As the great forests were being cleared to make farmland, their timber was put to many practical uses, one of which was fencing. The split chestnut fence, adjacent to the Fulton House at the Ulster American Folk Park, was originally from Virginia (pictured left, get closer by clicking the images).
It was commonplace during the 1700s and early 1800s in Pennsylvania and Virginia. The fence was made stable by laying it in a zigzag pattern. When a man was in liquor he was said to be ‘walking like a Virginian fence’.
The loss of land occupied by the fence was offset by avoiding the need to dig holes for upright posts that could quickly rot in the ground.
At this time land was inexpensive and plentiful, while labour was expensive and scarce.
The fence was made stronger by adding two crossed stakes at each corner. These were wedged into the ground to cradle a top rail. This was known as a stake and rider fence.
To make the rails, a tall straight hardwood tree was felled. The trunk was sawn into ten or twelve foot lengths. This timber was split into rails using a maul (wooden sledgehammer) to drive a wedge along the grain of the wood. One tree could yield up to 200 heavy rails. This was considered to be a good day’s work for one man. Similarly, one man could erect 200 yards of snake fencing in a day.
Picturef right is a wooden maul, made between 1850 and 1870, from Hampshire County, West Virginia, United States of America.
As the value of land increased, fences were straightened to reduce wastage. Post and rail fences, as seen further round this path, or stonewalls or hedges, were used as time progressed. Pictured here is a post and rail fence, adjacent to the Pennsylvania House at the Ulster American Folk Park.
American chestnut was more durable than other hardwoods. However American chestnut trees are now rare in the Eastern United States, having been almost eliminated by blight in the 1930s.
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