Stone Fences of Wabaunsee County

– by Paul Miller –

One of the features of Wabaunsee County that visitors and natives enjoy viewing is the native stone fence.  Many of the fences are still in use today as they were originally intended after standing for over 130 years.  Others have fallen into disrepair as they are no longer needed, or it was easier to put up a barbed wire fence alongside to keep the cattle contained. Nevertheless, there are still enough of the original native stone fences intact that we are able to enjoy their function and rugged beauty.

View showing both original and restored stone fence in Wabaunsee County. Photo credit Nancy Crenshaw-Miller.

View showing both original and restored stone fence in Wabaunsee County. Photo credit Nancy Crenshaw-Miller.

Stone fences, or a universal description is “a dry-stone wall”, were being constructed since before recorded history.  In Ireland the remains of some walls have been dated back to about 1750 B.C. The method of construction remains similar today. A well-built dry-stone wall can remain standing for 200 years.  In fact, a dry-stone wall will last longer than one with mortar since it will shift and bend with the natural movement of the ground beneath.

The origin of the use of stone fences in the Flint Hills started from a combination of a couple of occurrences in the late 1860s.  One was the use of the open range in the undeveloped portions of the grazing areas.  Folks with crops and homesteads needed a way to keep the free-ranging cattle out of their property.  The other was a bounty paid to property owners, initiated by a state statute on February 20, 1867, stating “That any person planting an Osage or Hawthorne fence or shall build of stone, a fence of the height of four and one-half feet, around any field, within ten years from the passage of this act, and successfully growing and cultivation the same, or keeping up said fence until it successfully resists stock, shall receive an annual bounty of two dollars for every forty rods so planted and cultivated, or built and kept up; the bounty to commence as soon as said fence will entirely resist cattle, and to continue for eight years thereafter.  Said bounty to be paid from the Treasury of the county in which said fence may be situated.” In other words, the landowner was afforded the great sum of five cents a rod (16 and a half feet) a year for eight years. This bounty was discontinued in1881 when barb wire became more economical.

In Matt Thompson’s Early History of Wabaunsee County, he mentions the names of many of our original settlers that were building stone fences and records the varying lengths of fences they were constructing. He praises the workmanship by stating “in nearly every instance the fences are as substantial today as when first built speaks volumes of the value for building purposes of Wabaunsee County stone—everywhere abundant”.  In the 1870 county treasurers’ payment register, many of the names of the landowners who paid a bounty are still property owners today, such as; Schwanke, Schutter, Grunewald, Thoes, Hess, and Heideman.  The largest number of payments were made in the 1878 register where 46 landowners were paid for stone fence construction.

Signpost along side original stone fence in Wabaunsee County. Photo credit Nancy Crenshaw-Miller.

Signpost alongside a stretch of stone fence in Wabaunsee County. Photo credit Nancy Crenshaw-Miller.

It is said that after the stone fences had all been built that the stone masons had worked themselves out of a job. Although now we require the skills of the many old-time stone masons to repair and maintain our miles of fence in the Flint Hills. Dry stone wall construction uses many different styles and types of material.  In our area, limestone is the prevalent material for construction. There are many different styles and qualities of workmanship that can be observed when viewing the fences in the county.  I like to compare them to a person’s handwriting or signature. No one signature is identical as every stone fence has its own unique identity.

There are single-face walls and double-face walls. Double-faced walls being the prevailing style due to more stability and visual appeal. The double-face wall is built with a solid base and then goes up with two separate rows or faces with the flat part of the stone facing out on each side of the wall to create a smooth well-kept appearance. Every so often a tie-stone is placed to span both sides of the wall to create stability and support. The stones are placed at a slight angle toward the center of the wall which allows gravity to not only pull the wall down but also in against each other to create stability. Small rocks are used to fill in the gaps in the center. Then the top is capped off with either flat rocks or triangular-shaped ones standing on the edge. The most important statement I have read in all stone laying “how to” books is “one on two”; that is, always put one stone over the vertical seam of the two stones in the layer below to tie them together.

Different stories are told of how the settlers accomplished the construction of the stone fences on their property. In The History of the Cattle Industry of the Flint Hills, a master’s thesis written by Lydia Andres Skeen in 1938, she writes that “The old settlers tell stories of hiring some of the many negroes that came into the region after the Civil War” to build stone fences in Wabaunsee County.

Restoration of an stone fence. Photo credit Nancy Crenshaw-Miller.

Restoration of a stone fence. Photo credit Nancy Crenshaw-Miller.

It has been suggested that the reason couples had large families was to have a ready labor force to accomplish the many labor-intensive practices of the time including the building of stone fences.  They would harness one or two horses to a wagon or more often a wooden sled that would drag on ground level and place the stones on the wooden sled to be hauled back to the site of the fence.  The stones would be found wherever available in the pastures, along the edges of fields that had been cleared, and in the creeks. Then in the evening, the farmer would place himself along the fence line being constructed and direct his family to hand him the requested rock to be placed in the appropriate spot.

Sometimes the process of building a stone wall can be therapeutic.  One loses track of time, and the correct rock seems to automatically be selected and perfectly fits into place.  Other times the rocks seem to be conspiring against you. Whether you are a perfectionist or just want to convert a pile of rocks into some semblance of a wall, there is a definite feeling of accomplishment to restore what our ancestors first created to protect their crops and homesteads.

View showing restored stone fence in Wabaunsee County. Photo credit Nancy Crenshaw-Miller.

View showing restored stone fence in Wabaunsee County. Photo credit Nancy Crenshaw-Miller.

There is currently a strong desire to restore and maintain the many miles of stone fence in our county. The Wabaunsee County Commissioners have passed a resolution to pay anyone who has at least ten rods of stone fences in good repair a dollar a rod per year for each rod. Also, a stone fence workshop was held in 2007 to teach the basics of stone fence restoration. These workshops continue today under the sponsorship of the Native Stone Scenic Byway Committee.

Many nice stretches of stone fence can be viewed south of Alma on Ks. Hwy. 99, on Old Highway Ten between Alma and Alta Vista and on Hessdale and Nehring Branch Roads. It is important to focus on the historical and visual significance of the stone fences so that they can be preserved and not hauled out of the county to be used as landscaping rock. The stone fences in Wabaunsee County are certainly a part of the landscape in which they belong.