Harvesting Fence Posts

Hedge rows yielded superior material for fence posts – but not without a fight

article image
by AdobeStock/Gerry
A hedge fencerow in summer. Hedge trees are armed with wicked thorns that deter contact.

One winter in the early 1940s, my father decided that an 80-rod hedge row needed “harvesting” for fence posts and firewood. The fence row was located 5 miles east of our farm. Daily trips with a team of horses and a steel-wheeled hay wagon were made on a gravel road. (Yes, steel wheels “sing” as they roll on the gravel.) Let’s examine more thoroughly what was facing us in the hedge row.

The Osage Orange tree, maclura pomifera, is often called a “hedge” tree. In the Midwest, a hedge tree can grow 30 to 40 feet tall. Its sap is milky and sticky. The tree produces “hedge balls” (actually balls of seed) which are 4 to 5 inches in diameter and have a rough, greenish surface. The wood of the Osage Orange tree is bright orange-yellow and extremely strong and hard. Native Americans made bows from the strong, flexible wood and would travel miles to find it.

Hundreds of years ago, the tree was found only in a large band running through Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas. In a 1934 Works Progress Administration (WPA) project, rows of young Osage Orange trees were planted across the prairie states to prevent wind-driven soil erosion such as that experienced during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. By 1942, 220 million trees had been planted as windbreaks stretching 18,600 miles. Some of those old hedge rows can still be found across the Midwest.

A 3-year-old, densely planted row of hedge trees will stop cattle, horses, and sometimes even hogs from passing through. It also provides excellent cover for quail, pheasants and other wildlife.

Hedge nearly as tough as iron

Hedge wood is 2.5 times as hard as white oak and is immune to termites. Hedge has the highest BTU of any common U.S. wood and burns very hot and long. More than one heating stove grate has been warped by putting too much hedge wood in the firebox at one time.

A hedge post will last for years when placed in the ground. Corner posts set 75 to 100 years ago can still be found on southwest Iowa farms. It is advisable to use green or fresh-cut posts when making a fence because it is difficult to drive staples into dried posts.

Branches of the hedge tree growing in full sunlight bear sharp, very stout thorns up to 1 inch in length. It’s best to avoid contact with these, for they deposit a substance that causes a great deal of pain and leaves the injured skin greatly inflamed for several days.

Fence posts could be harvested from a hedge row every 20 to 25 years. When a tree is cut off, the stump soon sends up vigorous sprouts. The sprouts grow 3 to 4 feet the first growing season and will become harvestable trees for fence posts in a comparatively short time.

hedge tree bark

Tackling a thorny job in an era before chainsaws

A good fence post is 4 to 6 inches in diameter and 7 to 8 feet long. Hundreds of fence posts can be harvested from an average 80-rod (1/4-mile) fencerow of mature hedge trees. But starting the harvest of such a fencerow in the 1940s was a rather daunting prospect. The only tools on hand for us to use were axes and two-man cross-cut felling and buck saws. The chainsaw was not yet widely available.

We began working on the trees by using axes to trim the low branches off the main trunks. The trimmed brush was pulled 30 feet away from the fence line and piled, forming a row of brush on both sides of the fencerow. The tree trunks were then cut a foot or two off the ground with the two-man cross-cut felling saw. The cut-off tree was pulled and yanked down.

Getting the tree untangled from other trees and overhead branches was often accompanied by oaths, sweat and skin punctured by thorns. Once isolated, axes and cross-cut buck saws finished the harvesting process. Clean posts were piled on the hay wagon and the remaining brush was thrown onto brush piles. Sometimes several posts could be harvested from one tree.

Learning to work as a team

Often one of the handles of the two-man saw had to be removed and the saw manipulated through the tightly clustered tree trunks. The handle was replaced and a back-and-forth sawing motion used to eat into the trunk. Frequently, when a tree was almost cut through, it would begin to fall over and, of course, the saw would bind.

Usually, an axe could not be used to finish cutting the tree because of the concentration of other tree trunks. So, you had a bound-up saw pinched between a hung-up tree that was still caught in the upper branches of other trees and not yet separated from the trunk.

At that point, it was easy for frustrations and emotions to come to the surface in the two saw operators. One might yell, “Pull!” and the other might counter with emphasis, “YOU pull!” (Repeatedly loud “instructions” were given by the two saw operators.) Those swinging axes elsewhere usually stopped to witness the outcome of the dilemma. Eventually the problem would be solved and work continued.

hedge balls on fallen leaves

A load of freshly cut posts did not signal the end of the job

Toward evening, the cutting stopped. With the freshly cut posts loaded on the hay wagon, we headed home. We timed the 5-mile trip to arrive at home before dark. Posts were then unloaded, the team put away and fed, and other evening chores tackled.

To get rid of the thorn-laden brush piled on either side of the harvested hedge row, a 20- to 30-foot-long hedge pole was laid at one end of the brush row with a team of horses attached to each end of the pole. As the two teams moved forward, the dragging pole would gather the brush ahead of it into a tight pile. A fire was eventually started and the pile consumed.

When a piece of wood was not suitable for a post, it was cut up with a buzz saw. Those pieces were used in the furnace at home. On many a frigid cold night, our house was heated with chunks of hedge wood carefully mixed with oak or soft maple.

The 80-rod hedge row harvest was considered complete when all of the brush was burned, the posts had been taken home and set up in teepee fashion, and the wood chunks piled for furnace use. The posts were subsequently used as needed in the next fencing project or sold to neighbors.

Today good Osage Orange line posts can bring $9-$12 each and a good corner post will bring $18 to $20.

If only a chain saw had been available in the early 1940s, our bodies and mental health would have escaped much abuse! FC

Retired school principal Don McKinley grew up on a farm in southwest Iowa. In writing this article, he gratefully acknowledges the assistance of his daughter Connie Palmer. He has created a museum of 1930s vintage farm collectibles at his home in Quincy, Illinois. Contact him at 1336 Boy Scout Rd., Quincy, IL 62305; email: deerroad@adams.net. Visit his Facebook page at 1930’s Ag Museum.

Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment