Fencing the Prairie

Let's Talk Rusty Iron
Sam Moore
June 2009
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In ancient times, shepherds watched their flocks.
1896 Page Woven Wire Fence Co., Adrian, Mich.; courtesy Sam Moore
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I always read the police reports in the daily newspaper, partly to see who got caught doing what, but mostly to read the often hilarious way some of the events are described.

A report that turns up periodically in our paper is the one where someone calls the cops because a neighbor’s horses or cattle are loose and have strayed onto the complainant’s property. The police always respond and warn the owner of the animals to keep the critters penned up or face a citation.

The laws governing restraint of animals didn’t always put the burden upon the animal owner. In the decades prior to the Civil War, in prairie states such as Iowa, Indiana and Illinois, if you wanted to keep animals out of your crops, laws of the day said that you, the grower, were responsible for building a fence around your crops to protect them from the wandering herds of livestock.

Still known in the 1840s as “The Wild Prairies,” the region generated such struggles well before the advent of the epic Wild West battles between cattle barons and sodbusters later portrayed in countless dime novels, Western movies and TV series. But the same forces that caused those later “range wars” were already at work. Cattle owners wanted to keep the prairie range open and unfenced so their herds could graze on the abundant grass free of charge. Dirt farmers, recognizing the grain growing potential of rich prairie soil, wanted to practice intensive farming, but their crops were often ravaged by roaming herds of cattle, sheep and particularly the so-called “land sharks” – herds of half-wild hogs that ran loose until they were rounded up and driven eastward to market.

The issue of who was required to build fences was a big deal, as timber was scarce and expensive on the prairies and the abundant rocks that had furnished fencing in New England did not exist on the prairie. The popular image of Abe Lincoln as “the old rail-splitter” notwithstanding, split-rail, zigzag fences then widely used in the heavily forested East were prohibitively costly in the West. Not only that, but when the grass died every autumn, the inevitable prairie fires destroyed any rail fences that had been built. One Illinois newspaper reported in 1847: “The system of enclosing grain fields with rail fences at $100 a mile was costing Pike County $150,000, in order that hogs may run at large, get starved, degenerate, become runts, stray off and be lost to their owners or be worried to death by dogs or get killed by lead.”

Some cattlemen were persuaded of the advantages of fencing in their herds, but what could they use for fences? Prairie Farmer newspaper proposed several alternatives to the zigzag fence, but all required varying amounts of expensive lumber and were never widely adopted.

One idea tried was a 6-foot earth wall topped with thickly planted locust trees. A deep ditch was dug on each side of the wall and, while it usually stopped horses and cattle, the hogs went right over it and into the corn.

Another brainstorm was to plant a thick hedge. This was considerably cheaper than a wooden fence, although it didn’t go up nearly as fast. Buckthorn and other thorn bushes, sweet-briar, crab apple and mulberry were all tried and rejected.

Illinois college professor Jonathan B. Turner, who had been experimenting with Osage Orange since 1839, published his findings in Prairie Farmer in 1848. The next year, Turner made the Osage Orange plants available to the public, saying: “The Osage Orange is the shrub that God designed especially for the purpose of fencing the prairies.”

By 1853, Osage Orange was well established in Illinois, and Turner demonstrated that “rail or wooden paling or picket fence would cost him $300 a mile and would be gone in 12 years, while the Osage Orange would cost $25 a mile and at 12 years ... would be better than (ever).” It isn’t recorded whether the bushes would turn wild hogs, but it’s doubtful that they did.

However, methods of drawing iron wire were being improved and such wire was becoming cheap enough to use for fence. In 1847, a LaSalle County, Ill., farmer told Prairie Farmer that he had strung five strands of No. 9 wire on posts two rods (33 feet) apart and “had turned everything but hogs.” He also reported that prairie chickens that flew into the wires and were killed helped, when plucked and eaten, “to more than pay the interest (on the fence).”

Since smooth strands of wire weren’t proof against hogs, wire fences didn’t really catch on until the 1870s. By that time both woven wire and barbed wire had been invented. As demonstrated by the clever advertising brochure from the Page Woven Wire Fence Co., Adrian, Mich., woven wire fencing was much superior (at least in their estimation) to all others.

The laws changed as well. In 1872, Illinois passed a law making it “unlawful for the owner of the horse, ass, mule, cattle, sheep, goat or hog to suffer the same to run at large.”

At about the same time, in the new “Wild West,” cowboys were tearing down fences and harassing sodbusters, while pitched battles were being fought between the two sides in vicious range wars. Much bloodshed could have been prevented if the combatants had only looked back a couple of generations and realized that “we cannot escape history.”
Of course, had that happened, what would Louis L’Amour have written about, and what would John Ford have made movies about? FC

Watch a Kitselman fence building machine in operation on Farm Collector’s video index on YouTube: “ Kitselman Fence Machine .”


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