Walking around, I don’t think of fences much, except that they be in enough repair to keep the cattle in. Yet almost 200 years of history lie along the edges of the fields. First there is the remnants of the old root fence that the first settlers put up to keep their livestock in. They just laid torn out stumps side by side so that the entangled roots would baffle horses and cows. Then came the split rail fences. Made of practically indestructible red cedar. Miles of them are still in use in the county, the rails perhaps a hundred years old. Usually, they just need the odd cross piece straightened and a bit of new wire to keep them from sinking down into the grass as so many have done along abandoned farmland.
Next came the era of barbed wire. Nasty stuff to handle and the cattle quickly learn to give it a miss. Barbed wire must be anchored at each end and stretched tight in the middle before it is attached to wood or metal posts. Around here, the land consists of several inches of shale over limestone bedrock. So you can’t dig a hole for fence posts. You have to actually drill a hole in the rock to put in a steel post. Once in, those posts don’t ever come out again. The anchors, in earlier days, were inventive structures called “dead men”. A “dead man” consisted of a circle of posts standing atop the ground and held upright with metal hoops, usually from old wooden wagon wheels. The circle of posts was then filled with rocks picked up and tossed into the middle, making a column heavy and strong enough to anchor the fence on one side of a field.
Next and last came page wire with woven squares small enough to keep in anything from a sheep up. When Hurricane Hazel blew down most of the rail fence along the road, a major loss, the farm got lucky. Road improvements brought a magnificent page wire fence put in by the township which stands firm and proud to this day. It has survived falling cedars, shrubs trying to lift it from the bottom and assorted vehicles spinning into it off the road. Some have even rolled right over it, spreading their broken glass where cattle graze. But, straighten the posts, pull the page wire up again and the fence is back in business.
“Good fences make good neighbours”, said Robert Frost. They make happy owners too.