The Old Split Rail Fence Has a Story to Tell

In our country’s pioneer days, over 175 years ago, there existed immense areas of forest where farms and cities are now found. The first thing the early settlers did was to begin clearing the land of timber so it could be cultivated and farmed.

As the ground was cleared, it became necessary to build fences so the land could be grazed by cattle, horses, and other stock, and the crops protected.

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There was an overabundance of timber that often was burned to get it out of the way, so wood was the natural choice of material for fence building. Unfortunately, sawmills were few and far between. Thus the easiest fence to build was one constructed of split rails.

In those days, chestnut trees were abundant and, because of the lightness and durability of the wood and how easily it could be split, this was the wood of choice.

However, oak, ash, white wood, and others were sometimes used. First, suitable trees were felled and sawed into 10′ or 12′ foot lengths. Then the labor of splitting with ax and wedges began.

As one begins to calculate the work involved in cutting down the trees, sawing and splitting them into rails, and then in the construction of the miles of fence needed upon the average farm of about 100 acres, the wonder is that the busy farmer had time for anything else other than fence building.

Of course, this work was mostly done during the winter months, and the fences were built over a span of years.

Rail Splitter Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln was known as “Rail Splitter Lincoln” in 1830, and it is said that he used black walnut for rail fences at that time. It makes one pause and try to estimate what those walnuts trees would now bring, could they have been preserved to meet today’s market for walnut veneer.

A typical rail fence is of zigzag outline about 5′ feet high and required seven to eight rails for each section with two lock rails at each corner which added much to the stability of the fence, so it withstood the wind and the crowding of horses and cattle against it. 

Blocks of wood or stone were used at each corner to rest the fence upon and keep the lower rails from contact with the soil.

The individual rails were roughly about 6″ inches in diameter and surprisingly uniform due to the straight grain of the wood chosen for making them. 

Such was the construction of the “Old Rail Fence.” It possessed surprising durability and was easily repaired when broken or when a rail became decayed, so that replacement was necessary.

Fencing Substitutes Appear

Various substitutes for the typical rail fence were devised as rails became more scarce. The most commonly seen is a straight fence without fence corners, the rails laid up between two posts wired together, each rail resting upon the next lower for substantialness. 

While more pleasing in appearance, the thin wire fence lacked the attractiveness as some gardener or estate owner, cognizant of its inherent beauty or suffering from nostalgia for the days of his youth, constructs a rail fence at great cost. 

Such a fence surrounds the grounds that contain the memorial building which houses the old log cabin in which Abraham Lincoln was born at Hodgenville, Kentucky.

This rail fence, no doubt, was constructed to commemorate the days when Lincoln was called “Rail Splitter Lincoln.”

Occasionally one sees other typical rail fences built of rails purchased from some farmer who is now building wire fences or no fences at all. These fences are inspired by sentiment and esthetic appeal rather than from their utility alone. But they added a nice touch to the overall landscape of the grounds.

If you stop to think about it, every nature lover interested in plant life, birds or animals, must regret the passing of the old rail fence.

Plants Covering The Old Rail Fence

Its zigzag outline stretching into the distance made it a thing of beauty.

This was especially true when the lichen-covered rails were twined with bittersweet, wild clematis, grapevines, green briar and when wild crabapples’, wild roses, wild plums, the misty white flowers of the Juneberry adorned the corners of the fence.

It became an object of great natural beauty often unmatched by man’s best landscaping. 

To the botanist, it afforded an almost endless array of interesting plants for study. Wild strawberries seemed natural to choose the fence corners to produce their most fragrant, luscious fruit. 

In autumn, some of the brightest colors of sassafras, Pepperidge, and maples were to be found in the fence row. The orange-colored berries of bittersweet, fragrant wild crabapples, which had fallen to the ground but long resisted decay and brown hazelnuts, all lured you to explore the fence corners.

A Shelter And Refuge For Wildlife

Many a brood of quail and partridge were reared in the protection of the rail fence, robins and other birds built their nests upon it. Wrens sometimes found a knothole in a rail as a nesting place. 

Rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, and groundhogs found refuge in the weed-tangled fence corners. Spring, summer, and autumn all contributed their share toward making the rail fence attractive and interesting. 

No doubt, many admired it most when newly fallen snow-covered and clung to its weather-beaten gray rails, accentuating its zigzag contour and seeming to add luster to its undulating outline.

Daydreams, Inspiration, And Romance Never To Reappear

The country lane that leads from the forest and fields to the farmer’s barn and house has inspired many writers of romance and verse, but it was the rail fences that created the lane and deserved the credit. 

Imagine, if you can, any romantic thought which might be engendered by a lane bordered by sleek straight wire fences?

Forget, if you can, the old rail-fenced lane of your great-grandparents down which they drove the herd of cows or flock of sheep as the sun sank into the west or the same vine-covered lane fences which guided your footsteps when absorbed in daydreams of the years which were to shape and create your future.

Enjoy the old split rail fences when you are fortunate enough to see them. If you are a nature lover, you too will enjoy them and the store of interesting things which you will find secreted and protected in their fence corners.

Time and decay are fast claiming them for their own, and once gone, they will never reappear. No other fence will create the sentiment which has clung to the old fence of split rails.