An 1800s Style Backwoods Homestead

Larry Hall decides to build his retirement hobby farm in the style of an 1800s backwoods homestead.

| April/May 2000

Building a retirement farm in the style of an 1800s backwoods homestead.

The grass is greener . . . on the other side of the split rail fence.

We wanted a split rail zigzag fence (also called a snake or worm fence), which was a form of construction prevalent in Colonial America. Instead of herding livestock the European way, by using swineherds and shepherds, Colonial homesteaders put their time and energy into building fences. Fencing land was such a common pioneer practice — by one estimate there were 6 million miles of wooden fence in America by the 1880s that townships often required the services of a fence viewer. This locally elected official insured that new fences were built exactly on boundary lines. He also settled arguments concerning loose livestock and made sure all fences in his district were in good repair.

Though past its heyday, split rail fencing remains as relevant a construct in rural America today as it was in the days of our pioneer ancestors, when the value of wooden fencing often exceeded that of the land itself.

Building Fences

In Colonial days, the rule of thumb for fence building was that you needed one acre of timber to fence ten acres. In our case, to build 500 feet of fence we needed 414 fence rails. We took 38 trees, all oak and cedar, from our 15-acre woodlot, cut each tree into two or three 9' logs, then quartered each log to produce four rails. Keep in mind that selecting trees for split rails is not like cutting dead and hollow trees for firewood; they must be sound, straight and the right size.

When it came time for construction of my backwoods homestead, I took hints from Colonial fencing, while making a few changes and improvements to the pioneer technique. Back then, the standard length for a rail was 11 feet, a length so widely accepted that farm fields were often measured by walking the fence line and counting the rails. However, I made the length of our rails 9 feet so I could get three sets of rails from most trees felled, and so that the completed fence would be less likely to sag.

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