By Peter Jelito

For The Union Democrat

In the middle of the 1800s, when mining was in full swing, farmers and merchants also came to this county. That is when the first fences went up. For the most part, they were used to keep livestock corralled or people from falling in open pits.

Most of the acreage in Tuolumne County is owned by the Federal Government and except for insignificant areas, those lands are not fenced. The slogan of the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau some years ago was “Tuolumne County, The Great Unfenced.” The slogan had been used for several years and was intended to reflect a state of mind.

Most of the private lands in our county have fences of various construction and materials, depending on their purpose and use.

Fences have several distinct purposes: to keep something in, to keep something out, to delineate my property from yours and to look pretty.

Fences in earlier years were built with any material at hand, which can be seen in the stone corral along Highway 108, west of Jamestown, on the Rosasco Ranch. This stone fenced corral, built with volcanic rocks from Table Mountain in the mid 1800s is still usable today.

If stones were not readily available, brush was piled up to keep livestock in a confined area.

Then along came barbed wire in 1867, invented and patented by Lucien B. Smith of Kent, Ohio, which was strung on wooden posts. For fence posts, any kind of wood was used. In the lower elevations it was Valley Oak that supplied the material, however, those posts were short lived, as the oak quickly turned to mush and, because of this, Valley Oaks were also called Mush Oaks.

Pine was plentiful but also quickly succumbed to rot. Cedar was then carted down from the upper elevations and these Cedar posts survive today in many locations as they were resistant to rot, insects or other diseases.

Barbed wire was exclusively used for livestock by ranchers, except hogs had to be corralled with other means as their hide was easily injured by barbed wire. For the latter purpose it was mostly rough sawn lumber, which was also used in corrals where horses were broken and trained. Lumber was easier on animals and also on riders, and it was also a sturdy enclosure.

Fences in town were not as common except where a city lot was larger and the owner wealthier and wanted to keep unwanted folks out. Those fences were either dainty picket fences or brick and stone. A costlier material was iron for wrought iron fences, and samples can still be seen on some streets in Sonora.

Later came the know-how of making fabric fences like hog wire fence, field fence, chain link fencing and finally chicken wire fence fabric. These were adaptable materials and came in either rolls or panels. Fence material was secured to wooden posts with either fence staples or with baling wire. Over time also came the arrival of iron fence posts, the T-post of various length and thickness. Knobs at intervals along the T-post keeps the fence wire from slipping up or down and is secured with wire clips.

The lower end of wooden posts were at one time treated with Creosote, which is now considered an environmental contaminant and was outlawed for this use. The successive treatments of wooden posts were copper solutions with varying degrees of longevity. Posts that were treated with either liquid and no longer in use, should not be considered firewood or burned in the open but disposed of with caution.

Today’s wooden fence posts are still available with treated ends and they are a byproduct of plywood production. Peeler cores, as they are called, are mostly used for corner or gate posts as hinges or closure fittings are not easily connected to T-posts.

Some other materials are being used for fences like old water pipes, drill pipes or even wooden pallets. Some other means to build a fence is using split rail wood, which is laid out in a zig-zag fashion without the use of wire, nails or staples.

In some areas fences are regulated by local ordinance or home owner organizations. Putting up a solid wooden board fence against your neighbor’s property is probably not a good idea unless you have a meeting of the minds beforehand.

Also, to construct a fence of more than four feet in height might be a hindrance for wildlife and concentrate wildlife corridors in other areas of one’s neighborhood. It probably can be tolerated to put up a tall fence around your vegetable patch as not to be a magnet for deer or other browsers.

A fence for the most part has an important function, like keeping cattle off the highway or out of someone’s orchard. So it is advised to keep proper etiquette as not to scale a fence and damage it, otherwise, the consequences can be devastating.

A gate is much easier to use anyway and will be kinder to blue jeans or shirts. When coming to a closed gate, make sure it is closed after passing as livestock is quite keen to find an open gate and play a game of car dodging on the highway. One guess who wins that game.

Other exotic materials used for fences are old tires, wooden pallets, steel cables on railroad ties, large irregular boulders, concrete and even plastic rails with plastic posts, cable reel sides or other surplus materials.

Stories of fences abound, especially when a property with fences is acquired by a new owner and he is lulled into the belief, that the fences are true property lines. Sometimes fences are off the property line by several feet and only a search for property corners can be an assurance of the true location of the property lines.

Survey markers or corner markers are usually short iron pipes or rods with the surveyor’s tag attached and on occasion are buried under leafs and dirt. A recorded surveyor’s map can be of great help to find those boundary markers and can be obtained at the County Recorder office.

One last observation is the question of “whose fence is it?” There is no assurance to its correctness, but generally, the wire is attached on the side of the post inside the property, not outside. This is especially important when livestock is in a fenced enclosure, cattle leaning against the fence may pop out a fence staple or loosen a bolt or nail.

We have come a long way with fences, which also make interesting objects for photographers, who are attracted to that gnarly cedar post with embedded acorns, product of a busy woodpecker or tufts of moss dangling from a fence post.