Rock Fences of Clark County

Published 10:35 am Friday, October 13, 2017

By Harry Enoch

The rock fences of Clark County are one of the most iconic symbols of our heritage, and one of the most-noted landscape features observed by visitors.

It is surprising then that many of us who see these fences every day have no idea why they are here, when they were built or by whom.

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Some, but not all, of these mysteries are cleared up in a book, “Rock Fences of the Bluegrass,” written by Carolyn Murray-Wooley and Karl Raitz. Most of what follows is from their research.

For starters, we are blessed with plentiful sources of limestone, the preferred building stone in our region. This rock has been quarried here from pioneer times to the present.

Nowadays rock quarries are huge open pit operations or underground mines. Neither of these was used in early times. The first quarries took rock out of small hillside ledges and stone-bottomed creek beds.

In addition to these two sources, rock fences also were constructed using field stone, the rocks picked up when clearing fields for plowing.

Three different types of fence construction are recognized: plantation, turnpike and edge-laid.

Plantation fences were used to mark boundary lines and to enclose stock pens, pastures, gardens, house yards and graveyards. The earliest date from the late 1700s.

The construction method is interesting, if not a little surprising. They are actually double walls, usually built by two workers, one on each side.

The fence begins with foundation stones, followed by horizontal courses of stone laid so as to overlap the joints, much like brick is laid.

The walls are battered, or tapered, meaning they are wider at the bottom than at the top. The spaces between the two walls are filled with small stones.

The most important structural components are so-called “tie rocks,” which are laid perpendicular to the face of the wall and serve to tie the two walls together (refer to the drawing at right).

The top courses of stone are covered with large horizontally-laid cap rocks, which in turn are topped with a row of vertical rocks, called coping stones.

A typical rock fence might be 5 feet tall, 3 feet wide at the bottom and 2 feet wide at the top.

Perhaps the most characteristic feature of these walls is that they were dry laid, meaning no mortar was used in their construction.

Intuitively, you might think the mortar would add stability to the wall. But the wall’s strength comes from the friction of stone touching stone, the weight of the stones and gravity.

The open spaces in dry-laid fences allow water to enter and drain away, whereas mortar can trap water inside. Trapped water undergoing freeze-thaw cycles will eventually destroy the integrity of the fence.

This type of fence came into general use after the Kentucky General Assembly passed a law in 1798 to prevent stock from damaging a landowner’s crops or property. The act stipulated that property owners could sue if they had erected a suitable barrier to keep out stock. They defined a suitable barrier as “any grounds being enclosed with a strong and sound fence five feet high and so close that the beasts breaking into the same could not creep through.”

This gave rise to a local description of fences being “horse high, hog tight and bull strong.”

The second type of rock fence common here are turnpike fences. These were the fences built lining turnpikes, the toll roads built by private companies beginning in about the 1830s and lasting through the end of the century.

The turnpike companies hired hundreds of stonemasons — often referred to as “turnpikers” in census schedules — to build stone fences, retaining walls and bridges. Landowners then began filling in with their own fences, so in many places stone fences lined both sides of the turnpike.

Clark County still has a few places where they may be observed — Athens-Boonesboro Road and Old Boonesboro Road come immediately to mind. It is along our roadways that tourists first become acquainted with our rock fences.

Construction of these fences was very similar to plantation fences. Turnpike fences were narrower, less tapered and the space between the two walls was filled with rubble or gravel. The latter practice greatly reduced the cost of stone as well as the cost of labor.

The third type, edge-laid fences, came into wide use in the mid-1800s in hilly regions. They began with a stone pier to anchor the fence, then stones were laid on edge leaning against each other. The stones lean toward the downhill side allowing gravity to strengthen the wall.

Field stone is used rather than quarried stone, so these fences are not only cheaper to build but also also very simple to construct.

This writer recently built a 25-foot long edge-laid fence in a matter of a few hours, and by far the greatest part of that time was spent hauling rock.

There are many examples of early quarries in Clark County. Several are located in the Lower Howard’s Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve, both the creek bed and hillside ledge variety.

Two well-known stonemasons resided there: Richmond Arnold and Robert Martin.

It is generally agreed now that the first builders of rock fences in the Bluegrass were Scotch-Irish immigrants. They brought the craft here from their homeland in Northern Ireland.

Slaves would have performed much of the manual labor involved in construction and eventually learned the art.

In the 1850 census, the first to list occupations and country of birth, stonemasons were most often Irish. Later censuses show that free blacks came to dominate the profession.

The hardest question to answer is when our rock fences were built. Most were constructed in the 1800s, perhaps peaking around mid-century.

But, except in the rarest cases where family papers or deeds mention them, it is almost impossible to say when any particular fence was built.

Our county is fortunate to have so many attractive fences remaining, but it is sad to see them accumulating more damage each year from careless drivers.

More distressing are the fences that disappear when property owners dismantle them or allow trees to destroy them.

On an encouraging note, however, many conscientious landowners have removed covering vegetation, repaired collapsed sections and in some cases rebuilt substantial lengths of their rock fences.

We are also fortunate to have an experienced stonemason, Stuart Joynt, in our community.

Over the next few weeks, as you drive around the county observing the fall colors, keep an eye out for our rock fences and enjoy.

Harry Enoch, retired biochemist and history enthusiast, has been writing for the Sun since 2005.