Rail fences: relics of the past

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-114124627517591.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘An authentic rail fence surrounds a colonial manor house on Maryland's eastern shore.’);

When the first pioneers came to the Midwest, they began to hew out clearings from the forests that covered a considerable portion of the landscape. To clear the trees and brush from a few acres of land and to plant the first crops among the stumps required a considerable amount of hard work. But wood was a necessity to these early settlers—half hunters, half farmers—as it furnished logs for their cabins and barns, fuel for their fireplaces, and material for furniture, tools, and implements. Logs were split into rails for building corn cribs, hog pens, sheds, and, of prime importance, fencing for their fields.

Old timers tell us that 70-80 years ago, these rail or worm fences were a fairly common and picturesque feature of the local terrain. Almost all of these fences have now been replaced with wire, but a few remnants of them remain in isolated parts of northern Illinois.

This type of fence was called a worm or snake fence because the rails were crisscrossed in a zigzag pattern. It would be difficult to construct a large rail fence now as the rails can only be split successfully from large, straight, solid logs without knots. Oak, chestnut and walnut were the preferred types of trees used to produce straight, long-lasting rails.

The rail-splitter usually cut the log “four axe handles” in length, about 11 feet. The bark was then peeled off, and wooden wedges made of ironwood or some other very hard wood were used to split a log in half. Then the half was split into quarters and then eighths, like pieces of a pie. These sections, in turn, were split into roughly triangular or rectangular rails measuring about 5 by 6 inches or so in diameter.

The rails were laid on the ground in the characteristic zigzag pattern with the ends extending a little more than a foot from where they crossed. After the fence was sev en or eight rails high, each corner was strengthened and braced by two other rails or stakes, one on each side. These braces were sunk a foot or more into he ground, and slanted upward to cross and hold the fence in place. These stake rails, in turn, were locked in place by an additional horizontal rail or rider. Between 7,000 and 8,000 rails were required to build a mile-long worm fence, enough to enclose a 40-acre field.

These fences, made entirely without hardware, were very useful for confining livestock. However, as the years passed, some rails deteriorated and broke. By then, hardwood logs were difficult to obtain, and defective rails were usually replaced with rails of inferior wood. It seems certain that the few rail fences we occasionally see today are survivors of the original fences built when the land was first cleared. None remains except those fashioned from red, white, black oak, chestnut or black walnut. Weathered and gray, they are as sound as the day they were constructed.

To some, rail fences may seem to have been a waste of land as they occupied three to four times as much ground as modern wire fences. But, they forget wire was not available for fencing on the frontier for many years after the settlers arrived. The space a rail fence occupied was not wasted as they quickly became covered with wild roses, wild blackberry, green brier and vines, which furnished cover for a variety of wildlife. With the clearing and cultivation of the land, these fences offered refuges where quail, rabbits and dozens of other types of birds and small mammals acquired the ability to live with civilization. Wildlife biologists today recommend the construction of refuges similar to the old rail fence to encourage and abet small animal populations.

Rail fences had other uses in days of yore. My grandmother related that a favorite game played by children of her era was to see who could walk the top rail of a fence the farthest without tumbling off . And, many a nefarious character left town riding on a rail borne on the shoulders of outraged vigilantes.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the March 1-7, 2006 issue

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