Sunday, April 01, 2007


Root or Stump Fences

Henry David Thoreau, Journal (Nov. 11, 1850):
I am attracted by a fence made of white pine roots. There is, or rather was, one (for it has been tipped into the gutter this year) on the road to Hubbard's Bridge which I can remember for more than twenty years. It is almost as indestructible as a wall and certainly requires fewer repairs. It is light, white, and dry withal, and its fantastic forms are agreeable to my eye. One would not have believed that any trees had such snarled and gnarled roots. In some instances you have a coarse network of roots as they interlaced on the surface perhaps of a swamp, which, set on its edge, really looks like a fence, with its paling crossing at various angles, and root repeatedly growing into root, -- a rare phenomenon above ground, -- so as to leave open spaces, square and diamond-shaped and triangular, quite like a length of fence. It is remarkable how white and clean these roots are, and that no lichens, or very few, grow on them; so free from decay are they. The different branches of the roots continually grow into one another, so as to make grotesque figures, sometimes rude harps whose resonant strings of roots give a sort of musical sound when struck, such as the earth spirit might play on. Sometimes the roots are of a delicate wine-color here and there, an evening tint. No line of fence could be too long for me to study each individual stump. Rocks would have been covered with lichens by this time. Perhaps they are grown into one another that they may stand more firmly.
Henry David Thoreau, Journal (July 19, 1851):
The stump or root fences on the Corner road remind me of fossil remains of mastodons, etc., exhumed and bleached in sun and rain.
Henry David Thoreau, Journal (Dec. 23, 1855):
I admire those old root fences which have almost entirely disappeared from tidy fields, -- white pine roots got out when the neighboring meadow was a swamp, -- the monuments of many a revolution. These roots have not penetrated into the ground, but spread over the surface, and, having been cut off four or five feet from the stump, were hauled off and set up on their edges for a fence. The roots are not merely interwoven, but grown together into solid frames, full of loopholes like Gothic windows of various sizes and all shapes, triangular and oval and harp-like, and the slenderer parts are dry and resonant like harp-strings. They are rough and unapproachable, with a hundred snags and horns which bewilder and balk the calculation of the walker who would surmount them. The part of the trees above ground present no such fantastic forms. Here is one seven paces, or more than a rod, long, six feet high in the middle, and yet only one foot thick, and two men could turn it up, and in this case the roots were six or nine inches thick at the extremities. The roots of pines growing in swamps grow thus in the form of solid frames or rackets, and those of different trees are interwoven with all so that they stand on a very broad foot and stand or fall together to some extent before the blasts, as herds meet the assault of beasts of prey with serried front. You have thus only to dig into the swamp a little way to find your fence, -- post, rails, and slats already solidly grown together and of material more durable than any timber. How pleasing a thought that a field should be fenced with the roots of the trees got out in clearing the land a century before! I regret them as mementoes of the primitive forest. The tops of the same trees made into fencing-stuff would have decayed generations ago. These roots are singularly unobnoxious to the effects of moisture.
Benson J. Lossing, The Hudson from the Wilderness to the Sea (New York: Virtue & Yorston, 1866), chap. 3, part 2:
As we approached it we came to a wide plain, over which lay -- in greater perfection than any we had yet seen -- stump fences, which are peculiar to the Upper Hudson country. They are composed of the stumps of large pine-trees, drawn from the soil by machines made for the purpose, and they are so disposed in rows, their roots interlocking, as to form an effectual barrier to the passage of any animal on whose account fences are made. The stumps are full of sap (turpentine), and we were assured, with all the confidence of experience, that these fences would last a thousand years, the turpentine preserving the woody fibre. One of the stump-machines stood in a field near the road. It was a simple derrick, with a large wooden screw hanging from the apex, where its heavy matrix was fastened. In the lower end of the screw was a large iron bolt, and at the upper end, or head, a strong lever was fastened. The derrick is placed over a stump, and heavy chains are wound round and under the stump and over the iron bolt in the screw. A horse attached to the lever works the screw in such a manner as to draw the stump and its roots clean from the ground. The stump fences formed quite a picturesque feature in the landscape, and at a distance have the appearance of masses of deer horns.
Richard Le Gallienne, October Vagabonds (1911), chap. XVII:
His delight in a form of skill which has always been as magical to me as it seemed to him, was charmingly boyish, and Colin turned over his sketch-book, and showed him the notes he had made as we went along. One of a stump fence particularly delighted him -- those stump fences made out of the roots of pine trees set side by side, which had been a feature of the country some miles back, and which make such a weird impression on the landscape, like rows of gigantic black antlers, or many-armed Hindoo idols, or a horde of Zulus in fantastic war-gear drawn up in battle-array, or the blackened stumps of giants' teeth -- Colin and I tried all those images and many more to express the curious weird effect of coming upon them in the midst of a green and smiling landscape.
Emil P. Kruschke, "Lacing the Countryside: A Profile on the Evolution of the Fence," Wisconsin Academy Review (Summer 1971), pp. 3-4:
The stump fence, though a transient in northern Wisconsin and in Michigan, also left its mark. These appeared mostly in northern sandy areas where the pines (red and white) had been sawed out and the big shallow-rooted pine stumps remained. Often in clearing this land the stumps were blasted or pulled out by teams of horses or heavy tractors and towed to the would-be fence line. There, each was tipped on its side with the broad wheel-like radiating root system directed parallel to the line of the fence. The stumps, with roots outstretched and interlocking, made a fence that was both effective and durable. Stump fences bordering cleared fields and even old graveyards are still visible in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and occasionally in lower Michigan, particularly in Allegan County (Allegan-Otsego-Plainwell area) bordering the Kalamazoo River. However, few of the old stump fences remain for most of them have been consumed by fire or as Robert McCabe described it, "have given up the ghost in the form of wood and smoke."
Susan Allport, Sermons in Stone: The Stone Walls of New England and New York (New York: W.W. Norton, 1990; rpt. 1994), pp. 36-37:
Stump fences, as their name implies, were made by dragging the stumps of trees to the edge of a field and placing them side by side, with their interlacing roots facing outward and their trunks inward. In the days when "ugly as a stump fence" was a simile in common usage, the stump fence had its critics, but in 1837 one observer called it "a singular fence...needing no mending, and lasting the 'for ever' of this world." "The devil himself couldn't move a stump fence," farmers used to say, an opinion borne out by the fact that stump fences well over a hundred years old can still be seen in parts of Canada and in the Midwest.

Stumps were often the product of the first clearing of the land, but stump fences didn't appear in the first generation of a settlement's fences because stumps need to sit in the ground for six to ten years before they are loose enough to be pulled out and hauled away. Extracting even a loosened stump was never easy; it required oxen and strong chains, something that many settlers lacked at first. In the 1800s, stump pulling would become a cash business and one way that a man could make a good living. Twenty-five cents a stump was the standard price in 1850 when men operating such mechanical stump pullers as the "Portable Goliath," "The Little Giant," and "Roger's Patent Extractor" could extract from twenty to fifty stumps a day.
There are some photographs of the remains of root fences in Earle F. Layser, "Story In a Stump Fence," New Holland News (Jan.-Feb. 2003).

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