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Using fences as similes
Now and Then
roger branch

Part of the creativity in the language of back country folk was the effective use of metaphors, especially similes like “dumb as a stump.” Their language was a lively, growing thing drawing upon familiar aspects of everyday life.

Two examples use fencing as foundations. “Plain as a board fence” and “crooked as a rail fence” were meaningful because fences were familiar and ubiquitous. They were everywhere because cows and hogs mostly lived in the woods, the open range, from earliest settlement until the middle of the 20th century. Fences were necessary to keep livestock out of fields until crops were mature and in fields when they were eating crop residue to fatten for food or market. Things around the house, like flowers and sweet potato banks, required protection. Therefore, homes and their environs were fenced off and fields were fenced to keep critters out or in as the case might be.

At least across the front along the road, houses were protected by fences made of sawed boards, beginning with the establishment of sawmills. Sturdy heart pine posts were sunk deep into the ground and boards were attached with spaces between them up to a height of four feet or so. The spaces allowed breezes to blow through. Kids used them to climb the fence without going to the gate.

Although the boards and posts had the light honey color of heart pine when first erected, with the passage of years, they darkened to gray. Such fences were not ugly. In fact, they rather matched the hue of the homes because neither houses nor fences were ever painted. Paint was a luxury that few could afford. My grandparents -- both paternal and maternal -- were not impoverished, but never painted their houses. Maybe Tom Sawyer’s town folks' family could afford to whitewash their picket fence, but that was not the case with South Georgia country folks in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

While it was not a deep insult to say that a female was “plain as a board fence,” it certainly was not a compliment. Stronger similes were used for homely males.

Rail fences were crooked, though not in the sinuous sense of the word for which “crooked as a black snake in hot ashes” was used. Rail fences were laid in a zigzag pattern and the starting point to ending point could be line of sight straight or they could turn as necessary.

Those who think they know what a rail fence looks like from representations on the Blue Ridge Parkway really do not know at all. The rails were lengths of heart pine timber split from mature trees with axes and wedges. Trees were cut in advance and allowed to dry before splitting. Rails, roughly four inches thick, were eight to 12 feet long, depending upon the lay of the land or preference of the landowner. Heart pine saturated in tar is nearly impervious to decay or termites, but not fire. 

In the days when “burning off the woods” was standard practice in early spring, it was necessary to monitor rail fences to stop fires from reaching them and sometimes kick them down to douse the lower rails.

Rail fencing dates from frontier times before the introduction of galvanized steel wire. Even later, some farmers could not afford “wire fence” and continued to lay rails into the 20th century.

Rail fences were laid as follows. If the course is north to south, the first bank of rails might be laid south/southeast, first rail on the ground. The second section, running south/southwest with its rails overlapping and resting upon the rails of the first. The “V” of overlapping rails was strong and could be buttressed with braces. Spaces between rails allowed wind to pass through. Changes in the direction of the fence were made by managing the width of the angle of the “V” intersections.

Rail fences obviously were not straight. Worse, they required the right sort of trees as raw materials and a lot of hard work. Virgin timber surrendered to need and greed, especially after the coming of numerous railroads.

Wire fence is better. Thirteen strand “hog wire” has thicker wires spaced close together at the bottom followed by thinner strands up to the top wire which also is heavier gage. These horizontal wires are reinforced by vertical strands at close intervals. Since cows often get pushy against the fence, it is good practice to attach a strand or two of barbed wire above the standard fence.

My father, who spent much of his life “putting up fence,” sometimes put a line of barbed wire at the bottom to dissuade “nosy” hogs. The barbed wire on top did not stop a neighbor’s huge bull. His hide was so thick that barbs did not bother him. He would push against the fence until staples flew and fence sagged. 

But both parents quickly went to Plan B, a couple of loads of bird shot in the butt would make him leave in a hurry, even if he had to tear down more fence in the process. Oh, yes, Mother could handle a 12-gauge Remington pump shotgun. Proof: dead chicken hawks.


Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.


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