Continuing our series on fences, you know the ones you see on numerous Civil War battlefields, today we tackle rail & rider fences, also known as stone & rider. If you missed the first installment in this series, Virginia worm fences, you can catch up by clicking this link. But don’t forget to come back to this week’s installment! For those already caught up on this series, keep reading to discover all those “nerdy” details that only the most hardcore battlefield devotees would want to know about rail and rider fences.
This type of fence has even more names than Virginia worm. Not only known as rail and rider or stone and rider fences, more academic discussions as well as modern stone masons refer to them as stake and rider fences with protective covers. More folklore type descriptions exclude a name all together, simply referring to these fences as “horse high and hog tight,” or “horse high, bull strong, and hog tight.” For the sake of clarity in this article, I’ll stick with using stone and rider.
The origins of stone and rider fences, at least in America, largely come from the land itself and the property owner’s intentions for it. Constructed in the form of dry walls, meaning no mortar or wet mix was used, many of these fences began as land was being cleared for crop or pasture use. As plowing or picking occurred, the stones were piled along the edges of the fields. Thus, many stone walls were composed of stone found on the property or adjacent to it. If the stones needed to be moved farther distances, property owners or stone masons would load them on a stoneboat, which were later pulled by horse or ox teams to their destination.
As noted, the type of material used, in this case mostly stone, was determined by what was available in the immediate vicinity. Most stone and rider fences, although not all, are constructed using fieldstone. This type of stone can best be defined as “[i]rregularly rounded boulders deposited by glaciers,” and can be found either on the ground or just below the surface. Rising upwards through the ground during the freeze-thaw process, known as heaving, or plowing or picking, depending on the region and the diabase field stones were numerous enough to provide the amount required for construction of these fences. If more was needed during construction, stone could be quarried for use; however the quantity needed and the distance of the quarry from the property would be critical factors in determining the overall cost. In addition to the stone base, a stone and rider fence also utilized wooden rails. The vertical rails, or stakes, placed on the diagonal would bring the height of the fence (from the ground to the horizontal rail) up to an average of between 5’6″ to 6’0″, while the horizontal rails that connected them ran between 10’6″ to 14’0″ in length. The purpose of the rider was not only to increase the overall height of the fence, but also to protect the top stones of the wall from being pushed off.
The stone and rider fence served many purposes on properties, most predominantly found in agricultural communities. They marked different crop fields and different pastures, enclosed barnyards or animal pens. If subsistence farming, or even commercial farming on smaller scales in 19th century, important crops, “cash crops” could be well protected behind an enclosure of stone and rider fences. They would be used around family gardens, and even lined farm lanes. Farm lanes usually ran from the barnyard to the pasture, with a gate at the end of the lane that led into a holding area. As one historian of stone walls and fences in New York noted in his 1989 study, this holding area, “was usually rocky and unproductive and was given the name ‘Devil’s Half Acre,'” and, “From this area the livestock could be turned into one of several fields for pasturing.”
But do not let this information mislead you. There is far more finesse in the construction of stone and rider fences than just gathering field stone out of fields used for planting, piling them at the edge of the field, and putting some rails on tops. Because no mortar is used, it is the weight of the stones themselves that hold the wall together. Just simply piling the stones up in any fashion will not create a strong and reliable stone and rider fence, but more of a rubble pile both in appearance and function. And, although the fieldstone used to construct this type of fence can be used in its “as is” condition from the field, sometimes these stones needed to be shaped, removing bumps or unevenness. This was an acquired or learned skill that either the property owner had received passed down through his family, or the necessary assistance of a stone mason. Written in a guidebook to the next generation of farmers in 1860, S. Edwards Todd noted that stone and rider fences “requires the exercise of good skill and judgment to place every stone in the best position, so it will not roll or rock about at the slightest touch.”
But what about the old description of “horse high and hog tight”? What was that all about in regards to stone and rider fences.? Well, the placement and weight of the stones did not allow for a hog to dig and crawl underneath this style of fence, while the vertical height of the wall with horizontal rail dissuaded even the most agile of horses from jumping over it.
Join me for the next installment of Fence Friday when I tackle for a common battlefield fence, and one that provided numerous challenges during Civil War battles on maneuvering, post and rail.
Dr. Bruce R. Buckley and Donald McTeman. Joyce C. Ghee, ed. Horse High, Sheep Tight and Hog Proof: The Stone Walls of Dutchess County, New York. New York: Dutchess County Department of History, 1989.
John Heiser. “Typical Fences Found in Adams Co. in 1861-1865.” 2001.
S. Edwards Todd. The Young Farmers’ Manual. New York: C. M. Saxton. Barker & Company, 1860.