Chapter 56


My grandfather Kennedy still had a little rail fence when I was a child. It was at the top of the bank at the back of the barnyard, clearly visible from the house and the barn. It was the style known as “wormy fence,” where the rails are piled up to make a zigzag pattern.

The usefulness of this type of fence depended on two characteristics of chestnut wood, which was invariably used to make it. One was the chestnut’s resistance to rot. If it hadn’t lasted a long time, the immense labor to make the rails for a fence would not have been justified. The other was the ease with which chestnut could be split into rails. The trees grew tall and straight and could be cut into suitable logs with crosscut saws. Then they were split into rails with wedges and a sledge hammer commonly with an 8 or10 pound head. When I began splitting Locust posts Dad showed me how to make a “glut,” a wooden wedge, sawed from a knot, to be used with a steel wedge. The steel wedge would go in first, then the glut would widen the crack. Chestnut would have been much easier to split.

The second type of rail fence was “stake and rider” fence. The stakes were set in the ground, and they had three or four oblong holes for the rails to fit into. These had to be bored laboriously by hand or by primitive machinery and the stakes set to the right depth so the lowest rider would be the right distance off the ground. The rails would be put in the holes, then the next post would be set with the other end of the rails in the holes. You had to leave enough room for the next set of rails beyond that to go in the holes with the ones in this second post.

Stake and rider fence took less wood than wormy fence but required flattened posts with six or eight two to three inch holes bored through the post, with wood cleared out between each pair of holes so rails could be inserted. The rails had to be tapered on the ends from one to one and one-half inches thick, to fit into the holes in the stakes. This was a lot of extra work and required a great deal more precision in the labor than wormy fence.

By the time I came onto the scene, chestnut trees were twenty years gone from the hills, killed by the infamous chestnut blight. We were splitting locust posts for barbed wire fence, a much more difficult wood to split. It was the best we had for contact with the ground. It would last about twenty years if there were no wormholes, no dotey (diseased) wood and it was properly dried for a year before putting in the ground.

Incidentally, the last chestnut rail on the Jesse Run farm rotted away beyond recognition in 1992. There is an effort to restore the old American Chestnut with a new genetic components from old world chestnuts which will prevent chestnut blight. We hear about it every few years. The latest news is an organization has been formed to use “genetic modification” to revive the Chestnut.

In the 1970s we tried some of the modern stake and rider fence around our yard. It was made by machine. This type of fence is a major export of West Virginia to the Northeast. The stakes are locust and the riders are poplar. The locust is often immature and poplar has very little resistance to rot. Our fence lasted about three years. Nevermore anything like that on our farm! There had been some stake and rider fences before my time, because the posts were still around when I first farmed here, so it is possible to make quality fences that way.

When the original settlers came, fences were not so important. Cattle would live in the woods, but they liked to come to the open fields to graze, and would come in to get hay in the winter. Only milk cows needed a fence. A well trained milk cow would come to be milked and didn’t need to be confined.

All wood fences eventually were replaced by barbed wire, which was almost universal in my youth. I would guess barbed wire became widely used in this area around the time of WWI. It started seriously displacing wood before 1900. There were several experimental types of wire fence also in use then which did not survive the competition. I never saw anything but barbed wire and woven wire on the home farm, but farming on Jesse Run and around the area, I saw a heavy wire with a slight coil. The coil would facilitate stretching it and keeping it tight. It was made of very hard, brittle wire. Then there was a similar type of fence utilizing that wire and vertical stays every three feet or so that were applied after the horizontal wires were stretched. There were several types of woven wire, but it was expensive. The Jackson farm on Hackers Creek, which was adjacent to the Smith Farm that my some-time partner, Ward Maxson bought, had heavy woven wire all the way around the outside of the farm. This was a sure sign that the Jacksons had been well-off.

Occasionally, we would see strange materials in fences: cables that had been used in the oil fields, for example, or sometimes chain link fence. Old gates are common; once I even saw an old bedspring used as part of a fence.

The electric fence I saw in use as a young person was not very effective. The cattle had to have lots of training. Any little ground would take the charge off the fence. The only example I remember of successful use of this type of fence was at the Williams farm, a mile down the road from our Lost Creek farm. Dane Williams was in charge, but he worked away most of the time, leaving his younger brother Leonard in charge. Leonard was a master with the electric fence. He used all kinds of wire with various insulators but it kept their cattle at home (most of the time). It was just one wire about two to two and a half feet off the ground.

(Illustration 56-1)

A recently completed High Tensile Electrified fence. These fences are characterized by economy of posts and wire. This fence has four electrified wires because it is a field where cattle are sometimes confined under strict conditions. Each wire is tightened with a small wench and a spring to allow for contraction in cold weather and to prevent strain when deer run through the fence. Fence for boundary and along the road may have three wires and posts 75 feet apart. The wires are separated from the treated posts with polyethylene insulators that let the wire run when it changes length with temperature or being hit by deer. My internal fences use only two wires. Posts are driven into the ground with the device shown on the tractor. The white “tensioners” are fiberglass and are used to draw the wire down in low places and stand it up off the ground in high places. For advantages see text.

The electric fences we use now are very different. They are called high impedance fencing, because the wire is steel, not copper, and the voltage is correspondingly high. The charger loads a series of capacitors which store from eight to fifteen joules of energy. This is dumped into the wire at five to eight kilovolts to drive it through sometimes miles of fence wire, which then becomes a capacitor. If this is shorted to the ground, it makes quite a shock, a memorable event that livestock and people remember and avoid. The electric fence is a “psychological fence,” because the cattle could walk through it, but choose not to. Any animal that does is sold, but few are lost this way. In the thirty years I have used high tensile fence, only two animals have been in the road. One was a bull that got knocked over the hill by another bull. I could tell what happened by the marks on the hillside. The other I can’t account for.

Illustration 56-2

Winter grazing behind a “string” fence. The string is composed of polypropylene, the main plastic used in rope nowdays, and has six stainless steel wires to carry the charge. Posts are fiberglass, slightly less than one half inch in diameter and can be driven in with an ordinary hammer. This fence is temporary, easily moved and very cheap

Charlita my daughter who is a nurse, once worked in the heart section of Ruby Memorial Hospital, the state university Medical School teaching hospital. I asked what amount of energy was used in the electroshock apparatus to restart a heart that has stopped. She told me 450 joules, so I assume the scare factor is the most dangerous part of an electric fence, since it delivers only a few joules. What I do like is that the cattle don’t get scratches from the high tensile smooth wire used. With barbed wire, once in a while an animal would get a scratch in hot weather that would attract “blow flies,” which would lay eggs. This could kill the animal, if you did not get them treated in a couple of weeks, and the pain made them very mean tempered in a few days. The only female animal that ever attacked me in the open had this happen to her. (See “Danger from Animals,” section 24)

Near the pens where they are worked and where calves are weaned, we use five or six wires. Half are “hot” and half are grounded. These are kept tight, and this constitutes a physical barrier. An animal could not walk through these fences, but if it was sufficiently determined and could ignore the shock, it could get through if they worked at it. Elsewhere, we use only three hot wires around the farm. One would be sufficient to stop the animals in these outer areas, while the others are for redundancy, a safety factor. In the pens where they are sorted and treated we use woven wire, which is a physical barrier.

Aside I now farm about 1400 acres, most of which is mixed pasture and forest. The whole is fenced with high tensile electrified fence, using much less than a ton of galvanized steel wire, all of which I have built myself. The older fence posts are black locust, and the new ones that go in are pine pressure treated with chromated copper arsenate. To fence this with chestnut rails would take severa hundred tons of select chestnut and would require two or three men full time to build and maintain .

Aside War is a terrible thing. I understand that better as I get older. I had an early lesson, though. During WWII, when I was about nine or ten years old, I went with Dad to a junk yard which was located where the Elmer Brake Feed Store is now in Clarksburg. We had a load of old barbed fence wire – they were even taking that, the demand for steel was so great. Usually you can’t sell it at all. Being the mouthy kid, I said to the man who received it, “They must be pretty hard up to take rusty fence wire.” “Oh, no,” he replied, “that’s just what they want, it’s cut up for shrapnel, to put in shells and bombs. Was it around a barnyard?” “Why, yes it was,” I replied. “So much the better, then,” he said, “it’s loaded with tetanus germs from the manure.”

Copyright © 1998, 2006, 2008, 2011 S. Tom Bond (stombond at