Imagine yourself as a 1880s homesteader on the vast, treeless expanse of the north-central Kansas prairie. As a soon-to-be farmer, you are responsible for protecting your property from range animals, for by law, cattlemen may graze livestock on all unfenced homesteads. You must erect a fence to lay claim to your parcel of land. But how? You need fence posts, but few trees grow. Lucky for you, the region is filled with a limestone rock layer from which you can make stone fence posts. Today that rock is known as “post rock.”
Limestone: the post rock
“The slabs are flat as can be, like a dance floor,” says post rock expert Larry Rutter of Meriden, Kan. “It has fissures and cracks, but it is extremely smooth.” Larry is retired from the Kansas State Historical Society and has demonstrated post rock preparation for nearly 20 years.
The rock is a chalky limestone in the “upper Greenhorn formation” of the Cretaceous Age, a geologic period that existed 60 million to 130 million years ago. Larry says slabs are found near the surface, covered by a soil layer called “overburden,” or even exposed on many bluffs throughout the Smoky Hills. The stone layer is usually 8- to 12-inches thick – ideal for masonry – and damp when first removed from the ground, which is the best time to shape it. After exposure to the sun and air, the limestone dries and becomes extremely hard.
Retrieving the heavy stones from the ground is a relatively straight forward process. Quarry workers use a simple set of tools: feathers, wedges, chisels, hammers, crowbars and hand drills.
“The way these stones are retrieved from the ground is not unique to Kansas or the post rock,” Larry says. “The same method was essentially used by the ancient Egyptians to build the pyramids. The earliest posts, however, were quarried with sledgehammers by the first settlers and hammered out to make buildings; a very labor-intensive method.”
Post rock territory
No one knows exactly when the first post rock fence was erected, but 30,000 to 40,000 miles of it were estimated to have been built in Kansas, according to a 1949 report in the Rush County (Kan.) News. The rock proved to be a very useful commodity because of its natural abundance and resistance to prairie fire.
Post rock territory stretches about 200 miles in an elongated oval across Kansas, from the Nebraska border southwest to just north of Dodge City. Ranging east to west, the boundary zigzags to varying widths, but roughly covers 5,000 square miles, or more than 3 million acres. According to a 1975 book, Land of the Post Rock by Grace Muilenburg and Ada Swineford, it is possible to find rock posts fashioned similarly in other areas of the world but not in the abundance and as extensively as in this region.
A typical rock fence post is 4 to 5 feet tall and can weigh from 500 to 1,500 pounds. A few farmers supposedly quarried posts during the winter by drilling holes in the rock and, before a freeze, pouring water into the holes, which was supposed to have cracked off the posts, but Duane Vonada, a third generation stonemason at Sylvan Grove, Kan., is skeptical. The claim may be rooted in the fact that many people did quarry work in the winter – for a different reason. Post rock was commonly uncovered but left in the ground and allowed to freeze before drilling because the rock split easier when it was frozen.
Duane’s quarry, the Vonada Stone Co., remains on the site where his grandfather, Milford, and father, Alfred, first quarried stone in the mid-1920s, and Duane still uses some of his father’s tools, including a mid-1920 1-1/2 hp John Deere Model E gas engine, which powers a drill bit in the quarry.
Today, Duane quarries new stone and reuses old stone for such items as engraved artwork, signs and yard decorations. He does business in 40 states and says he knows of only a handful of post rock quarries still in commercial use.
Tools of the trade
Larry also uses antique hand tools for his demonstrations. “A lot of the tools are very primitive,” he says. “I use eight to nine different chisels, two to three different hammers and a crowbar. The stone can even be sawed when it is wet.” He says he became interested in post rock while working in the oil fields of central Kansas in the early 1960s. After his oil days, Larry got involved with a folk arts apprentice program and met the late Arthur Sayler, who taught Larry how to prepare post rock.
Focusing on the historical aspect of post rock in Kansas, Larry started demonstrating for the Kansas State Historical Society and at various gatherings. In addition to demonstrations, he has prepared a slide show that teaches people the history of post rock in Kansas and he has a large collection of photographs of post rock fences and buildings, many of which are no longer standing.
To extract the post rock from the rock bed, a series of 4- to 5-inch deep holes, 5/8- to 3/4-inch in diameter, are drilled in a straight line along the piece to be broken off the main slab. Feathers and wedges are inserted into the holes and hammered alternately until the pressure cracks the slab in a straight line.
Feathers and wedges are shaped essentially alike, except the tapered end of the feather is bent. To split the stone, two feathers are inserted into a drilled hole, thick end first, with the tips bent outward. The wedge then is inserted between the feathers, tapered end first, and driven down, applying great pressure to the sides of the hole. The trick to getting a clean break is to drive the wedges into the series of drilled holes in an even way.
Moving post rock
Once extracted and shaped, post rock is usually allowed to “season” before being positioned in a field or pasture. The laborious task of moving the stone posts to the fields was accomplished in several ways, according to Land of the Post Rock. Authors Muilenburg and Swineford interviewed C.H. Scholer of Lincoln County, Kan., who claimed that at age 17 he could lift 7-foot posts weighing 400 or more pounds and attach them to chains so horses could pull them to the fields.
Also in the book, Ida Brown, who was born in Germany and came to Kansas in 1877, reports on how her father moved post rocks. To transport the rock short distances, he used a “sled” or “boat,” which she described as “a large, forked tree limb.” They laid branches crosswise over the forked part to make a plat form called a “wishbone.” After setting several posts on the platform, her father would connect a chain from the platform to a hitched team of horses, who then pulled the posts to the desired site.
If the field or pasture lay some distance away, wagons were used, but lifting posts onto a wagon was difficult and dangerous work. Sometimes chains were placed under the posts and a pipe roller placed in the wagon to help with the lift. Occasionally, when a pile of posts was ready to go, a quarryman would dig into the quarry slope so the wagon could be backed up to be loaded; the posts were then pushed onto the wagon bed.
Once posts were delivered to the field, setup was not complicated. The posts were tipped into holes, heavy end first, and the empty space in the hole was filled with dirt, tamped to pack it solidly around the limestone.
According to Muilenburg and Swineford, barbed wire’s introduction to the prairie encouraged the proliferation of post rock fences. Different methods were devised to attach the wire to the post, the most popular of which was to notch the post’s edges at appropriate intervals, so smooth wire could be wrapped around the post and the ends twisted around the barbed wire, holding the barbed wire in place.
Another method was to saw a shallow notch around the post where the barbed wire was placed. As the wire contracted with the cold weather, it would wedge itself into the limestone post, making the bond even stronger.
Drilling holes in the corner or the side of a post was another way to hang wire. A smooth piece of wire could be looped through a hole and connected to the barbed wire, or wooden plugs could be inserted into drilled holes and barbed wire nailed to the plugs, although this was the least effective method.
End of an era
When railroads arrived, Larry says, the widespread use of post rock as fencing halted. Instantly, lower-cost, “imported” wood (and later metal fencing) made it easier and cheaper to fence land. Post rock continued to be used for buildings and bridges, but in smaller quantities than in the earlier heyday of post rock fences.
Today, Duane and Larry both say, the rock is used mostly by residential home owners, who display their last names on single post rocks. But as popular as it is, the decorative stones will erode in climates damper than that of central and western Kansas, where the stone gets only from 18 to 20 inches of rainfall a year.
In post rock country, though, the stone posts endured without fail, and their importance to early Kansas homesteaders cannot be understated. “Kansas was extremely blessed with limestone,” Larry says. “It may have been one of the leading factors of survival in the early days.” FC