By John Finley
Wooden fencing is primarily an American invention. Foreign travelers to early America where amazed that we wasted so much lumber building enclosures. In Europe and Great Britain they used hedges, shrubs, ditches and rocks. Americans used millions of trees to cut post and rails. Most of the Eastern states in the 1700’s were covered with fences. The worse part, they always rotted away. In 1883, it was reported that America had six million miles of wood fencing.
The American farmer soon realized that using soft wood for fencing rotted quickly in a few years. They looked to the virgin forest of hard woods and these beautiful trees disappeared in no time for fencing and barns. In the early days, New England towns elected Fence-Viewers. It was there job to inspect the fences in and about the town and make sure they were in good order. A rotten fence had to be replaced and fines were levied for infractions.
There were several variations of old fencing. The first, the standard stake and rail, where two post were place side by side, and another two six feet away, and rails placed between them. Another method, and very popular, when the two posts crossed in an “X” and the rails between them. New Englanders often placed rocks under these fences and as the years rotted the wood, the rocks remain. This is why there are so many rock fences still found thought the forest of New England. Not only did the fence disappear, but forest grew up around what was once pasture land. Folks see these rock fences deep in the forest and wonder why anyone built a fence in such a place.
The most popular American fence and which is still in used today are the post and rail. The farmer using a chisel and a specially made post axe made three holes in the post. He then placed the base of the post into a charcoal fire pit to burn lightly. This protects it from rot and insects. They then cut a six foot long piece of tree and using wooden wedges called “gluts” and smaller iron wedges, they started the split. Using a large wooden hammer with a burl wood head for hardness called a “maul,” they pounded the wedges till the log split in half. Next it was split in quarters and now the farmer has four rails.
Some fences were intentionally made of stone. More often these were for decorative purposes, rather than keeping livestock in or out. There are two kinds, the first, whereby rocks were just piled on top of each other. The second, the rocks were cut and laid carefully upon each other to a certain height. Rock fence builders found that they needed to provide a way for people to get over the wall while keeping the livestock in. They developed a variety of steps, either using rocks or wood. These steps were called a stone or wood “stile.” They also built small openings in both rock and post and rail fencing. The opening in the rock fence, just small enough for a man to squeeze through is called a “wall-grike” and in the post and rail fence a “rail fence grike.”
The first thing I noticed about fences, they are always going somewhere. While standing next to a fence, the photographer can gaze along the fence line as it moves off into the distance. There are numerous interesting things that can be found along a fence, especially old fences. Just to mention a few, wildflowers, old rotten wood, interesting spider webs, and interesting objects on the other side of the fence. I once was able to frame an old red barn through a split railed wooded fence. Interesting things tend to grow on old fences. The photographer should walk along the whole fence line looking for an interesting image. Morning dew on the wildflowers and grass can enhance every fence experience.
A curved fence is particularly interesting, going off to an unknown destination. I cannot help but follow to find its conclusion. Fences often have dirt paths or roads next to them. Where do these go? What will be found? In the spring all sorts of wildflowers grow along fence lines, and in fall, the forest is filled with colorful leaves, and winter brings snow and ice. Icicles and frozen snow intertwined with dead foliage are wonderful. The movement of the sun across the sky provides shadows and distortions to fence posts and rails, especially in winter.
I once found a bird’s nest on an elderly wooden post and it seems that birds of prey and owls love perching on the rails while looking for lunch. Old farm structures are always marvelous subjects with the fence running either in the foreground or background. Grape orchards upon a trellis, old wooded gates, and long forgotten farm tools along fence lines make marvelous subjects. Pastures are always full of comical farm animals that love to venture toward the fence to tickle your lens. Old sand fences at the beach have a character all their own.
I love fences that embrace a backdrop of mountains, always found in Wyoming, Montana and Colorado. Naturally, fences that frame water; lakes, streams or oceans, just beg the camera. Nova Scotia has beautiful fences by the sea, filled with purple and pink Lupine and a mixture of colorful wildflowers.
The next time you come upon an old fence, stop for awhile, view it carefully, and appreciate its longevity. Look at it carefully for its workmanship, its usage and the beauty of its decrepit state. Love its beauty.