OLD TIMER’S FENCE TALE
By Norris Chambers
When we were growing up and roaming the countryside there was still much of the old pre-wire days left. The pre-wire days were the mid 1800s before barbed wire was introduced to keep livestock in certain areas. But even in those days, there had to be some way to keep them where they belonged and where they were more convenient for the farmer’s or rancher’s use. The country dwellers of those days resorted to whatever material that was available to fashion lots and fences. Of course the most available in the average area was timber. Trees were split into long poles that were known as “fence rails”. Most small trees were split in the middle and provided two rails. Larger ones were split again and four rails were available.
There were two popular methods of making a rail fence. One method was to dig holes and install two posts, side by side, with the rails tight between them. Some sort of binding was necessary to hold the rail in place. This could be holes drilled between the two posts and a peg inserted between the two, providing a resting place for the rail. Four or five rails were usually installed, depending on what type of animal the enclosure was intended to confine. This type of fence was very nice but took considerable time to construct. Usually a fence like this was used for pens and lots. An easier version was used for longer pasture fences.
Construction of the long country rail fences began with the placement of a flat rock at the end of each bottom rail. This raised it off of the ground four or five inches. Then the rails were criss-crossed at about a 30 degree angle and stacked to a height of about four feet. The criss-crossing kept the stacked rails in place as the fence extended across the country-side. The only evidence we saw of this type of fence was the foundation rocks that were still in place where a rail fence had been many years ago.
There were a few stretches of rock fence still in existence, but not usually in use. They had been replaced with more convenient wire fences long ago. As country kids our concern was with the remains of rock fences where valuable fur-bearing animals, such as ‘possums or skunks, had managed to locate a nice den and hiding place under the large rocks. We spent considerable time prying big stones and digging for the poor creatures that supplied our “money crop”.
In some areas the old rock fences had not been disturbed. These relics were a real work of art. The old fence builders did a beautiful job of selecting rocks and precisely placing them to form a straight and durable wall without using cement of any kind.
Fences known as “picket fences” were sometimes used to enclose small areas, such as yards, gardens or lots but were not used for pasture fencing. These fences were built with shorter timbers placed in a vertical position and held together with horizontal rails attached to posts and secured to the picket timbers.
When barbed wire was introduced in the late eighteen hundreds it looked much the same as it does today. There were several different brands of the wire and the primary difference was in the shape and placement of the barbs that were inserted at regular intervals between the two twisted wires that formed the main strand. This product simplified the construction of fences. All that was required was a row of posts set in the ground and a strongly braced corner post from which the wire could be stretched tightly. Many of the old time fence builders tried to find strong trees for the stretching post. This eliminated a lot of work and usually allowed for a tighter fence.
The number of wire strands in a barbed wire fence depended on what was being kept in the pasture. A simple fence for cattle or work horses was only three wires. As many wires as were needed could be added.
About the same time that barbed wire appeared other types became available and were widely used. Net-type wire of many varieties used for confining goats, sheep, hogs and even chickens and turkeys was in common use.
Probably the most important wire of all was baling wire. Baling machines used two wires per bale. New baling wire came in a length of about six or eight feet. One end had a neat twisted loop that was used by the man who hand-tied the bales on the baling machine. There were two wires holding the bale together. When the hay was used the wires were removed, either by using cutters or untying and discarded them. Some neat feeders coiled the wire neatly and stuck it over the top of a fence post. Others, not so neat, threw it on the ground where it was soon ragged and tangled. Later someone tripped on it and often wound up with a broken arm. But baling wire was the miracle wire that was used for anything – it has been said that a Model T Ford, after a few months, was held together by baling wire. The same statement applied to just about everything on the farm.
Did all this wire create a lot of fun? Of course it did. You might try gathering some wire and letting it tickle your funny bone on a dismal day!