As a young person doing fieldwork, I always hoped that the weather might turn to rain. When that happened, you were allowed to quit and go in. Any change of the routine from hour after hour of driving a tractor was welcome. Leaving the field and returning to the home place didn’t mean that the workday was over, but whatever took up the rest of the day certainly would be different than usual.
In our area of high plateau western America, rain was so unusual that we joked that there were 12-year-old kids who had never experienced a rain storm. That is an exaggeration, of course, but annual rainfall here is very sparse. In the wide open spaces, one could see storm clouds for miles, but they never seemed to end up over the long-suffering tractor driver. At least they were interesting to look at, as opposed to looking at the same field day after day.
Fixing fence was one of the many jobs undertaken on days it was too wet to work in the field, meaning that we fixed fence about two or three times a year. In the spring, before fieldwork began, all of the many, many miles of barbed wire fences on the 1,500-acre farm/ranch were “repaired” to excellent condition. Posts were set as needed, and wire was spliced, stretched and securely stapled to wooden posts. That took several days of concentrated work, because heavy winter snow often wreaked havoc. The rest of the summer we just “fixed” any problems or breaks.
About 90 percent of the fences were on the fairly flat valley floor. Fixing those was not difficult, but at the end of a long day’s work, a person couldn’t see where his toil of walking back and forth, checking and correcting problems, had made a visual improvement. I always considered it drudgery.
Working on fences up in the foothills was a completely different experience. The distance we had to walk was considerably shorter, but brush, willows, gullies and rocks made the work difficult. When two of us were working together just dealing with the barbed wire, one person would go one way and the other the other way.
Sometimes we didn’t run into each other until late in the day. The creek that ran through the section always needed major attention, because cattle often found ways through the wire we stretched down near the bottom of the creek bed.
Two factors made fixing fence in the hills extra unpleasant. The first had to do with the timing of our visit. Most often it followed a rainstorm so heavy that days passed before we could use a tractor in the fields. That meant that every piece of brush a person encountered was wet, often still dripping wet. From the time we left the vehicles until we completed our work, we were pushing through tall brush.
In just a few minutes, a guy was wet to the waist and often half-way to his chest. Sometimes the temperature was so low that wet clothing chilled a person to the bone. Occasionally a rainstorm was followed by a hot spell. As you walked along, your clothes put off so much steam that it almost looked like you were on fire. Of course your personal concerns were secondary to the fence-fixing goal.
The second and most unpleasant situation we faced was rattlesnakes. Diamondback rattlesnakes are indigenous to our part of southern Idaho. They can be encountered almost anywhere. It never failed that at least one of us would come face-to-face with one or more of those dangerous critters.
A barbed wire fence has at least three, and often four, strands. Each strand must be firmly stapled to each wooden post. To reach the lower two strands, you bend at the waist and spend some time getting the staple started and then firmly pounded in the post. As we approached every post, we hoped that if any staples were out, they would be on the top. Most often they were down toward the bottom.
It is hard to describe your feelings when, while concentrating on pounding a staple, you look up into the face of a rattler just a short distance away. The snakes often coiled themselves up into a piece of brush so their heads were about waist high, tongue flicking in and out, scaring you to death. The natural reaction was to freeze like a statue and slowly – very slowly – try to move your feet so it would be possible to back away from the danger.
An experienced fence fixer knew that the possibility of being bitten in such a situation was fairly remote, because a snake can’t strike any distance without being coiled up. In spite of that knowledge, the fear one experiences is great. Just being less than an arm’s length from the head of the snake is difficult to explain.
Like all farmers, we learned to read nature to ensure our success. Being wet, cold and miserable working in the hills was preferable to spending time there when the sun came out and temperatures quickly rose. It was then that the rattlesnakes came out and began to sun themselves on flat rocks.
About the only thing worse than being bent over pounding a staple and meeting a rattler wrapped in some brush was being in that position and hearing the rattling of a coiled snake. It may be a cliché to write that “the hair stood up on the back of your neck,” but I can assure you that in such a scenario, hair almost everywhere on a person’s body stands up. In waist-high brush, you can’t see where the snake is, and the rattling is so unnerving that you can’t tell where the sound is coming from. The one time I experienced the sound of two rattlers at the same time I was convinced that I just might spend the rest of my life in that very spot because I was afraid to move.
Fortunately rattlesnakes do their best to avoid humans and, given the chance, they will retreat instead of having a confrontation. By being patient and moving slowly, none of us were ever bitten by a snake. We made it a habit to kill rattlers if there was a possibility that another member of the crew might run into them later in the day. In about 20 years of fence fixing, we killed dozens; we were “up close and personal” with close to 100.
Barbed wire fences played a major role in the settling of the West. By the time I was a kid, most fences were already decades old. Keeping them in repair was an important consideration. Most farmers and ranchers tackled the job on a regular basis. I did what had to be done, but as far as I was concerned, it was the least agreeable part of working on a farm. FC
A retired high school history teacher, Clell G. Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II-era military vehicles and parts.
Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Standard Time) or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.