Saturday, December 31, 2011

Old Rail Fences

I entered into a conversation this week about old rail fences and their historical significance in the West Virginia landscape. Also known as worm, snake, stacked, zig-zag, and battlefield fences, they were common in the countryside when I was young, and for good reason. They were sturdy. They were easy to build. They were easy to move.

Split-rail fence near Carnifex Ferry State Park (W.Va.)
Before the advent of wire fencing in the late 1800s, rail fences, rock walls, and hedges often served as the only practical means of containment, and in the forested highlands of Virginia and West Virginia, they were long more affordable than wire fencing. Often built of slow-to-weather chestnut, many have survived more than a century and are only now crumbling in obscurity. Cedar, poplar, and locust were also used.

The tides of supply and demand have since reversed, however; and construction of an authentic split-rail fence can be a more costly option, if you don't already own forested land. If you do own enough young hardwood to support the endeavor, your options are only as limited as the space available. As a result of its zig-zag arrangement, which provides stability, the fence's footprint may be greater than 10 feet in width. Such a fence might overwhelm a typical suburban yard.

Zig-zag arrangement provides stability
While searching for information on rail fences, I happened across West Virginia Split Rail, located in Buckhannon, W.Va., a manufacturer of rail fences and a U.S. government vendor of "snake rail" fences. According to Mark Waldo, a company representative with whom I spoke, W.Va. Split Rail most often provides snake rail systems for state and national parks, though the needs of commercial and residential customers are also being met.

As West Virginia works toward a more diversified economy, I hope to see more rural landowners making the investment in well-designed rail fencing. Its character is harmonious with the woodland setting and likely to provide a significant return on investment.

I've provided one last photo to illustrate authentic construction. Note that the builder has used stacks of seven rails and that the rail-ends are blunt rather than tapered. Two upright rails have been added to lock the upper rail into place. I heard once that these leaning uprights helped prevent cattle from pushing the fences over, though I've known too many determined cows to believe that.

View of joining method and number of rails in stack

Wikipedia article
Gettysburg NP Fences
Cook County (Ill.) Rail Fences
Yellow Pages: Worm Rail Fencing
Carnifex Ferry State Park