Fences And Fencing
Though I have already indicated, incidentally, my decided objections to
our prevalent system of Fencing, I deem the subject of such importance
that I choose to discuss it directly. Excessive Fencing is peculiarly an
American abuse, which urgently cries for reform.
Solon Robinson says the fence-tax is the heaviest of our farmer's taxes.
I add, that it is the most needless and indefensible.
Highways we must have, and people must traverse them; but this gives
them no right to trample down or otherwise injure the crops growing on
either side. In France, and other parts of Europe, you see grass and
grain growing luxuriantly up to the very edge of the beaten tracks, with
nothing like a fence between them. Yet those crops are nowise injured or
disturbed by wayfarers. Whoever chooses to impel animals along these
roads must take care to have them completely under subjection, and must
see that they do no harm to whatever grows by the wayside.
In this country, cattle-driving, except on a small scale, and for short
distances, has nearly been superceded by railroads. The great droves
formerly reaching the Atlantic seaboard on foot, from Ohio or further
West, are now huddled into cars and hurried through in far less time,
and with less waste of flesh; but they reach us fevered, bruised, and
every way unwholesome. Every animal should be turned out to grass, after
a railroad journey of more than twelve hours, and left there a full
month before he is taken to the slaughter-pen. We must have many more
deaths per annum in this city than if the animals on which we subsist
were killed in a condition which rendered them fit for human food.
Ultimately, our fresh Beef, Mutton and Pork, will come to us from the
Prairies in refrigerating cars: each animal having been killed while in
perfect health, unfevered and untortured by days of cramped, galled, and
thirsty suffering, on the cars. This will leave their offal, including a
large portion of their bones, to enrich the fields whence their
sustenance was drawn and from which they should never be taken. The cost
of transporting the meat, hides, and tallow, in such cars, would be less
than that of bringing through the animals on their legs; while the
danger of putrefaction might be utterly precluded.
But to return to Fencing:
Our growing plants must be preserved from animal ravage; but it is most
unjust to impose the cost of this protection on the growers. Whoever
chooses to rear or buy animals must take care that they do not infest
and despoil his neighbors. Whoever sees fit to turn animals into the
street, should send some one with them who will be sure to keep them out
of mischief, which browsing young trees in a forest clearly is.
If the inhabitants of a settlement or village surrounded by open
prairie, see fit to pasture their cattle thereon, they should send them
out each morning in the charge of a well-mounted herdsmen, whose duty
should be summed up in keeping them from evildoing by day and bringing
them safely back to their yard or yards at nightfall.
Fencing bears with special severity on the pioneer class, who are least
able to afford the outlay. The "clearing" of the pioneer's first year in
the wilderness, being enlarged by ax and fire, needs a new and far
longer environment next year; and so through subsequent years until
clearing is at an end. Many a pioneer is thus impelled to devote a large
share of his time to Fencing; and yet his crops often come to grief
through the depredations of his own or his neighbor's breachy cattle.
Fences produce nothing but unwelcome bushes, briers and weeds. So far as
they may be necessary, they are a deplorable necessity. When constructed
where they are not really needed, they evince costly folly. I think I
could point out farms which would not sell to-day for the cost of
rebuilding their present fences.
We cannot make open drains or ditches serve for fences in this country,
as they sometimes do in milder and more equable climates, because our
severe frosts would heave and crumble their banks if nearly
perpendicular, sloping them at length in places so that animals might
cross them at leisure. Nor have we, so far north as this city, had much
success with hedges, for a like reason. There is scarcely a hedge-plant
at once efficient in stopping animals and so hardy as to defy the
severity, or rather the caprice, of our Winters. I scarcely know a hedge
which is not either inefficient or too costly for the average farmer;
and then a hedge is a fixture; whereas we often need to move or demolish
Wire Fences are least obnoxious to this objection; they are very easily
removed; but a careless teamster, a stupid animal, or a clumsy friend,
easily makes a breach in one, which is not so easily repaired. Of the
few Wire Fences within my knowledge, hardly one has remained entire and
efficient after standing two or three years.
Stone Walls, well built, on raised foundations of dry earth, are
enduring and quite effective, but very costly. My best have cost me at
least $5 per rod, though the raw material was abundant and accessible. I
doubt that any good wall is built, with labor at present prices, for
less than $5 per rod. Perhaps I should account this costliness a merit,
since it must impel farmers to study how to make few fences serve their
Rail Fences will be constructed only where timber is very abundant, of
little value, and easily split. Whenever the burning of timber to be
rid of it has ceased, there the making of rail fences must be near its
Where fences must still be maintained, I apprehend that posts and boards
are the cheapest material. Though Pine lumber grows dear, Hemlock still
abounds; and the rapid destruction of trees for their bark to be used in
tanning must give us cheap hemlock boards throughout many ensuing years.
Spruce, Tamarack, and other evergreens from our Northern swamps, will
come into play after Hemlock shall have been exhausted.
As for posts, Red Cedar is a general favorite; and this tree seems to be
rapidly multiplying hereabout. I judge that farmers who have it not,
might wisely order it from a nursery and give it an experimental trial.
It is hardy; it is clean; it makes but little shade; and it seems to
fear no insect whatever. It flourishes on rocky, thin soils; and a grove
of it is pleasant to the sight--at least, to mine.
Locust is more widely known and esteemed; but the borer has proved
destructive to it on very many farms, though not on mine. I like it
well, and mean to multiply it extensively by drilling the seed in rich
garden soil and transplanting to rocky woodland when two years old.
Sowing the seed among rocks and bushes I have tried rather extensively,
with poor success. If it germinates at all, the young tree is so tiny
and feeble that bushes, weeds, and grass, overtop and smother it.
That a post set top-end down will last many years longer than if set as
it grew, I do firmly believe, though I cannot attest it from personal
observation. I understand the reason to be this: Trees absorb or suck up
moisture from the earth; and the particles which compose them are so
combined and adjusted as to facilitate this operation. Plant a post
deeply and firmly in the ground, butt-end downward, and it will continue
to absorb moisture from the earth as it did when alive; and the post,
thus moistened to-day and dried by wind and sun to-morrow, is thereby
subjected to more rapid disintegration and decay than when reversed.
My general conclusion is, that the good farmer will have fewer and
better fences than his thriftless neighbor, and that he will study and
plan to make fewer and fewer rods of fence serve his needs, taking care
that all he retains shall be perfect and conclusive. Breachy cattle are
a sad affliction alike to their owner and his neighbor; and shaky,
rotting, tumble-down fences, are justly responsible for their perverse
education. Let us each resolve to take good care that his own cattle
shall in no case afflict his neighbors, and we shall all need fewer
fences henceforth and evermore.
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