Stories From the Past – Old Fences
Have you ever heard the expression … “Good fences make good neighbors.” That old saying, coined by Robert Frost, has been around a very long time. After visiting the “Between Fences” exhibit from the Smithsonian held at the community center here in Livingston quite a number of years ago, I realized I had never given a thought to the various types of fences that can be seen just about everywhere you look. Anything fences have ever been made out of what part of the display. A couple of examples shown had to do with “paling fences.” In order to find out more about this particular type of fence, I did some research on the internet. Here’s some information:
“The earliest accounts of fences described palisades (stakes forming an enclosure) or stockades (a barrier or enclosure formed with upright wooden posts) – fences for fortification (protection against attack) of the settlements. English colonists built such defenses both in Virginia and in Massachusetts. In 1610, William Strachey described a palisade around Jamestown made of planks and posts that were anchored in the ground. In Plymouth, a little more than two years after the Mayflower landed, the colonists built a stockade around their settlement.”
“Fences were vital to the colonists, not only as defenses against unfriendly Native Americans and wild animals, but also as protection for crops. Without fences, crops were subject to depredation by livestock. Without crops, famine could ensue.”
“Native Americans also built fences for protection against attack. Surviving engravings and watercolors show stockades built by Native Americans in Florida, the Carolinas, and in the Northeast. Miles Standish of Plymouth encountered abandoned Native American fences built for protection as early as 1621 when he was on a scouting expedition and wrote, “We came to a fort built in the manner thus: There were poles some 30 or 40 feet long, stuck in the ground as thick as they could be set one by another, and with these they enclosed a ring some 40 or 50 feet over.”
“The role of the fence evolved as settlements increased and the wilderness was subdued. Fences were used less and less for defense and more and more to delineate property lines, especially as the common field systems of the early towns was gradually abandoned. Division of land into smaller, individually owned parcels increased the number of fences as each farmer fenced in his own property, along with the different fields and yards within its borders.”
One example of paling fences on display at the community center, the tops of the “pales” are sharpened. I suppose the purpose of the sharp edges prevented someone from climbing over. A website I came across in my search on the internet included some information written by Curt Davis entitled “The American Chestnut Tree.” A paragraph from his article says: “During my early childhood, the fencing around the yard and garden was done with chestnut pales and called paling fencing. The pales were perpendicular on the round with an inch to one and half inches between the pales to keep chickens, turkeys, geese, and other animals from eating the seeds or later, destroying the plants inside the garden.”
Also on display were various types of tools used in the making of fences. One of these included something else I had never heard of before … a froe. Here’s what another search on the internet had about that term: “A froe (also called frower or rending axe) is a tool used for splitting wooden strips from a log. The froe resembles a long thick knife around a foot in length. There is an eye on one end usually where a wooden handle is attached. Froes are usually made of iron or steel. Froes are used to split shingles, kindling, and lath from larger blocks of wood. Froes were once a very common woodworking tool until about a century ago when the invention of the power saw made it easier to saw lath and planks for logs.
The blade of the froe is placed against the end grain of the block and the dull edge of the froe is struck with the wooden mallet or club, driving the froe blade into the wood. Using the handle as a lever the froe blade is twisted, forcing the wood to split. The froe blade is pushed or tapped further down the rift, widening the split until the two halves are separated.” My sister, Sue, thought that old saying “Dull as a Froe” came about from using a froe that wasn’t very sharp. Who knows, that may apply as well to people who aren’t much fun to be around. If my sister was still living, she would be the first to agree with that statement.
Another type of fence shown in the exhibit shows what is referred to as a “Spite Fence.” This was something new to me too. The information about a Spite Fence says that a property line dispute in 1908 led to a spite fence. Spite fences are tall, tight structures that block views, light, and air. Their main purpose is to announce the person next door.
One of the free brochures at the exhibit had this to say: “We live between fences. Whether we need, despise, or ignore them, Americans are surrounded by fences. Our reasons for building them are varied. To show property lines; to protect children and pets; for privacy and security; to keep wildlife away; to separate livestock and crops; and for decoration. We see fences everyday. We use them to secure and divide the world around us. Yet how often do we think about fences or about what lies between our fences?
Fences quiz: Right in the middle of Livingston is a cemetery that has a fence with no way to get in or no way to get out other than to climb over. What’s the name of the cemetery and where is it located?