Early American Fence Styles Made of Natural Materials
Natural fences made of stumps, logs, brush, stone, and plants
June 30, 2022
For daily wit & wisdom, sign up for the Almanac newsletter.
Most of the early American fences were made of natural material—brush, logs, stumps, plants, and stone. Many folks are rediscovering these vintage fence ideas. Take a look at 8 traditional fences and tell us what you think!
1. Brush Fence
Did you know that the first American fences of record were built of brush? A thicket of small to medium-size trees was required. These were felled and then stacked. As the trees overlapped one another, an impenetrable mass was formed, several feet wide and many feet tall.
Brushwood fences were probably one of the earliest fence types constructed in Japan. Today, people are rediscovering this ancient, eco-friendly fencing style as a natural backdrop using undergrowth, twigs, tips and small branches. .
Today’s brush fences tend to be somewhat more decorative and may have tree branches in vertical or horizontal positions
2. Stump Fence
Stump fences are often found near a woodlot because they are constructed from one. Once built, they are horse high, bull-strong, and pig-tight—as difficult to get through as living hedges. These fences are made from tree stumps: Roots are cut off the sides of each stump and saved for possible use. Then stumps are laid flat, or trunk cut side down, with roots in the air. They are placed close together, along the fence line. Any gap between the stumps is chinked with the remaining (cutoff) roots.
If the lumber can be spared, stump fences can be made of logs cut from tree trunks to the same length and set upright on the fence line.
Photo: “A New England stump fence,” ca. 1890-1901, by Detroit Publishing Co., via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Today, there are many ways to use tree stumps to create natural fencing.
3. Snake Fence
A snake fence is also known as a split-rail zigzag fence or Virginia fence. They were built of split rails that were laid in a zig-zag fashion. Rails, split medium-size logs, or saplings are placed one on top of each other at an angle, intersecting at each end. A pair of long stakes driven into the ground at the end of each intersection holds the fences upright.
This style of fence is highly decorative. Measurements are especially important in erecting this fence. For DIYers, proper materials would include 4-inch-square hardwood posts; smaller support posts half the diameter and of the same length; plus 10-foot-long, 6-inch-wide, 1/2-inch-thick boards of matching length (these are woven between the uprights). The posts—especially the ends of them—should be treated to prevent rot after being set in the ground. Boards should be woven as close as possible for protection and privacy.
5. Picket Fence
In Colonial times, picket fences became a symbol of America. They were originally rough pointed sticks to defend and also demarcate land. Anyone could gather the wood to create their own fences on new homesteads. Over time, picket fences represented the pride of home ownership and allowed families to keep children and pets safe, while also remaining neighborly. Colonial fences were made with a mixture of lime and water to protected the wood—and gave the fences that traditional white color.
Wooden picket fences are often of elaborate workmanship. Pieces are usually made to order from raw stock and prepped for paint—but not painted—before assembly. Because of the detail and time involved in creating them and the ensuing costs, original wood picket fences are seldom erected today.
Picket Fence. Photo credit: Maria Dryfhout Shutterstock
6. Tenter Fence
More drying rack than true barrier or enclosure, this form gave rise to the expression “to be on tenterhooks,” meaning to be anxious. It is constructed with 8-foot posts stuck 2 feet deep into the ground about 4 feet apart. Smoothed rails are nailed into the posts horizontally at the top, the middle, and a foot or two above the ground. At regular intervals, tenterhooks are screwed into the top and bottom railings.
Predressed woolen cloth is hooked to the upper railing, then stretched down and hung on the lower hooks. There it would dry into preshrunken goods. The procedure keeps the cloth from overshrinking. For a longer-term, decorative alternative, attach grommets to a piece of canvas (or similar suitable fabric) and hang it on the hooks.
7. Stone Fences
In regions abundant with natural stones and rocks, farmers would need to remove the stones from the field to clear it for plowing. This was especially true in New England’s glacier-formed topography which meant a wealth of fieldstone.
This gave rise to stone walls or fences which also separated their fields for livestock and crops. They were traditionally about 3-feet high and very durable. Every year, the farmers would walk the fields to replace loose stones. Later, some stone fences would use dry mortar to hold stones in place.
8. Live Plants/Hedges
In many areas, especially in the Southern states, both stone and timber were not readily found. However, fast-growing plants could make a live fence or hedge. These “live fences” had many benefits, not just privacy. Plants can also filter air, absorb noise pollution, and make for a very attractive green backdrop. Learn more about best shrubs for making hedges.
There’s also a type of natural fence that you can use in the garden! Quick-growing, flexible hazel and willow trees offer stems to weave into fences, screens, supports for climbing plants, and more.
Not only do they look stunning but they also help to filter wind instead of deflecting it, avoiding the damaging eddies found along solid walls.