Recently I was intrigued to hear an account of the construction of a cedar split-rail fence. The narrative was rendered by a gentleman who combines the very agreeable attributes of a pedagogue and a farmer. There are few things I have ever pined to build; normally I content myself with the appreciation of what others have fabricated. But the traditional criss-cross wooden fences which ornament so many of the extraordinarily lovely farms in Lanark County have always captured my attention beyond mere artistry. Though I highly doubt I shall ever have occasion to engage in the construction of a fence it is at least a topic about which I am curious.
Cedar split-rail fences from the 19th century are so prevalent that for years many Eastern Ontario residents hardly noticed them, let alone realized the work it must have taken the early settlers to chop the trees, split the wood and devise a fence that would stand in little soil and be adaptable to hills.
“This is one of the areas that created this style of fence because there’s so much rock. They had to figure out how to fence without having to dig.”
According to my raconteur the term “patent fence” came to be applied to cedar split-rail fences for the reason that the novel construction design of the fence was the subject of persistent (though apparently failed) applications for patent approval. In an interesting twist of meaning, the term patent fence has survived.
Even the most blissfully urban person recognizes that cedar is a fairly common commodity in this region (though it is by no means a resource to be squandered). My understanding is that “Eastern white cedar… made a great fence-building material because the wood was strong, insect- and rot-resistant and able to withstand the elements“. Pointedly the patent fence is especially popular in Lanark County because of all the rock; the fence can be built without having to dig. I was informed that digging a five-foot deep hole for a hydro pole installation cost as much as $800.
My narrator began by explaining to me that his son (who owns the farm) had recently cut down some cedar trees to make a clearing. The wood would be used to build a three-sided shelter and a close for livestock. As an illustration of the ingenuity of the son, he made the decision to hew the logs himself. I understand that delegating the splitting of the logs to an independent contractor can be costly. To accomplish his purpose the son purchased a device from Lee Valley Tools which enabled him to secure a saw in such a way as to permit a log to be cut into beams, then fine-tuned into smaller rails. This alone is a bit of staggering engineering from my point of view!
The real miracle however is the construction of the constituent parts. The object is to build a fence which is “horse-high and hog-tight”, meaning that the enclosure will inhibit both tall and short livestock. As a preliminary, the cedar split-rail fence should be distinguished from the snake-rail fence. The snake-rail fence is characterized by a winding construction of overlapping beams which are mostly held in place by their weight upon one another.
I believe that the split-rail fence in this particular instance was mainly secured by fencing wire.
The imagination is readily tested when contemplating the myriad of ways in which to construct the split-rail fence. It is small wonder the design was the subject of frequent patent applications.