In the late 1860s, settlers were just starting to fence the West. Elsewhere in the U.S., early fences were commonly built of stacked stone or split rails. But on the Great Plains, trees were few and far between, and in most places, there was not enough stone to build fence.
How were animals, principally cattle, to be contained in a given area and kept out of cropland? American ingenuity went to work; soon barbed wire was invented. The first U.S. barbed wire patent was awarded to Michael Kelly in 1868. Between 1868 and 1874, when Joseph Glidden – the man widely known as the father of barbed wire – won a patent for the ultimate barbed wire, more than 500 U.S. patents were issued for various designs and methods of making barbed wire. Cattle would be contained or excluded using these inventions.
Having barbed wire meant, of course, that a place to string it was needed. The solution was fence posts. Wooden posts drilled with holes were commonly used. To fence 80 acres on four sides, with posts at roughly every rod (16-1/2 feet), you’d need 480 post holes, each 24 to 36 inches deep.
American ingenuity to the rescue
At age 18, Alexander Vaughan was already working as a blacksmith in Peoria, Illinois, producing tools and materials for plumbers. From Peoria, he moved Chicago, where he manufactured custom tools.
In Chicago, Vaughan set up shop in a space behind a hardware store owned by Sidney Bushnell. On June 15, 1869, he was awarded a patent (no. 91,387) for a post auger. Just two years later, his business was destroyed in the Chicago fire of 1871. Bushnell supplied funds to rebuild. In 1882, Vaughan & Bushnell Mfg. Co. was incorporated as a manufacturer of everything from post augers to wrenches, planes to hammers, hatchets to pry bars. Based in Hebron, Illinois, the company continues in business today as a producer of striking tools.
Brilliance found in a simple hole
The Vaughan post auger was designed as a hollow pipe with a T-fitting. The fitting had a large hole on top, through which a wooden handle could be pushed. The handle could be made in any length to add leverage to turn the auger. A point was attached to the other end of the pipe. Just above it were two semicircular blades curved so that the sharpened lead edge was lower and would cut dirt loose in the bottom of a hole and keep it above the blade. When sufficient dirt was on top of the blade, the auger was removed from the hole, the dirt was dumped and the process was repeated.
The key invention in the patent was the way the auger was designed to relieve the vacuum that built up in the hole as the auger, with dirt on it, was removed, making withdrawal harder. A hole just below the handle allowed air to flow into the pipe, down the pipe, out of a hole in the point just below the blades and into the hole being dug. That made digging post holes much easier than digging with a shovel or a jabber-handled post hole digger.
Built for permanence
To put in fence posts using a Vaughan post auger, you’d start by using a shovel to open the hole. Dig a small hole about the diameter of the auger’s blades and deep enough to get through the grass and roots. Then, place the auger in the hole. Press down gently and turn it in a circle.
Continue until there is sufficient dirt on top of the blade, withdraw the auger and dump the dirt close to the hole. The process is repeated until the hole is 24 to 36 inches deep. That depth prevents the post from heaving in cold temperatures. If the post is in line with other posts, the amount of post rising above ground should measure the same as that on posts already set. If the post is too tall, dig a little more; if it is too short, return some of the dirt to the hole beneath the post.
When the hole is the proper depth, set the post in the hole. Using a plumb level, measure two adjacent sides to ensure that they are perfectly vertical. Fill dirt evenly around the post, tamping and packing it as you go. Put in 6 to 10 inches of dirt and pack; then measure two adjacent sides to ensure the post is plumb. Straighten the post if need be and repeat until the dirt is used up. When the post is finished, all of the dirt should be back in the hole.
That finishes one post. The process is repeated until all posts are set. Then, working from one end to the other with one strand at a time, four to six strands of wire are attached and stretched to the posts. The finished product is a tight, animal-proof fence.
All corner posts should have a brace going each way the wire goes to retain plumb of the post in all directions. That retains the tightness of the fence by preventing slackening of the wire due to post lean. FC
The Ingenious Screwy Fence Post
The screwy fence post is an interesting post that does not require a hole. Formed of solid steel, the post was shaped like a corkscrew on the bottom; the top was turned into four loops. The screwy post was originally designed for the U.S. Cavalry to use in erecting temporary corrals on the Great Plains, where fence-building materials could be hard to come by.
A corral could be built by screwing four or more of these posts into the ground, forming a square or rectangle. Rope was first passed through all of the top loops and secured. Then, it was fed through the second, third and fourth loops in turn and secured. That created a corral four ropes high, which would hold horses reasonably securely up to several days. When the corral was no longer needed, the ropes were removed and the posts were unscrewed. The posts and rope were easily transported in wagons.
As time passed and settlements sprung up all over the plains, screwy fence posts found new applications. When strung with barbed wire instead of rope, they made a good permanent or semipermanent fence that would last for years. Today, more than 100 years later, some are still in use.
I purchased one at a flea market in Colchester, Illinois, several years ago. The seller said it was one of 40 found in an old stretch of fence along a railroad track in South Dakota. The posts were strung with barbed wire instead of rope. He said screwy fence posts can still be found in the West, but they are gradually disappearing – and with them, a fence without post holes. –George Wanamaker
George Wanamaker is a past president of the Mid-West Tool Collectors Association. He started collecting carpenter’s tools in the mid-1970s. Since then he’s also become a collector of farm and kitchen tools and anything old and unusual. Contact him by email.