Three in One:  The Tale of a Split Rail Fence

“Honey, it’s high time you cut down that ol’ dead tulip tree down by the ponds,” says Maw as we’re getting out of bed on a beautiful spring Saturday.  “That thing's gonna fall one day and you know it’s gonna clobber one of my pretty horses.  Probably Snowie, and she’s my favorite.”

“But Jake and the boys are coming over and we’re going fishing down at the river today,” I plead.  “Fishing season’s just opened up and if we don’t get down there in a hurry all the easy catching will be caught up and we’ll not have anything for dinner but beans and maybe a cake of cornbread.  And you’ve been telling me for some time you’ve been craving a little meat on the plate.”

“There’ll be time for fishing by and by,” she says.  “I’m more worried about that ol’ tree.  And I can’t believe you’d think about fishing before building me that fence you’ve been promising.   When you strung wire across that gap in the fence of the donkey pasture you told me that was temporary.   And now it’s been ten years, the old donkey’s died, bless his heart,  and I’m still looking at that ugly wire every time I walk past.  And cursing your lazy bones, I’ll have you know.  A man ought to keep his promises, don’t you think?”

“Well I promised Jake and the boys I was going fishing today.”

“Did ya now?  Well you tell them more urgent things have come up.  Speaking of which, dear, all those rocks in the pasture are gonna hinder the grass from growing again, and you know right now the grass is thinking of coming up.  Are you gonna leave them there yet another season?  I’ve been fancying a new donkey to replace Solomon, and he’ll need something to eat, won’t he?  As well as a proper fence.  Even if I don’t get a new donkey, the horses sure would love to have some extra grass this time of year.  They’re getting tired of that hay you’re throwing.”

Now is there anything else you want me to do today, dear?” I says, reining in my temper.

“Well, we’ve been talking about reroofing the chicken house for a long time.  You know how it leaks!  But I guess the chickens can wait behind the horses. But if you don’t get that fence fixed up soon the horses will be pushing through that wire once they figure you you’ve let the charger fail and then we’ll be chasing horses all up and down the road, and we can’t have that, now can we?”

“No, I don’t reckon we could have that, dear.”

And so I was just putting all the fishing gear back in the shed and rubbing my chin over where the money was coming from to buy lumber for the fence when Jake and the boys drove up. 

“Sorry fellas,” I says, “I won’t be going fishing today.  The Honey Do list has gotten a wee bit too long and the old woman won’t rest until I get her horses out of harm’s way, well fed, and properly penned up.   Ya’ll will just have to go on without me.  Maybe next year I can join you.”

“Really?!  Well, I had to sneak out the back door myself,” says Jake.   “What exactly has she got you doing?”

“Looks like I’ll spend the morning driving to town in search of fencing materials,” I says.  “And once I get a fence built, which will take me a week of Saturdays, I guess, I’ve got to fell a tree that’s threatening to fall any minute.  It didn’t fall all through the storms of winter, mind you, but if I don’t get it cut straight away it’ll be coming down on ol’ Snowie in a minute.  And I can’t just leave it lying in the field neither,” I says.  “It’ll have to be sawn up, split in to firewood, and carted off so the grass can grow.  Speaking of which, she wants all the rocks of tarnation out of the field to boot.  As we speak the grass is trying to grow out from under them, but can’t.  How many lifetimes you reckon that’ll take me?  No boys, you’d best hurry on down to the river without me before all the easy catching gets caught.  I’ve still got a sentence to serve here.”

 “Hold on there,” says Jake—now he’s a sharp one.  He says.  “How big of a fence have you got to build?  And how big of a tree have you got to fell?  And how many rocks might there be?  Let’s go have a look.  And bring your saw,” he says.

Well the gap in the fence I needed to close was about forty feet, stretching from a gate across the road to where the hedge row sprung up and the old fence began.   And the tulip poplar tree that needed to come down was a big one, about two feet in diameter and several stories high.

“Oh yeah,” says Jake, staring up at the top of the dead, leafless tree.  “That’s a biggun alright, a real beaute.  Good thing it grew straight as a plumb line for as long as it did.  Why, you’ll get a lot of fence rails out of that trunk.  Go fetch some wedges and the biggest hammer you’ve got.”

Now Jake—he’s a sharp one--he knows how to fell a tree.  With a notch in the front and a plunge right through the middle,  he then slipped the saw right out the back and put her down to bed in the open pasture.  “Timber!” says Jake and the boys.  “Bullseye” says Jake.  “Or did you want her in the pond?” he says with a smile.  “I guess I should-a asked you first!” 

“She’s every bit of forty feet,” he says, measuring her out with his six foot wing span.  “Now cut her here, there, and yonder into four ten foot sections.” 

Jake and the boys took turns hammering wedges, splitting each section of trunk first into halves, then quarters, then eighths.  On the stoutest sections we could cut out a ninth rail from the heart of the tree. 

“Good thing this is poplar,” says Jake when we’re done.  “If it were locust we’d be at it all day and miss the fishing,” he says with a wink.  “And on account  of it being soft wood, better leave the rails thick and strong, and not try to split into twelve, as we might a could with locust.  Oh, they’ll make fine rails,” he says.  “They’ll last twenty years if a day, wouldn’t you say, boys?” he says, to nods all around.  “Just don’t let ‘em touch the ground.  Didn’t you say you had some rocks to set them on?” 

And so we went to hauling the rails up to the gap in the donkey pasture.  It took two men to pick up any one rail, as stout as they were.  Jake and the boys laid them out one way, then another, sorting out the best angles, and balancing that with the needed length of the fence.  A split rail fence is a little bit like a bellows:  you can stretch it out or squeeze it together to fit your space just right.

“Now your old woman didn’t say she needed a post fence, did she?” asks Jake.  “Good thing, that!  We’d never get posts into this rocky ground, now would we?  That’s why all the old fence you see about are these zig-zagging split rails:  no need for posts at all!”

Once we had the fence laid out, Jake and the boys went to hauling rock out of the field to put under each corner and raise the fence a foot or so off the ground. 

“That’ll keep the wood from rotting and give the fence a little more height, which is what you want, right?  Doing that, we can get away with putting only three fat rails in each stretch of the fence, and if the rocks are big enough, the top rail will end up about waist high.  Donkey pasture?” he muses.  “Your old lady wasn’t fancying a donkey with wings, now was she?”  Jake and the boys all laugh at the thought.  Now he’s a sharp one, that Jake.

“What about the end of the fence where it comes to the gate, where it doesn’t have any joining rails to rest on?” I wondered.  “How are we going to fix them in place?”

“There’s still rock in the field, ain’t they?”  says Jake.  “We’d better get a few more out so we can scratch that task off your Honey Do list!”

So we commenced to build a rock column to hold up the loose ends of the rails and give them permanent housing.  As we were building that up Jake sent me to the barn to find something to serve as a gate latch.  Now that was thinking ahead!  If you look long enough in the old barn you’ll find just about anything and everything you could possibly need for any purpose.  In this case, I found an ancient length of heavy, worn chain that had served out a lifetime at some other purpose, God knows what, and was left lying around to one day become a gate latch.  Now was its moment.  We nailed it onto the middle rail before we covered it up with rock.  The column grew up above the top rail of the fence and ended up solid as could be—the perfect cap to the fence and just up against the gate to make a strong latch no horse—or donkey--could push through. 

There she was—a real beauty of a fence, stretching from one side of the gap to the other.  Jake and boys used every splinter of that poplar tree trunk and it just measured out to fill the needed space, not one rail too few or too many.  How about that!

“Now let’s get on down to the river and see if there’s still any easy catching left,” says Jake.  “Or are you too tired now?”

“If I’m too tired to sit on the bank of the river and hold a fishing pole, then you’d better just go ahead and bury me right now in the bottom pasture down by the ponds, and let the old lady remember me as the grass turns all green and pretty up above.  And don’t you even think of putting a headstone in the field---a simple cross will do,” says I.

So we went on down to the river, and don’t you know, by dark we were eating some the tastiest fried fish you ever sat down to.  Along with beans and cornbread.  And then Maw pulled out an apple cake made with the last of the black walnuts we’d cracked by the winter fire. 

“What this for?”  I asked.  Jake and the boys ain’t exactly honored guests, are they?” I says. 

“Well sure they are,” she says, “and I got to feeling just a wee bit guilty about you fellers working long hours when you wanted to be fishing, and getting three birds with one stone deserves some reward, don’t it?  So I thought I’d bake a little something special.”

“Well thank you, Ma’m, though it weren’t nothing at all, was it boys?” says Jake to nods all around.  He’s a sharp one, that Jake.  “This cake,” he says, “it sure is delicious!  Now is there anything left on the task list for tomorrow?”  

“Well, there is the roof of the chicken house,” she says, “but I reckon just this once I’ll give you boys Sunday off.”

By Walton Conway