I miss fences. Not building fences, mending fences or stretching fences, but the simple sight of them. They’re nearly gone as the typical farm no longer breeds livestock and today’s mammoth farm equipment needs more and more room to turn around at the end of the field. You can drive for miles now without seeing a single fencepost. Sad.
When my dad, brother and I were in the fence-building business the fences came in two types: wood and steel post. Setting wooden posts required digging a hole, setting the post, then one brother tamping while the other shoveled in the dirt. Steel posts were a bit easier but even they required a strong set of shoulders to drive the things into the ground.
If you’d list the toughest jobs in farming the pecking order would probably go something like this: castrating hogs, bucking hay bales, then building fence. I did more than I wanted of each of these, but I learned that of the three, only fence building qualified as a genuine art. Men were known for the fences they built and if it was built with hedge posts then the fence was still standing long after its architect had been placed in his own posthole.
The straightness of a fence was the mark of a farmer’s attention to detail. Jonathan Baldwin Turner brought the Osage Orange to Illinois as a new type of fence, “horse high and pig tight.” He joked that he loved selling his hedge to the German farmers near Arenzville who would plant the hedge straight as a dime in the morning then after their noontime nip of schnapps their afternoon rows would meander all over the place. Turner liked this since you’d have to plant more hedge in a crooked row.
By the time I started building fence the hedge tree was a nuisance and we opted for woven wire fencing and most commonly used wooden posts. Again, the art of fence building came into play when it came to setting the end post. Your dad would pick the heaviest, most sturdy post out of the pile and that became the anchor for your fence. If you set an end post wrong then the product of your sloppiness will be there to haunt you for the next hundred years. Above all else, you had to get the end post right. In fact, my brother and I were setting an end post once when an old neighbor named Lloyd pulled his Chevy pickup to the side of the road to examine our work. Lloyd could hardly walk by this time in his old age, but he asked if he could please set the post. He said, “I just hate to see one done wrong.” Keith and I were more than happy to watch the old man sweat away in the July heat. Lloyd died shortly after that . . . perhaps we should have helped . . . but he died with the knowledge that he’d shown two youngsters a bit of his art.
The most dangerous part of fence building was stretching the fence. You’d take two slabs of four by eight appropriately called a “fence stretcher,” attach the woven wire coil to one end while hooking the other to the three-point-hitch of your tractor. The trick then was to pull the fence tight without something snapping. A snapped fence could easily take your head off so I always put Keith on the ground while I drove the tractor.
Robert Frost famously wrote about walking the fence rows of his New England farm, his neighbor on one side of the fence and he on the other, chatting as they carefully placed the winter shaken stones back into place, admonishing them to stay their until his back was turned. His famous “Good fences make good neighbors” has long become a warning adage about keeping ones distance and the importance of setting boundaries in life. I’m not sure I’ve ever believed that, but I do know that Frost’s pleasant fence-mending jaunt across his cow pasture would have been less idyllic if he’d had to wrestle a hedge post into a hand-dug hole.
I drive by the nice homes in our area today and see that the plastic fence made out of composite material is all the rage. These fences look nice and they don’t require the yearly coat of paint that used to take up the bulk of my high school summers. Still, can plastic really be a fence? Would these Disney-esque railings deter an Angus bull with romantic intent toward the heated up Hereford heifers in the next pasture? Probably not, but now most of the bulls arrive in a test tube in a packet of dry ice. Sort of takes the fun out of both sex and fence building.