Saturday, August 14, 2021

Remembering the Farm: Barbed Wire Fences

 When my grandparents bought our farm in 1914, the closest firewood was 30 miles away. That was likely the closest willow pickets for fences too. They bought two quarter sections (160 acres, measuring 1/2 mile by 1/2 mile) and leased two others which were mostly prairie short grass (likely Stipa comata or needle grass). That worked out to 7.5 miles (15 half mile) of perimeter fences and likely another 1.5 miles of cross fences. 

By the time I was old enough to help fix or build fence, it was all fenced using willow pickets and two strands of barbed wire with split cedar posts or used railway ties for corner posts as needed. Willow was tough and durable, not rotting easily. Dad could now cut pickets on our own land as poplar and willow grew in the low areas once the prairie fires were under control. Poplar made terrible fence pickets as it would rot out in under 5 years. Soaking it in Bluestone (copper sulphate) would maybe give you 10 to 15 years but it was a slow process. 

A willow picket would be maybe 4' to 4.5' long and 2" to 2.5" in diameter, flat on top and sharpened with an axe at the bottom. A hole was punched with a crowbar as deep as possible and the picket driven in with the flat of an axe. We had a maul but the willow would not take heavy pounding too well. The barbed wire was fastened to the picket with a staple or in many cases especially on old pickets with baling wire (#12). Pickets or posts were spaced 1 rod (4 paces, 5 meters, 16.5 feet) apart, 181 to the half mile.

Posts were needed on corners and in low spots. Post holes had to be hand dug which was hard work in baked dry soil. We had a hand auger for digging and another for removing the dirt from the hole. Usually the hole needed widening with a spade to handle a used railway tie. Then there was a tamping bar to firm the dirt around the post. At the estate sale, all I wanted for souvenirs were the two post augers and the tamping bar. Funny that but I had a soft spot in my head for them. They were in the machine shed when my brother managed to burn it down so the metal parts went in the scrap.

As we rebuilt and repaired perimeter fences we gradually added a third wire. Dad did buy a few spools of new wire (80 rods to a spool and two spools to the half mile) but most of the wire was stuff he bought at auctions. Not always in the best condition and constantly needing mending. Working with barbed wire was somewhat hazardous. I always wore jeans, a long sleeve heavy work shirt, and leather gloves. My tan stopped at my collar.

In the early 60s dad cut the top off a 53 Chev sedan, took the back seat out and made it into our fence mending truck. It got about 15 miles to the quart of used oil and you could not turn it off or it would not start for a few hours. After idling for 30 minutes while I repaired a stretch of fence, it would blow a smoke screen that would hide the Queen Mary. The dog used to swim in a slough while I fixed fence and when I would rev the motor he would come running, up through the back and over the seat into the front, then lie on my lap. 

Willow pickets were getting hard to come by and times must have been better as dad bought a post pounder that mounted on the front of the tractor. Then we bought commercial pressure treated 3" to 4" pickets and 6" posts from Glaslyn and our fences started to look professional. I drove the tractor and dad sighted in and pounded the posts. The post had to be held to keep it straight while it was being driven into the ground. One day dad absently minded held the post too near the top and the driver took a nice bite out of his glove and some of his finger and thumb. He got it stitched up and it was not too bad. I did the same thing at Cumberland House many years later but I got really lucky. It just wrecked the glove and missed my hand. Farm accidents are caused by carelessness!!!

In the early 60s dad rented and eventually bought another 3 quarter sections: 2 cultivated and 1 prairie, adding another 5 miles of perimeter fencing. 

A word about barbed wire gates. The wires were always loose, no matter how often they were rebuilt. From one of our cultivated quarters there was a 1 mile trail through the pasture with a wire gate at each end. Dad had bought a used 1 ton at an auction that had no brakes. Coming through the pasture meant he could avoid the roads. One fall, I had JUST fixed both wire gates and dad decided to drive the grey truck home with a load of wheat. He forgot to slow down so he could stop and drove through the first gate. By the time he got to the second gate, he forgot to slow down again and drove through it too. MURDER was too good for him. 

Dad sold the cattle in the fall of 1982. He was 60 years old, it had snowed in late September, he had no winter feed ready and he was tired. Since that time, the fences have fallen into disrepair except for those around the pasture area which was rented out for grazing. The unused fences desperately need to be torn down and the wire rolled up and scrapped. There is nothing worse than old barbed wire lying around to catch and injure animals. We had a horse get wrapped in old wire and  though she was stitched up and doctored, she never healed and was no longer rideable.

Three strand wire fence, showing proper wire spacing

Three strand wire with good posts.

A barbed wire gate in the usual disrepair

Typical wire gate, closed with a rope tie

Corner post, built right but a bit worse for wear

This abandoned fence needs to be torn down and cleaned up

Front mounted driver. The heavy steel weight is raised by hydraulic
and then suddenly dropped onto the sharpened post

Sorry for not using metric units but once you are off the highways it is Imperial Units all the way. Land was surveyed in Imperial units of rods and miles. It is bought and sold by the 160 acre parcel called a quarter section (1/2 mile by 1/2 mile, with 4 quarters making up a section. Grains and oilseeds are harvested and stored in bushels even though they are sold in tonnes.


  1. Farming is never easy, and was a lot harder then. Don't get me started on the damage that devil wire (aka barbed wire) can cause to birds and animals.
    And yes, I am not surprised at your rage at your father for driving through both of your recently repaired gates...

    1. Actually I wasn't that angry as dad was kind of sheepish about it. And it was funny when I think about it. But I did chew him out good naturedly

  2. farming is hard..I watch the veggie boys on you tube..7 generation farm and only help they have are family members..those boys work HARD.

    1. The Veggie Boys are an interesting lot. Truck farming is hard work. Not many families engaged in it.

  3. Nice looking red Angus, do you know his name. The family farm is coming a thing of past.
    Coffee is on and stay safe

    1. I do not know the bull. It belonged to someone who was renting the pasture. Definitely a nice bull. Family owned farms are still the vast majority though they are incorporated. Family owned and operated is becoming a rarity as acreages increase.

  4. The barbed wire fences on our farm had fallen into disrepair many years before our generation. I'm (unfortunately) familiar with 'discovering' rusty strands of barbed wire concealed in tall grass. I still have those scars on my ankle...

    1. Ouch. Yes, stumbling into a tangle of rusted barbed wire hidden in the grass is a dangerous thing. I hope you got a tetanus shot for your efforts. It must have been bad to leave scars. My tetanus shots were all for rusty nails.

    2. Bad, but not that bad - I just have "princess" skin. And I always keep my tetanus boosters up to date. Just in case... :-)

    3. Ah, yes, the perennial problem of redheads besides being gorgeous is delicate skin


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