Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Fencing On The Prairie

One of the curriculum requirements for schools in Kansas would naturally be state history. We were taught quite a bit about the past locally - and it was something I enjoyed. We learned how a lot of things all had to come together for civilization to come to the prairie. The buffalo - whether by design or accident - were eliminated, as well as any Indian presence. Early settlers arrived by Conestoga wagons, but followers came by train. Railroads were instrumental in bringing necessary goods to the area at a cost people could bear.

One of the building blocks that was missing was - building blocks. Western Kansas did have a few trees, but the construction of the early Army posts wiped out the sparse tree population. We've all heard about how people lived in dugouts and sod houses - that's all there was. Freighting in the necessary wood to build a home was strictly for the rich, and traditional wood fences were right out as well. I'm sure most of us have heard of the prairie campfire fuel - buffalo chips. That worked, but you couldn't build anything with a bunch of dried up buffalo turds.

Split rail fence - just like Honest Abe used to chop. The first cattlemen didn't worry about fencing - they ran open range. That required honest neighbors and cooperation, plus it pretty well eliminated any farming, because there was no way to keep the cattle out of the crops.

But, the invention of barbed wire and it's gradual adoption as fencing material also helped settle the west. Even so, the wire still needed some sort of post for support. Here's one of the local solutions:

That's post rock, which amazingly enough, has a museum devoted to the subject in LaCrosse KS. Early settlers discovered there was a layer of limestone beneath the surface - the first quarries were near a creek or river where erosion had exposed the layer. Some were just hammered out, some were cut with a drill and wedge arrangement, and during the winter, holes properly drilled filled with water were left overnight to freeze so the next day - voila - fresh post rocks! Blocks of this same limestone were also used in building construction - you can see many old abandoned farm outbuildings and houses, plus some downtowns have old commercial buildings still in use.

But, that solution was area specific - from where I live, the post rock phenomena is mostly north and east of The Poor Farm. Even though some of these things are still being used for fences, it took a lot of labor to cut, haul, and plant the unwieldy rocks in the days of horses and wagons. The fence building technique also required some sort of wooden post to help support the wire between the behemoths.

Locally, this is called a hedge apple tree, but it's more widely known as osage-orange. The trees don't get very tall, the trunks and branches are twisted and crooked, so the wood is unsuitable for boards or much of anything else.

But, you can get some chunks long enough - if you can live with all the twists and curves - to make a fence post.

A hedge apple. The wood is very hard yet slightly flexible, and one of it's endearing qualities is rot resistance when buried in a post hole. My grandfather used a ton of these things on our pasture fence, and some of them are still out there sixty years later. Plus, if you want to drive a staple in one, finding an old hole or a suitable split is a good idea because driving a "steeple" in a hedge post is a daunting task. If we got enough of one partly in and the thing folded over, but still held the wire, we figured it was good. Otherwise, you just destroyed the staple. That wood is hard, I tell ya.

Now people buy creosote soaked wood or metal posts that are straight and true. It still costs a ton of dollars to build a new fence, but compared to what our forefathers had to deal with - it's pretty cheap.

So, if you're ever driving through this area, and see a fence with rock posts, or an old bank or courthouse built of limestone rocks, you'll be seeing history. And, if you see some old fence made from odd, twisted knotty posts, you'll know why.


drjim said...

I've seen "limestone" fence posts back in my native Illinois, but never gave them much thought. The area I grew up in had huge limestone deposits along the DuPage and Illinois rivers, and I just figured it was a more permanent material to use than wood.

Jeffro said...

I didn't know anywhere else used them - it was not much a matter of choice here.

drjim said...

Now that I think about it, I remember they seemed to be only at certain places, like corners of the fields. Maybe they stone ones were used for survey markers, where they wanted something a bit more stable and long-lasting than wood.

RT said...

Neat-o! :) Around these parts, as in other areas of the country (I'm sure), we have stone posts that are mile markers and such. It is neat to see how far back they date, often to the Revolutionary period or earlier.

og said...

We used to have hedge everywhere when I was a kid. Hardest native north american hardwood, if i recall correctly. I always liked the look of the wood, though not a lot of people liked the greenish yellowish cast. I had an osage orange tree in my frontyard, about 40' tall and arrow straight. I have a humidor I made out of pieces of it. I've seen horses chewing on hedge apples but never thought they were very appetizing. I used to keep them in the basement to keep spiders away, which they seemed to do well.

Sonica said...

What an exciting experience!/Hilarious! Delightful! True!/wonderful stuff! thank you!
Fencing Post

jhon said...

he sprawling development and golf course where I live was once a farm, far removed from the traffic that now boarders it on all sides.6 foot chain link fence

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