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Preserving and Promoting local history for the former Rideau Township
Log Fence

They had disadvantages too. Zig-zag styles waste cultivation area and end up with shrubbery growing outward in an ever-expanding mass. The stacked types could tumble down with a good push from a cow looking for greener grass on the other side. Farm life inherently presents real physical danger. Fence-climbing children were sometimes hurt or killed by falling rails. Careful builders might notch and set the logs or rails to reduce that hazard.  

    Eugene Fytche and Ellen Adamsons

Eugene Fytche and Ellen Adamsons discussing Eugene’s book on log fences.  

The arrival of wire (circa 1870's) lead to more secure arrangements and it's the rare rail fence today that doesn't combine wood and wire for a more secure hold.

Fences go by different regional names – what is called the snake fence here is known as the Virginia fence in the U.S. Fytche guesses that was probably the first one developed, going all the way back to early settlements like Jamestown.  

In pioneer days, logs were split into rails using wedges and mauls (sledgehammers) – back-breaking work Abraham Lincoln famously endured in his hardscrabble youth. Long-lasting cedar is a preferred wood for fence rails, though chestnut was also much used before its decline, due to blight. Some hold that old-growth cedar lasts twice as long (100 years or more) as what is generally available today. But a 50 year fence isn't bad either.

Asked to name the most durable style, Fytche said he favors the patent fence, though any life-span is dependent on the wood employed. He recommends using as much heartwood as possible, as sap wood tends to rot away more quickly. Is it possible to prove which region can boast the most log and rail fences? Fytche champions his own Lanark Township for that honour, though it may be a matter of debate.

Fytche is also the author of  “May Safely Graze: Protecting Livestock from Predators” and “Wild Predators? Not in My Back Yard!”.

Perhaps inspired by his book's practical, how-to instructions, post-talk sales of the latest edition of Fytche's “400 Years of Log Fences” were brisk. We expect to see some nice fences erected in members’ yards in 2011!  

Many perfectly familiar things get overlooked and taken for granted. Fences may fall into that category. Noticed or not, fences mark boundaries, secure livestock, and contribute to our visual landscape. Traditional log or rail fences are also eye-pleasing reflections of Ontario's pioneer past.

Retired electrical engineer Eugene Fytche began thinking more about fences when he began two decades of farming sheep in Almonte. There were five different types of rail fences on his land, all in need of upkeep or repair. To his surprise, there wasn't much information available on that subject. Those who knew, knew. Everyone else was left to wonder, or re-invent the wheel on their own.

    A log fence

Log fences come in many styles depending on whether post holes can be dug, how much land can be given up, availability of materials and a variety of other considerations.  

Fytche gathered what information he could and made a point of seeking out people who still built old-style log and rail fences. Eventually, those findings, photos and sketches became a small, self-published book “400 Years of Log Fences”. The first edition came out in 2008 and it was updated in 2010. Besides addressing the subject of where log or rail fences evolved, and why, Fytche includes practical descriptions and drawing of how to construct a dozen such fence types.

Fytche addressed an attentive audience of 27 at RTHS's March meeting at the Rideau Archives branch in North Gower – having already put in a long day at the Ottawa Valley Farm Show! He also brought along charming models (some are pictured here) made by Alex Bowes and kindly loaned by the North Lanark Regional Museum in Appleton at 667 River Road.

Not surprisingly, log and rail fences developed out of frugality and sheer necessity. The first European settlers came well before wire was invented or readily available. What they had were trees, trees, and more trees. (Depending on location, innumerable rocks could be involved too!)  All of which demanded back-breaking work, clearing crop land – just to eat. Once cleared, the felled logs had to be burned or used. With labor as the only cost, up went the fences, using patterns first developed in the U.S. Colonies, a well-established skill that later came to Ontario with Loyalist settlements.

Log and rail fences have some advantages. Depending on the style used, many are self-supporting and can be built on uneven terrain. Before post hole diggers, and in rocky land, not having to set posts was a huge savings of labour. These fences could be made to varying heights, moved, or taken down, as needed.

400 Years of Log Fences

Presenter: Eugene Fytche

Article by Lucy Martin

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