Skip to content

Kansas School Naturalist


KSN - Vol 21, No 2 - FencesVolume 21, Number 2 - December 1974

Fences

by Robert J. Boles

 

ABOUT THIS ISSUE

Published by Emporia Kansas State Teachers College

Prepared and issued by The Department of Biology, with the cooperation of the Division of Education

Editor: Robert J. Boles

Editorial Committee: James S. Wilson, Gilbert A. Leisman, Jo Lynne, Robert F. Clarke

Online format by: Terri Weast

The Kansas School Naturalistis sent upon request, free of charge, to Kansas teachers, school board members and administrators, librarians, conservationists, youth leaders, and other adults interested in nature education. Back numbers are sent free as long as supply lasts, except Vol.5, No.3, Poisonous Snakes of Kansas. Copies of this issue may be obtained for 25 cents each postpaid. Send orders to The Kansas School Naturalist, Department of Biology, Kansas State Teachers College, Emporia, Kansas, 66801.

The Kansas School Naturalist is published in October, December, February, and April of each year by Emporia Kansas State College, 1200 Commercial Street, Emporia, Kansas, 66801. Second-class postage paid at Emporia, Kansas.

"Statement required by the Act of October, 1962: Section 4369, Title 39, United States Code, showing Ownership, Management and Circulation." The Kansas School Naturalist is published in October, December, February, and April. Editorial Office and Publication Office at 1200 Commercial Street, Emporia, Kansas, 66801. The Naturalist is edited and published by the Emporia Kansas State College, Emporia, Kansas. Editor, Robert J. Boles, Department of Biology.


Fences

by Robert J. Boles

"Oh give me land, lots of land, under starry skies
above-DON'T FENCE ME IN"

-Cole Porter


FENCE-an enclosure, especially an enclosing barrier,
as one to prevent straying from within or intrusion.

-Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary

Fences come in all shapes and sizes, living and dead, to protect and to hide, to make an area more attractive, to provide homes for wildlife, and sometimes even to provide a means for someone to express his artistic (?) ability.

This issue of The Kansas School Naturalist is devoted to the subject of fences. We will explore some of the
various types of fences that may be seen by someone traveling about these United States. Perhaps the material here will stimulate your interest and add to your pleasure when you take a trip, for fences figuratively, if not literally, tell you a great deal about the area, and the people who call that part of our great country home.

"Honest Abe" Fences

Most school children have heard the story of Abraham Lincoln's boyhood, and how he earned the nickname of "the railsplitter." Such fences may still be found in some parts of rural America, especially in areas where
trees are still relatively plentiful and land is rocky, as in the Ozark Mountains of Southern Missouri and
Northern Arkansas.

split rail fence

Split rail fences may still be seen in some parts of rural America. Imagine the amount of energy and back-breaking labor it took to construct such a fence, even without considering the cutting of the trees, and the splitting of each one into rails.

rail fence

The above rail fence was built from the ties of a defunct railroad. The uniform ties permitted the construction of a much more symmetrical fence than one built from split rails. Also, the creosote-impregnated logs resist rot and insect damage. Note the vegetation along the fence, providing cover, food, and nesting places for various species of wildlife.

stone fence

An old stone fence in Lyon County. Note that the present land owner, rather than go to the time and expense of replacing the fallen stones upon the low places in the fence, has merely strung barbed wire alongside the original stone fence.

stone post fence

The wires that once passed through the holes in this old-timer have long since rusted away, but the stone post still stands, firm and sturdy as when it was set in position by the workhardened hands of some early pioneer in northwestern Kansas.

stone post fence

Termites find tough chewing on these stone posts. Note that no nails have been used. The strands of barbed wire were merely wrapped about the posts. The heavy posts were buried only a short distance into the shallow topsoils, and given additional support by having two heavy stone posts leaned against them on each side.

stone fence

This stone fence is still being used in Rush County, in western Kansas. Note the shallow topsoil. The vegetation along the fence row provides about the only cover for wildlife living in the area. Birds such as pheasants, however, that try to nest in such limited cover, usually have poor nesting survival as egg eating animals, such as snakes and skunks, use these natural travel
lanes and the narrow strip greatly increases the chance that the nest will be discovered and the eggs destroyed.

building ruins as fence

Perhaps you have never thought of the walls of a house or barn as constituting a fence. Admittedly, they may enclose a rather small space, but they fill the definition by "preventing straying from within or intrusion."

cattle pens

One of the few cattle pens still in good repair. This pen, located in the Flint Hills, is still in use. However, the cattle now are usually loaded into huge semi-trailer trucks, rather than railroad cattle cars.

tumbled weeds caught in barbed wire fence

In western Kansas, the wind sometimes blows the Russian thistles against the barbed-wire fences, where they catch to form thick piles or rows. This provides valuable protection for such wildlife as pheasants and jackrabbits during times of severe winter weather, such as a blizzard.

Burning the tumbleweeds may "clear" the fence row, but it also may result in a reduction in the
number of pheasants for the next year, especially if the winter is a severe one.

barbed wire fence

A neat, well-stretched barbed wire fence. Though it serves its purpose of keeping livestock in or out well, the bare ground along the fence row offers no protection to wildlife, either for nesting, hiding, or as travel lanes to safer cover.

barbed wire fence

This barbed wire fence separates a badly managed and overgrazed pasture from one that has had much better care. Neither cattle nor
wildlife can subsist in the field to the left, and wind and rain erosion can carry away the already shallow topsoil. The heavy stand of grass to the right provides protection for the soil against the elements, and food and protection for both livestock and wildlife.

steel fence posts

Steel fence posts are driven into the ground, and the "snow fence" wired to them. Such fences are placed so that they will slow the force of the wind, causing it to drop much of its snow burden. Snow fences are usually taken up during the summer and put out in the fall where it is anticipated they will be needed to reduce the danger of snow drifts blocking the highway.

snow fences

Snow fences a long the railroad in action. This pic ture was taken during the winter in Wyoming. Note the size and depth of the drifts behind the  fences.

little fence protecting little tree

A little fence to protect a single tree. This evergreen tree was in a pasture containing livestock. Without protection, they would eat many of the needles and young branches, and might even kill the tree by rubbing their bodies against the trunk.

shelter belts

Rail fences were used long before the invention of barbed wire. When the early settlers came to this country, they found the land covered with timber, which they had to cut to clear the land for farming. The logs were therefore plentiful for constructing the fences. Also, other than stone for stone fences, little if any other kind of fence-building material was available. Even if it had been, money was so scarce that the settlers could not have afforded to purchase it. Large families were the rule, and the settler's sons soon learned the back-breaking, but necessary, skill of splitting logs to make the needed fences. Such fences lasted surprisingly long, especially when they were constructed from one of the hard woods, such as oak.

The zig-zag arrangement of the logs (no nails were used) made it almost impossible to cultivate close to the fence. As a result, weeds, berries, and briars usually found conditions excellent for growth and survival. This in turn provided homes, travel lanes, and food for many birds and mammals. Such is not the case with many of the fence rows of America today.

Stone Fences

 

Many hours of back-breaking work are represented by this stack of stone fence posts. Note the rows of drilling holes that were made in order to split off each post. Some farmers are now selling these venerable old stone posts as antiques.

As settlers moved westward, they found that timber was not as plentiful for the building of fences, and were forced to turn to other materials. Much of the Great Plains was once under the sea, and in some places extensive layers of limestone and sandstone were laid down. The soil above these layers gradually eroded away until the layers were exposed. Enterprising pioneers soon found they could use this stone to build longlasting, insect- and decay-proof fences.

In areas where the layers of limestone were a foot or so thick, the stone fence posts were split off from
the rock stratum. Splitting the stone was no easy task. One method was to bore a series of holes into the rock, drive wooden pegs into the holes, and pour water over the pegs. The pegs, upon absorbing the water, commenced to swell, exerting great pressure, which split the post-shaped piece off from the parent layer. As in the case of the split rail fences, no nails were used in putting up the fences. Sometimes holes were made through the posts, and the wire that ran from post to post passed through the holes. Other farmers merely wrapped the wire about the post a few times to hold it tight and in place. Sometimes the topsoil was quite shallow, and it became necessary to prop the post up with other stone posts leaned against it at an angle.

In areas where the limestone of the sedimentary layers was fragmented, as in the Flinthills of Eastern Kansas, the fences were often made by gathering the flattened stones from the land being tilled. This not only made fewer rocks to dull the blade of the plow, but also provided the raw material from which the new fence could be fashioned. Many hours of tedious labor were required to construct such a fence. Some of these old stone fences were so well constructed that they still stand today, many generations after they were carefully fitted together, stone by stone.

These fences were often originally built to keep animals out, as much or more than to keep animals in. A herd of buffalo or elk could destroy a year's crop in a matter of a few hours, something the struggling
pioneer with his large family could not well afford. Sometimes these stone fences also saved the crops, homes, and even lives of the settlers by helping to stop the raging prairie fires that sometimes raced through the tall native grasses, started, many times, by lightening.

The many cracks and crevices in these fences still provide homes for lizards, snakes, and invertebrates such as spiders, scorpions, and centipedes.

Sometimes these flat limestone slabs were used to build the walls of the old farmstead and the various outbuildings about the farm. In this case, the walls were really fences to keep animals and the weather out, or to keep the livestock inside. If you watch carefully as you ride about the country, you may see such remnants of the old stone walls, often all that remains to show where a happy, industrious farm family once lived.

Fences To Hold Cattle For Shipping

Before the coming of the huge semi-trailer livestock trucks, cattle were often driven to loading pens, usually situated alongside a railroad siding on the outskirts of a small western Kansas town. These pens had heavy wooden fences and gates as barbwire might cut or damage the crowded, frightened animals. Cowboys drove their herds into the pens, where they were separated and loaded onto cattle cars. Some of you older readers may remember the bawling of the cattle and the "yahooing" of the cowboys, often extending far into the night as they prodded the reluctant animals up the ramp into the waiting cattlecar. Today many of these cattle pens are gone, the planks and posts of the fence having been "robbed" to build other pens or to construct farm buildings. Some still stand, silent and decaying, their empty pens filled with giant ragweeds and thistles, mute evidence to the passing of a fascinating era of Kansas' early history.

The Barbed-Wire Fence

Cattlemen of the old west hated to see the coming of the barbed-wire fence, for it meant the passing of the open range. Many kinds of barbed wire were invented through the years, and some have become valuable collector's items. Books have been written on the subject, and annual meetings are held, where
collectors gather to discuss the various kinds they have, and to auction some of the more valuable and rarer types to the highest bidders. You might be on the alert for examples of these early barbed wires. Try to get pieces at least eighteen inches in length. If you find some old wire, collect several pieces while you are at it. You may have one of the kinds worth hundreds of dollars.

Originally barbed wire was strung between wooden posts. The posts were usually from catalpa or Osage orange, as both types were strong, could be grown on the farm, and resisted decay and insect damage. Old catalpa groves may still be seen in some parts of Kansas, and no doubt hundreds of posts have been cut from each grove through the years. Osage orange posts were cut from the hedge rows about the fields, or from trees that had "escaped" into the pastures about the hedge row.

Today steel posts are often used. Impervious to insect damage and decay, they do away with the slow
and expensive process of digging post holes, as they may be driven into the ground with a special piece of equipment designed for that purpose.

Barbed-wire fences have the advantage of allowing the farmer to cultivate right up next to the fence,
thus gaining a few more rows of crops. Also, they do not take part of the limited water supply from the
soil, as would a living fence like a hedge row. However, they also leave little cover for the wildlife, and furbearing animals, such as skunks, and game birds, such as pheasants, find it next to impossible, if not impossible, to survive in such sparce cover.

In the western part of the state, great piles of Russian thistle may be blown up against the barbed wire. This then provides excellent cover for wildlife. Also, the piled-up thistles serve as a snow fence, causing the snow to be deposited on the land behind the obstruction, where it can melt and the moisture be available for the farmer's crops that spring.

A Fence To Stop The Snow

These fences were originally invented to hold unshelled corn, so that air could circulate about the
ears, allowing the grain to dry so that it would not spoil or mildew. With the coming of the automobile and the train, it became necessary to think up a way to keep the drifting snow from blocking the lanes of travel. Fences and soft, plowed fields were now the rule, and no longer could the traveler drive his team of horses or mules out on the sod of the prairie around the obstructing snowbank. Farmers were well aware of how the snow piled up on the down-wind side of their homes and outbuildings, and on the sheltered side of the catalpa groves from which they cut their fence posts. It didn't take a great deal of reasoning to figure out that the fence, originally designed for holding grain, might serve to catch the snow just as did the catalpa grove or the outbuilding. Today such fences are common, often being set out in the early fall some distance from the road after the farmer has harvested his crop and reseeded his field, and taken up in the spring after the last big snow and before the next crop is ready for harvest.

Railroad snow fences are often much higher and more permanent structures. Many may be seen as one travels by train through the western states, such as Wyoming. Anyone traveling through such an area during the winter may see huge drifts piled up behind these fences , reducing the chance of the train getting stranded in a snow drift, or the need to send out a snow plow to clear the tracks.

Some of you older readers will remember the "dirty thirties." It was during this time that the "shelter belts" were planted to help break the force of the wind, causing it to drop some of the fine topsoil it was carrying away from the land. Many of these shelter belts are still standing in western Kansas, but the high price of farm products has resulted in a considerable number being bulldozed out to provide a few more square feet of land upon which to raise crops. Should another prolonged drought period again occur, we may wish we hadn't been so shortsighted. In addition to slowing down the wind, shelter belts have been a great boon to wildlife.

cattle guard

The above structure is called a "cattleguard." It is a fence that literally "lies on the ground." Livestock soon learn not to try to cross such fences lest one of their feet slip between the parallel logs or pipes and a leg be broken. Such special fences save the time and trouble of opening and closing gates. In areas where cattle are thoroughly familiar with such structures, parallel white lines painted across a hard-top road may serve as an effective " fence," the cattle refusing to cross the lines, which they apparently consider to be one of these devices.

Osage orange trees

Osage orange trees planted closely together in rows provided many of the early fences in eastern Kansas. A hedge means a "barrier," so these trees came to be called "hedge trees," as they could be used as a
barrier to the passage of livestock from one field to another. Note the "browse line" where livestock have eaten the lower branches and shoots up to a height of several feet.

Osage orange trees taking over a field

Living fences sometimes "escape," and become a problem. Here Osage orange trees are taking over a field next to a hedge row. The hedge balls containing the seeds were scattered about the area, often by such animals as squirrels and pack rats, where some of the seeds took root.

fence of entagled multiflora rose stems

This fence was formed from entangled multiflora rose stems. The thorns on this plant are curved inwards, making it difficult and painful to escape if once entrapped. Such fences can be livestock-proof. In addition, the fruit, or rose hips, make excellent wildlife food, and the thorny stems provide good nesting and escape cover for quail and perching birds, as well as for small mammals, such as rabbits.

pines growing close together will become future fence posts

Perhaps you have heard the expression "beef on the hoof." Here are "fences on the roots." These pines have been grown close together, causing them to be slender and straight. Each one will provide several fence posts.

cut trees in uniform length

The trees are cut, debarked, and posts sorted and cut to a uniform size and length. They are then impregnated with a preservative, such as creosote, to reduce decay and insect damage.

posts loaded on trucks

The posts are then loaded on trucks, to be delivered to various parts of the United States, where they will play a part in helping to provide some of the materials required to construct the fences of tomorrow.

damaged guard rail

Such fences as the one above are designed to help save lives. Not even such a sturdy fence as this, however, can stand up to the impact of a heavy automobile traveling at a high rate of speed.

piles of old cars as fences

One of the ugliest sights that blight the countryside is the piles of old car bodies. Here only a snow fence surrounds this junkyard. A living fence, such as a row of evergreen trees, would hide this unsightly mess
from distracting from the traveler's enjoyment of the outdoors, reducing, if not eliminating, one source of "visual pollution."

fence made of firewood

A fence that can be sold or burned. This imaginative individual made double use of his firewood. It serves
to give him a substantial, and unusual, fence while waiting for someone to purchase the firewood for the coming winter.

tires as fence

Where do old tires go when they have served their time transporting their owners about the countryside? Some put in some more service by being a part of a fence. This is much better use for old tires than to throw them in a ditch, or into some pond or open trash pile.

wheels as fences

What do you do with your old buggy, wagon, wheelbarrow, or bicycle wheels? Why, use them as the top row
of your fence, naturally. Such a fence is certainly different, but not too likely to catch on.

Flooding water-ways are rough on fences. This fence was constructed so that it would swing downstream when the water rose, allowing the rushing water and the debris it transports to pass under, instead of building up and exerting sufficient pressure to tear the fence loose from the posts.

trash can lids on fences

Lids are for covering cans, but they can also be used to help construct a fence. Though most people might not consider the fence above as a thing of beauty, it does present an interesting study of parallel lines and circles.

flooding waterways and fences

Did you ever wonder where missing hubcaps went? Perhaps they went to help build a fence, such as the one above. Whatever is hidden behind the fence may be more unsightly than the fence, but it is doubtful.

missing hubcaps on fences


The Kansas School Naturalist Department of Biology 
  College of Liberal Arts & Sciences 
Send questions / comments to
Kansas School Naturalist.
 Emporia State University