The construction of fences around agricultural fields has been a tradition in West Virginia since the beginning of European settlement. As with other practices, the early settlers brought with them the fence-building methods of their forebears.
Fences were generally used only for the crop fields directly adjacent to the house and associated outbuildings. There was insufficient labor to fence off pastureland, and it was common practice to let livestock run freely until time for slaughter. To distinguish the ownership of livestock, ears were cropped in distinctive patterns.
Early fences were primarily wooden, made from the abundant timber. Some dry-laid and mortared rock fences were constructed in areas where limestone was plentiful, particularly the Eastern Panhandle. Most wooden fences were built in the worm style, consisting of split rails laid horizontally in a zigzag pattern. This style of fence originated in Scandinavia and was easy to construct. Worm fences took up an excessive amount of land, however, with the area within the zigzags on both sides of the fence impossible to plow. Post-and-rail fences, built by suspending rails between posts set into the ground, solved this problem since the posts ran in a direct line. Such fences used considerably less land and timber but were labor intensive. Once sawmills appeared board fences replaced earlier worm or post-and-rail fences.
The immediate house yard and kitchen garden were often enclosed with a picket or paling fence. The upright palings, pointed to discourage poultry from landing, were nailed to horizontal crosspieces that were themselves attached to the fence posts. The palings were split like shingles with a froe, or made of sawed wood in later times. A well-made paling fence provided a tight, attractive enclosure.
The invention of barbed wire in the latter part of the 19th century made possible the fencing of large expanses of land that could never have been enclosed using traditional wood or rock fence techniques. Barbed wire had a profound impact upon farmers in West Virginia and throughout the United States. The open range could be enclosed. No longer was stock allowed to roam freely. Animals that had previously foraged at large now had to be provided with feed or pastured on land that the farmer owned.
More expensive woven wire fencing was also used to enclose fields, and in more recent times electric fences and high-tension wire. In recent years West Virginians have also tried by a variety of means to fence out deer, usually unsuccessfully.
Gates varied as well as fences. Simple hinged gates were most common, especially in board fences and wire fences. Gates, even large stock gates, were sometimes ingeniously weighted to close themselves. Zigzag fences and post-and-rail fences might be closed by replacing removable rails at the fence opening. Stone fences often had stiles, allowing one to cross by climbing up one side and down the other on rudimentary steps.
Whether wood, stone, or wire, fences helped to transform the countryside from a wilderness to an ordered agrarian landscape. With industrialization, practices continued to change. Laws that had governed the earlier agricultural society were rewritten during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When West Virginia became a state in 1863, it inherited Virginia law and legal traditions that upheld the strict liability standard in cases involving the rights of farmers to use their property without interference from industry. In Virginia, agriculture continued to enjoy legislative and judicial preference during the late 19th century, but the West Virginia Supreme Court increasingly gave priority to industry.
For example, the coming of the railroad brought the legal question of who was responsible for keeping the livestock off the railroad tracks, the farmer or the railroad. In Virginia, railroads were required to enclose their tracks, but in West Virginia the law dictated that farmers enclose their livestock. Farmers could sue the railroads for negligence if livestock were killed on the tracks, but the court placed the burden squarely on the farmers to prove that the engineer had been negligent in the operation of his locomotive, a practical impossibility. The logical progression of this legal reasoning culminated in 1919 when West Virginia enacted legislation that made it unlawful for livestock to be on the railroad right of way at all, with a penalty if this trespass resulted in an injury to the railroad.
Lewis, Ronald L. Transforming the Appalachian Countryside. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Jordan, Terry G. & Matti Kaups. The American Backwoods Frontier. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.
Lewin, Jeff L. The Silent Revolution in West Virginia's Law of Nuisance. West Virginia Law Review, (Winter 19890).