Don’t Fence Me In

Lots of us love old things and we often try to re-create them.  Split rail fences seem to be one of the most popular of these things but so many of us are just bad at building them.  I see them with fence posts holding them up, I see them in nearly a straight line.  Then, I saw this lovely split rail fence at Bledsoe Creek State Park in Gallatin, Tennessee and was thrilled to see one built halfway correctly so it got me to thinking about fences in general.

Fully fenced farmstead

Fully fenced farmstead

So just how was I to go about researching fences on the plateau?  Sure, I can ask questions but if everyone remembered how to build the things we wouldn’t see so many bad examples.  And, we’ve well established that photography was a luxury item not widely enjoyed by our ancestors on the Plateau so no one was wasting film on their fences.  Yet most of the old pictures I have were snapped out of doors so guess what’s in the background?  I found this pretty exciting to pour over my collection looking behind the main subject.  And I learned so much about the different fences of yesteryear.

This picture is labelled 1907.  The horizontal fence may be boards but very likely palings which could be produced on the farm without a sawmill.

This picture is labelled 1907.  The horizontal fence may be boards but very likely palings which could be produced on the farm without a sawmill.

Fences on both sides of the dirt road.

Fences on both sides of the dirt road.

First of all let’s establish that these days we fence animals IN.  In fact, if your stock is roaming and does damage (like wandering into the path of a moving vehicle) you are liable for that damage.  And that was true in the earliest days of the United States.  However, between the years of 1858 and 1947 the law required crops to be fenced in and allowed the animals access to ‘open range’.  That just sounds like something from a Western movie where cowboys rode out to round up the cattle and brand them so they could be differentiated from the neighbors’ herds.  But this is Tennessee Code. 

So if all the animals are gonna’ be roaming, anything you don’t want eaten or trampled had better be surrounded by a fence.  Are you going to go buy a few rolls of barbed wire?  Well it was available, having been patented as early as 1867 and with 150 companies producing it in the last quarter of the 19th century.  And there was some barbed wire in use on the mountain.  But we’ve established here many times that cash flow was always at a minimum in Appalachia and therefore our farmers used whatever materials they had in abundance. 

Paling Fence

Paling Fence

Trees.  That’s what the mountain had to offer in abundance for many, many years.  Hence the famous split rail fence.  But the more industrious land owner could split out flat palings to make something more like a board fence, or a picket fence. 

Rail fence built with Saplings

Rail fence built with Saplings

Every young boy knew how to split rails.  My grandpa told me at one point he could sell them for a penny apiece.  If you really put your head down you could make a dollar in a day – big money!  But notice the group picture here – that zig-zagging fence is made of saplings.  Do you get the idea that they were clearing out some land that had lain fallow for a few years and was taken by saplings so they just used what they were cutting?  I tell you what, the resourcefulness of these folks awes me.

So once you’ve got the barrier between you and the wild hoards, you’re going to need a gate.  Gates are expensive.  It’s not too hard to build a gate but a gate made out of palings would get heavy pretty quickly.  So the common gate was the draw bar.  Simply put four posts in the ground and lay more posts horizontally between them.  It might take a minute or two to get it open but it will certainly serve the purpose. 

Photo courtesy of Farm Hand's Companion

Photo courtesy of Farm Hand's Companion

Again the more industrious fencer could build wooden gates then find a way to hang them.  Any ironware meant money so they made wooden hinges with three boards mounted two on one side and the third on the other side and joined by a dowel in the center.  Pa Mac from Farm Hand's Companion shared with me some examples of these hinges he photographed in the Smokies and I'm pretty amazed by them.  He also reports he's saving special wood to try his hand at making them so we'll have to be watching his blog for a report on that.

Horizontal posts are a Draw Bar Gate

Horizontal posts are a Draw Bar Gate

I'd love to hear if any of you have seen these hinges in use on the Plateau, or if you've experienced opening a draw bar gate!

I hope you’ve enjoyed the backgrounds of these family pictures.  Maybe this little exercise will lead us to see more detail in all of our old pictures.