Short Rows: Fences have largely disappeared from Tidewater farms

Published 6:08 pm Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Winter chores on the small farms many of us called home during the 1950s were rituals of rural life. Feed the hogs, feed the chickens, milk the cow — that sort of thing — were daily demands year-round, but there were also preparations for the coming year, and winter was a good time to make those preparations.

I was reminded of this, surprisingly, during a two-day trip to the mountains a couple of weeks ago. I’ve always enjoyed walking in the woods come fall to see what shorter days and an occasional frost have done to the hardwoods, but old age has increased the yen to enjoy fall, so Anne and I have begun what’s becoming a bit of a tradition, traveling west for a couple of days to admire the foliage. This year, it was the fabled Skyline Drive, which we hadn’t visited for quite some time, but with side trips deep into the Valley of Virginia and, on our return, the eastern foothills of the Blue Ridge.

The Shenandoah has always been — next to Coastal Virginia, mind you — my favorite part of the Old Dominion. God had to have been quite satisfied when he laid down that rolling tract of fertile land between two mountain ranges. It’s just beautiful. Always has been, and I hope, always will be.

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When we visited, there were many acres of corn still standing in field after field along the Shenandoah River. Cured on the stalk and ready to be combined, it looked, from the road at least, like a good crop. A corn field’s impressive any time of year, but none more so than when it has turned brown, heavy ears drooping and fodder shimmering in the slightest breeze.

As we drove further south from Staunton, though, we encountered a bit different environment. There were still a few corn fields, but more and more pastureland, and dozens upon dozens of rolled bales of hay lined up on the edge of fields. It occurred to me — and I didn’t speak to anyone who could confirm or disprove the belief — that the environment in the Valley must be quite sensitive. There are areas that are huge grain producers and others that are more suitable to hay production, or so it seems to a casual observer. That conclusion may be incorrect, of course, but the evidence seemed to stare us in the face.

The other thing that strikes you, in both the Valley and on the eastern slopes, is that part of Virginia remains heavily fenced. Of course, it has to be. That’s where large cattle, and occasional sheep, herds are raised, and they have to be confined.

Throughout much of Southeast Virginia, fences have largely disappeared. We still have a few cattle farmers, and we have a number of generally small horse farms and even a few alpaca herdsmen. But for the most part, this has become row-crop country. Fields that were once small and separated by fences for the movement of hog herds have long since been consolidated and now are vastly larger.

It was those earlier days that came to mind as I looked across neatly fenced, often squared off, fields in the Valley.

An Isle of Wight farm of the mid-20th century would generally have 10- to 20-acre fields where corn or peanut crops were rotated and where hogs were allowed to forage for whatever was left after harvest. Maintaining all those fences consumed a significant portion of our time. Free range hogs — and that was the norm back then — were unrelenting in their urge to work their way under a wire fence to escape to the next field, which seemed to always tempt them.

Fence patrol occurred throughout the year. If a thunderstorm with wind came through, fences had to be checked to make sure a tree or large limb hadn’t crushed a section of fence wire. If we didn’t find the damage quickly, the hogs certainly would.

Posts to support all that fencing had been an issue for Virginia farmers for over 300 years. Early in the Virginia colony’s history, black locust, oak and cedar trees were cut and split into rails for fencing. Black locust was preferred because it split easily when green and was virtually indestructible once it cured. Thus, locust trees quickly became scarce.

Then, during the Civil War, Northern and Southern soldiers found that nothing made a camp and cooking fire better than black locust fence rails. As the armies moved back and forth across Virginia, they dismantled and burned much of its wooden fencing.

Manufactured wire fencing, both barbed wire and “strand” varieties, became available after the war, and by the 20th century, farms were largely fenced with it.

Posts to support the wire were still needed. Locust was still a favorite, but quite scarce, and red cedar became the dominant fence post.

During the winter months, one of our after-school and weekend chores was the gathering of cedar posts. Cedars grew in abundance on a long creek-front slope of the Edwards homeplace, where my father grew up. He had permission from his brother, the farm’s owner, to cut cedars as he needed them, and we went often to what we called “Briar Point” to retrieve posts. We had a raft made of oil drums that was perfect for reaching the point on an extra high tide. We would tow it across the creek, retrieve a load of posts and bring them home to be split (if they were large) and stored for future use.

Manufactured steel fence posts as well as treated wooden ones were also becoming available during the mid-20th century, and we began using them, with heavy cedar posts used as anchors at the end of long fence runs.

Walk through an Isle of Wight woods today, and you’re likely to find the remnants of a wire fence. There may even be a surviving black locust post somewhere. They are, indeed, durable.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is