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The Post Auger That Helped Build the West

The Vaughan post auger was an important key to early barbed wire fences.

| December 2015

  • The working end of the auger that cuts into the dirt and carries the cut dirt out of the hole.
    Photo by George Wanamaker
  • Any piece of wood that would fit through the hole in the handle could be used to turn the auger and dig a posthole.
    Photo by George Wanamaker
  • Vaughan post auger goes to the field.
    Photo by George Wanamaker
  • The screwy fence post screws directly into the ground. A temporary corral was formed by stringing rope through the post’s loops. When no longer needed, the corral was easily disassembled.
    Photo by George Wanamaker
  • U.S. Patent 91,387: the Vaughan post auger.
    Image courtesy the U.S. Patent Office

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.


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