Old Rail Fences
Nature Bulletin No. 240-A October 15, 1966
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
OLD RAIL FENCES
a hundred and a hundred fifty years ago, the early settlers
came to the Middle West and began to chop out clearings in its vast and
somber forests. To clear the trees and brush from a few acres of land
and plant the first crops, among the stumps, required much hard labor.
But wood was very necessary to these pioneers -- half-hunters, half-
farmers. It furnished logs for their log cabins and barns; fuel for their
fireplaces; material for furniture, implements and primitive tools. Logs
were split into rails for building corn cribs, hog pens, sheds and, most
important, for fencing their fields.
Until the turn of the century these rail fences or "worm" fences were a
characteristic and picturesque feature of rural landscapes throughout the
region of our original hardwood forests. Most of them have now been
replaced by wire fences, but a few remnants may still be seen here and
there. They were called "worm" or "snake" fences because the rails
were criss-crossed in a zigzag fashion. Very few new rails are made any
more because they can only be split successfully from large, straight,
solid logs without knots, such as the oaks and walnuts that grew in
The log was cut four "ax handles" long -- about eleven feet. The bark
was peeled off and wooden mauls and wooden wedges, made of
ironwood or other very hard wood, were used to split it into halves, then
quarters, then eighths, like pieces of pie. These in turn were split into
roughly triangular or rectangular rails measuring about 4 by 4 or 3 by 5
inches. The rails were laid on the ground in a very exact zigzag pattern
with the ends extending a little over a foot from where they crossed.
After the fence was seven or eight rails high, each corner was
strengthened and braced by two other rails, or stakes, one on each side,
sunk a foot or more in the ground and slanted upward to cross and hold
the fence in place. These stake rails, in turn, were locked in place by an
additional horizontal rail or "rider". Between seven and eight thousand
rails were needed to build a mile of "worm" fence -- enough to enclose
a forty-acre field.
Such fences, made entirely without any hardware, were quite
serviceable for confining horses, cattle, sheep and hogs. However, some
rails rotted and others broke, year by year, and they were rebuilt in
other designs which used fewer rails and occupied less land. It seems
quite certain that many of the rails now remaining are survivors from
those original fences built when the land was first cleared. None remain
except red oak, white oak and black walnut, weathered and gray but as
sound as the day they were split. All those made from less durable
woods are gone.
"Worm" fences seemed a prodigal waste of land in later years because
they occupied from three to four times as much ground as the modern
barbed wire and woven wire fences. They quickly grew up in wild
roses, wild raspberries, wild blackberries, weeds and vines, furnishing
food and cover for a host of wildlife. With the clearing of the timber
and more and more intense cultivation of the land, these fences offered
refuges where the quail, the cottontail rabbit and dozens of other birds
and animals learned to live with civilization.
A favorite game played by generations of country school children was
to see who could walk the top rail farthest without tumbling off.
Many an undesirable citizen left town riding on a rail.
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Update: June 2012