Soft pink rhododendron blossoms seem the perfect decoration beside the beauty and character of an old split rail fence. highcountryimages.com

Laura Dean Bennett
Staff Writer

One of the distinct pleasures of exploring Pocahontas County has to be coming across some of the remaining examples of the old-style split rail fences which, at one time, lined so many of our farms, roads and battlefields.

These rustic fences may evoke sentimental thoughts about another era – a simpler time which, in many parts of the country, has vanished.

In the early days of American colonial and frontier history, split rail fences or stone walls were just about the only option for keeping livestock within boundaries. 

Pioneers didn’t have easy access to the kind of tools necessary to build other types of fences and gates. 

But they had access to some of the most versatile and durable wood ever known.

As they cleared a patch of forest for a homestead and a farm, settlers had at hand the only necessary materials for split rail fencing – American chestnut trees and black locust trees. 

The trees were plentiful and relatively easy to work with, and split rail fences could be constructed without the use of elaborate tools.

They were a common feature in early American settlements.

Basically, if you could chop or saw down a large tree and chop and split the wood, you could build a split rail fence.

The word “fence” comes from a 14th century word, “fens” which was a short form of the word “defense.”

Undoubtedly, the first settlers with ideas of keeping flocks or herds within boundaries here in our part of the western Virginia colony were hard-pressed to mark boundaries with anything other than stone walls or split-rail fence.

American chestnut rail fences and chestnut rails stacked in a pile create a picturesque still life with an old barn in the background at Pam and Dave Sharpes farm. L.D. Bennett photo

America’s first fences were the “worm,” or “zig-zag” type – a portable rail fence requiring neither posts nor the digging of holes. 

This would have come in handy on rocky, hard and uneven ground.

Built of split rails that were laid in a zig-zag fashion, they were either settled on a rock or straight on the ground, with their ends intersecting at a 60-degree angle. 

This type of design was in use in New England since at least 1685.

We know this because the minutes of a town meeting that year in Salem, Massachusetts, record the construction of a “new worm fence about the meeting house at Alloway’s Creek.”

Most of the Scots-Irish who settled in the Appalachians would have been keen to begin farming.

That would have required claiming a land grant, clearing the land, building a shelter and building fences or stone walls to contain livestock. 

It is likely that stone walls were built when clearing fields full of rock, as great masses of limestone rocks are so common here.

Otherwise, as the forest was cleared to make way for homesteads and farming during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, split rail fences covered the landscape.

As split rail fences became part of the early American landscape, they also became part of the fabric of the American psyche.

They even played a role in the political campaign of one of our greatest presidents.

Some of the split rails Abraham Lincoln had hewed on the family farm became props at political rallies when he was running for office. 

Lincoln’s cousin John Hanks made a memorable scene at the 1860 Illinois State Convention by striding in carrying split rails of wood said to have been cut by Lincoln himself.

As a presidential candidate, Lincoln often spoke to crowds under a banner which read, “Abe Lincoln, the Rail Splitter.”

His being called a rail splitter indicated that Lincoln was a common man of the people and undoubtedly contributed to his ascension to the presidency.

During the Civil War, split rail fences provided firewood to both Union and Confederate troops who would burn the wood for cooking and to keep warm, which must have endeared them to the farmers on whose land they camped.

American chestnut and black locust were the wood of choice for fences because of their straight grain and unusual rot-resistance.

Today, split-rail fences are constructed primarily of black locust because a blight of historic proportions took out the chestnut trees in the early 1900s – an uncalculable loss.

The rails made from American chestnut typically lasted more than a hundred years without any deterioration.

These magnificent giants made up 50 percent of all Eastern deciduous forests, and it was the perfect tree.

It provided food for humans and many species of wildlife.

American chestnuts grew tall and straight, with branches up high on the trunk of the tree. 

Settlers must have felt incredibly grateful to learn that the limb-free trunk would split relatively easily into straight rails when tapped by wedges at either end.

American chestnut was also highly valued for use in making beautiful furniture.

But, the American love affair with this amazing tree came to a tragic end in 1904, when a shipment of wood from China brought with it a microscopic fungus, one which thrived here in North America and attacked and , in a matter of years, killed 100 percent of the American chestnut trees.

People may tell you that they have an American chestnut tree, but experts say, “they do not.” 

Many of the poor old tree stumps still try to come back to life. They have been known to host shoots of a new tree from the stump. 

The young tree will grow to about eight feet in height, maybe even produce blossoms, but it will eventually contract the fungus and die.

These days, if you have a chestnut tree, it’s a Chinese chestnut tree, which is apparently immune to the fungus.

Scientists are trying to cultivate a hybrid American chestnut which would be immune to the fungus, but they have had no success thus far.

If you have old chestnut rails on your property, count yourself blessed and put them to good use.

You are the fortunate steward of one of America’s original natural treasures.

Laura Dean Bennett may be contacted at ldb@pocahontastimes.com