Fencing the Prairie

Let's Talk Rusty Iron

| June 2009

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.