Between Fences – The History and Meaning of Fences (Part 2)

The exhibition Between Fences was part of Museum on Main Street, which serves museums, libraries and historical societies in rural America. It covered many topics. Below is an overview of five of what we believe were the more important topics.

Fences in the American Landscape. Early Americans believed that land ownership was a natural right of white men, 75% of whom owned land in 1763. Owning and farming land represented economic independence — the ability of a man to provide for himself and his family. It also meant political independence — a landless man was not permitted to vote or hold public office.

Frontier Inventions. Many of the inventors who worked on wire fences were born on farms and lived near the edge of the frontier in states such as Illinois and Michigan. Businessman Isaac L. Ellwood and inventor Jacob Haish made DeKalb, Illinois, the center of the barbed-wire industry. Ellwood's residence, now a museum (top right corner of poster at left), stands as a monument to their success.

The Business of Fencing. The fence industry typified the turn-of-the-century transformation of small trade into big business.  Fence manufacturers became part of corporations that owned their own mines, raw-material production plants, and transportation facilities. Smaller barbed- and woven-wire fence and wire nail companies merged to create The American Steel and Wire Company. By 1899, the company had a monopoly on barbed wire.

Legal Cases. Plaintiff Kaplan built several fences along the boundary between his property and the property of the defendant Pieczentkowski. Plaintiff kept cattle and horses on his property. He asked the defendant to pay part of the cost of the fence he had constructed but defendant refused. The county commissioners, acting as fence viewers, looked at the fence and concluded that the defendant should not be required to pay any of the cost of the fence.

Do Good Fences Make Good Neighbors? Americans define themselves, their neighborhoods, and their country...beginning with their yards. Love thy neighbor? You may think that your property line runs from the center of the planet to the clouds, but the person next door may disagree. Fences can cause or resolve disputes with the people next door.

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