Further to split-rail fences, and what they tell us about our past

split-rail fence in Hastings County

I was surprised to see this split-rail fence right in the middle of a not-that-big field in Hastings County; off to the right is the roadway (and more split-rail fence) demarcating the edge of the field. But I guess the presence of the mid-field fence meant that the field was once two smaller fields – and it just shows how little the early settlers had to work with.

I had a very pleasant Facebook chat today with Marian, a Madoc resident who (I am abashedly delighted to say) reads this blog. She told me she agrees with me on last night’s post about how worrying it is about the damage that the bush-clearing machines used by municipal crews on local roadsides have caused to the historic split-rail fences alongside those roads. In that back-and-forth, when she and I were comparing notes about how we both understand how split-rail fences just belong in the local landscape (and therefore should be preserved, or at least left alone), she said this: “I suppose one had to grow up when rail fences were more prevalent than today, but I grew up in a little village … and most of our fields were divided with rail fences.”

And so I knew from that that Marian was a soulmate: someone who grew up in rural eastern/central Ontario (as I did, in Queensborough), where “fields were divided with rail fences.” That background leaves an imprint on you. Don’t ask me how I know.

It also reminded me of a quick photo I took a few weekends ago when Raymond and I were at an auction (one of our favourite things to do) near Eldorado (which is near Queensborough, where the Manse is). The auction was carrying merrily on, but what was being sold at that particular moment was not of much interest to me, so I found myself scanning the surrounding landscape. And I was surprised to note that the not-terribly-large field next door was divided in two lengthwise by – a split-rail fence. Which suggested to me that this not-terribly-large farm field had once been two smaller fields, owned by different people and divided by the fences they had at that time, i.e. of the split-rail variety.

And those fields were so small! It is so hard to imagine cultivating much of anything, let alone a livelihood, in that space. But people did. And it is good to remember that they did, and how hard they worked.

And it is lovely that we still have the split-rail fences to remind us of them, and of what they did. Which was to make a place for us.

6 thoughts on “Further to split-rail fences, and what they tell us about our past

  1. This resonates with me. What’s breaking my heart these days is the destruction of fence-lines with their rows of old trees (and the complete ecosystems around them) for the creation of monster-fields for industrial scale farming. I know it’s part of the struggle for farmers to stay viable, and its linked to my precious reliable food supply, but it’s sad to lose the aesthetic of the old farms, and the stories they tell.

    • Oh yes. A longtime Madoc Township farmer was talking to us a while back about those monster fields, which he too regrets. But I suppose if that’s the price we have to pay for having local farms on which people can make a living… I don’t know. It’s all more complicated than it used to be, isn’t it?

  2. My fathers hundred acre homestead which is near the hamlet of Tamworth has many rail fences. And in my day I helped him build and repair quite a few. On the back of our farm the cattle would get out which was the back our virgin forest as I have mentioned in a past blog of yours. The reason for our beefy steers getting on the back road was because people from the city would come and take away our fences to decorate there yards we assumed. My father was NOT pleased when these things occurred. Especially when he got a call from the OPP telling him his cattle were on the road. 🙂 Rail fences. To some they are beauty to others they are a necessity. 🙂

    • Well, if it’s any consolation, MK, in my experience at my family’s farm up in Haliburton County, the cattle will manage to get out and wander where they’re not supposed to go no matter what anyone does (or doesn’t do) to the fences. Cattle are kooky that way! I even remember my dad and my uncle once going up in a helicopter to try to track the critters down!

      • That is so true.. a cow or bull really has a mind of their own.. but the evidence was there because the fence was gone.. lol So we just built high voltage fencing with the rail cedar.. that stopped the culprits.. lol 😉

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