Fencing the Wilderness

1 Aug

Some extracts from the historical introduction to “Wooden Fences“, (c) 1999 by George Nash

In the Eastern states and during the early days of colonisation, time was very tight but timber was plentiful. From this came the “worm” or zigzag fence that used “a minimum of labor and a maximum of lumber”.

One of the greatest advantages of the worm fence was that it did not require any fence posts. Not only did this contribute to its portability, but it also saved a great deal of grueling labor, both in cutting the posts, mortising the rail holes, and, especially, digging postholes.

However, as time went by, timber was no longer so plentiful and farmers in the stony East had to move to stone fencing.

Building a stone fence is a laborious endeavor in every sense of the word. The same two men who could put up 200 yards of worm fence in a day at best might lay 40 feet of stone fence (but only if the stones had already been gathered and spread along the run of the fence line).

As the Prairie region was opened up, a significant problem was that it really was too good as farmland. Flat and fertile is good but with no stones and no trees, there was nothing to make fences with. Barbed wire wasn’t just a good idea – it was a neccessary one.

Records of the DeKalb factory give some idea of how rapidly barbed wire won the West. In 1875, 300 tons were sold, in 1876, 1,420 tons, and by 1880 sales had soared to 40,250 tons. In 1901, the American Steel and Wire Company produced 248,669 tons. At the same time, the price of the wire dropped continuously, from $20 per 100 lb. in 1874 to $1.80 in 1897.

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