildings, will be all the permanent ones that are essential. 'Where soiling is commonly practiced, even pasture fences could be dispensed with.
In those sections where the statute law and custom require a highway and division fence, a boundary fence will be essential, but the law and custom may be changed, and if farmers use their influence in securing the enactment and enforcement of stringent laws in respect to restraining stock, this may be accomplished, and highway fences be rendered unnecessary.
Farm animals that are not under the direct charge of a keeper, who is responsible for the injury they may do, should never be tolerated in the highway. Such toleration would be detrimental to the best agricultural interests of the country. If certain portions of the farm, aside from the common pastures, are desired to be used as pasturage at any time, such as mowing-lands for a season in the fall, movable fences may be used, similar to the hurdle fences, so extensively employed in England. As a general rule, the permanent fences necessary, except where boundary and division fences are required, will be those for the pasture, and around farm buildings, such as barns and sheds. A temporary fence can occasionally be used when necessary, which will secure the convenience of a permanent one without its disadvantages, and for this purpose a movable fence, as previously recommended, is the most desirable.
In England and other portions of Europe, when cattle and sheep are pastured where there are no fences, a shepherd is employed to take charge of them, who, with the assistance of a well-trained dog, will keep large flocks and herds under perfect control, and as strictly confined to prescribed limits as though there were fences for this purpose. This practice of employing shepherds is based upon the principle that it is less expensive to take care of the herds than to keep up the fences.
Removing Fences.—We would recommend to all farmers the maintaining only of such fences on the farm as are absolutely necessary for the safety of the crops, and the confinement of the stock, and the removal of all such as are not essential. Unnecessary fences on a farm are an expensive nuisance…(T)he removal of the stone-walls, however, that are found in many parts of New England, would involve much labor and expense, and in some instances it is questionable whether their removal would pay for all the expenditure of time and labor that would be required to accomplish the object. This would depend upon the locality of the wall, the improvement and convenience secured by its removal, and the use to which the stones could be appropriated, or the facility with which they might be gotten out of the way. Many of these walls have been built for a century or more, and have been kept in repair from generation to generation. They were appropriated to this use, originally, partly because the fences were considered a necessity, and partly as a means of getting rid of the stones by which the land was encumbered. What to do with the stones, in removing such fences, would be the question to be considered. The best and most practical way of disposing of them is to use them where they will be a benefit in drainage. On nearly every farm there are wet lands that require drainage, and by using these incumbrances of the land for this purpose, acres of new or virgin soil may be secured for cultivation that might otherwise be nearly worthless for agricultural purposes.
Ravines and swales may also bo filled with stones, while many may be utilized for the foundation of farm buildings, and thus in one way and another they can be disposed of in a manner that will increase the value of the farm.
Mr. Starr, the former proprietor of the famous Echo Farm, settled the perplexing question of what to do with the stones in clearing his fields of them, in a manner that may be of advantage to some other farmers to imitate who have this difficulty to meet.
Selecting an untillable spot in a field in which there were one or two natural mound-like hillocks, a large pile of stones was made, consisting of several hundred loads, and, as an experiment, this pile was covered with tussocks of coarse swamp-grass, which are hard of decomposition. These were inverted, covering the stones. On this foundation, a light dressing of soil was placed, and grass-seed sown.
This experiment proved a success; the grass soon grew over this artificial mound, which appeared to bear the protracted droughts even better than the natural ones, while the first showers made them conspicuously green.
From time to time these mounds have been extended and multiplied, and in all cases proved a success. The object was not to form new land, but to dispose of the stones. Whenever practicable, natural depressions may be made use of for depositing stones. By such means the surplus stones may be gotten rid of without being an encumbrance to the land, or marring its appearance, and also without being a place in which noxious weeds, briars, and shrubs will find refuge.
Rail Fence.—The kind of fences used on a farm will vary according to circumstances, the most available material being generally employed in each section. As the country becomes older, and the material for fencing purposes becomes more scarce and expensive, the question as to the most economical and durable* fence to construct becomes a more important one to determine. The first settlers of the country, finding timber and stone abundant, made use of these principally in the construction of fences. Hence, the rail-fence and stone-wall became the most common at that time. In newly-settled portions, where timber is plenty, the common rail-fence, or what is termed the zigzag or Virginia fence, is quite extensively employed, owing to the material being cheap,—often an incumbrance in clearing up new lands,—and the rails being easily split.
This style of fence has been very appropriately termed by a recent writer, "the relic of a lavish era of unlimited forestry," the counterpart of which is seen in no other country, it being typical of Yankeeland. Cedar is most commonly used for making rails, although hemlock, chestnut, and other kinds of timber may be employed for this purpose.
In making a rail-fence, wooden blocks are preferred to stones for supports at the corners, as the stones will soon sink into the ground and become of no use whatever. Blocks will decay in time, but they may be replaced by others. The stakes used should always be large enough to give sufficient strength and support to the fence. It will be a practice of economy also to make them long enough to be re-sharpened and used again when the ends decay. Long stakes projecting at the corners, however, give a fence an unsightly appearance. A more symmetrical and neater-looking fence, besides being equally strong, can be made by putting two upright stakes, one on either side of the angle formed in crossing the rails, and securing them by a plank in which holes are made of sufficient size and distance apart to admit of being slipped over these posts to hold them securely after all but one or two of the top rails have been laid. The upper rails are then put on to hold the plank firmly in place. Annealed wire of large size maybe wound around the stakes to hold them in place, instead of the use of the plank, if desired. The objections to the common rail-fence are, the large amount of timber necessary for its construction, the ease with which it may be thrown down by stock, or blown over by the strong winds, and the amount of land it occupies. Where timber is abundant, land plenty, and saw-mills not easily accessible, some kind of a rail-fence may prove the most profitable; but, as a general rule, with ordinary facilities for obtaining other material, and where land is valuable, some other style of fence is to be preferred.