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Yesterday’s Fence for Today’s Homestead

by Kathryn Wingrove

Prior to the invention of wire fencing, farmers had to contain their livestock.  They used what they had on hand and what was easy to obtain locally.  For many of us this is a viable alternative especially when materials might be abundant but money for store-bought fencing materials is not.  Many homesteads have woodlots that need to be thinned, wooded areas that need to be cleared for buildings, or just brush that accumulates from wind damage and old trees.  Other places have an abundance of field stone.  These things are a wealth of resources for building fences and that is exactly the way that our ancestors viewed them.  

When we moved to our little farm, the fences were in terrible shape.  We knew that we would have to re-fence the entire property, but certainly didn’t have the money to do it all at once.  We patched what we could and looked to the past for options in other areas that we couldn’t afford to replace or patch.  What we found was a wealth of building and fencing material that was being wasted and underutilized.  

Two types of fence that dotted the colonial American countryside were split-rail fences and jackleg fences.  Both fences are basically made out of logs from trees that were cleared to make room for the homestead’s various buildings.  To colonial America, these trees were a wealth of raw material to be used.  The split-rail fence was made by splitting logs usually into quarters or eighths, depending on the diameter of the log.  This fence could either simply be stacked in a zigzag pattern or the ends of the rails could be tapered to fit into drilled holes in a post.  Typically, there were three rails, but there could be four.  If the rails were simply set on each other then there were more rails for added height.  If the fence was to stand upright, the posts were set into the ground and the fence so that the fence ran in a straight line rather than zigzag across the landscape.  

Split-rail fence

Jackleg fences on the other hand have post sets fashioned in an X pattern that sit on top of the ground.  These fences could be fashioned in sections and moved if needed, although that was a difficult task.  The rails of the jackleg fence then proceeded down one side of the X forming the body of the fence.  The top rail sat in between the joint in the X and stabilized the fence.

Jackleg fence

Both of these fences were time consuming to build, however the raw material were readily available.  The split-rail and post fence used less material for the same amount of fence length as the jackleg fence.  The split-rail fence was a more permanent structure if it had posts that were anchored in the ground.  A jackleg fence could be built in sections that could be moved by a few strong men to change the shape and size of fields.  However, the drawback to this was that the jackleg fence could be tipped over in a good wind storm.  The key was to make the bottom rail quite heavy to give it more stability.  A jackleg fence tended to be built with whole logs so there was much less preparation prior to building the fence.  A split-rail fence built in a zigzag pattern was not only sturdy, but aesthetically nice to look at and easily repaired if needed.

We used a version of the split rail fence by building a log fence.  We set posts in such a way that they would create a frame to hold logs.  These logs were the trunks of "trash" trees that had overgrown our property and needed to be removed.  The trees weren’t good for firewood or much else and we wanted to utilize them in whatever way we could.  We have several posts set on the outside and then several more offset to the inside.  In this manner, the logs could be set inside the post frame and became quite a sturdy fence that holds our small breed of heritage pigs.  Working with logs in this manner can be sort of like solving a jigsaw puzzle if the trunks aren’t straight.  However, that is a challenge that can easily be overcome especially when cost is a concern.

Our log fence

Going back even further in time, many English farmers used hedgerows to fence small livestock such as sheep.  Cattle could even be contained within hedgerows.  Hedgerows were made by cutting saplings halfway through the trunk and then bending them over and anchoring them to the ground.  This way the branches tended to grow upright.  This formed the base of the hedgerow.  Periodically, the farmer would cut the branches to encourage them to branch out and intertwine.  This eventually formed the hedgerows that we often still see dotting the English countryside.  However, the drawback was that this took time for the hedge to grow.  While waiting for this growth many farmers would fill in the sparse hedgerow with brush that would provide a barrier while the hedgerow was growing a more permanent fence.  By the time the hedgerow was fully filled in, the brush that had been used was mostly rotted away.  Once the hedgerow was fully filled in, it provided a formidable barrier for small stock and would turn most large stock to keep them contained.

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