Barbed Wire Fences and Post Hole Diggers


By “Post Hole Diggers”, I Mean Me

Our sixth grade teacher at Drummond, Montana, once gave us a much hated assignment: Write an essay on My Pet Peeve. I didn’t even have to think about mine. The title was Digging Post Holes. Until I left the ranch to head for college at the age of seventeen, the only post hole digger my old man ever owned was…me.

Not that I’m griping about it. Quite frankly, had I not learned how to work hard before reaching adulthood, I’m pretty sure I’d have ended up one lazy, worthless so-and-so. But when you’re eleven or twelve years old, working a spud bar and a #2 shovel to produce holes some two or three feet deep in a place appropriately named Granite County…even bucking bales looks good by comparison.

Especially since haying season in Montana occupies three months of the year or less, while fencing–whether construction or repair–is there to be done any time you can get around to it. So, did I cheat when the ground was just so terribly rocky that a full depth hole seemed more impossible than difficult? Sure I did. But not often. Dad caught me at it every time, and one of his warnings was usually enough to keep me on the straight and narrow for two or three years at a stretch.

Stretching barbed wire, making gates, building fence corners that would hold up to a quarter mile of taut wire without keeling over sideways…these were valuable skills, and I learned them well. Even so, I always kept an eye out for a way to get ahead of Dad. I couldn’t whip one side of him in a fight, so that was pretty much out. He never asked me to do anything ridiculous or unnecessary, so I couldn’t apply logic to the situation. Still, I…plotted.

And one day my chance came. Hunting season was still open but winding down. Dad, a hired man named Dave, and I were repairing a section of horse corral manger fence one mild December day. No barbed wire here, of course; heavy planking was used that allowed livestock to stick their heads through a sizeable gap to munch hay forked into a wooden trough (manger). Yes, indeed, I saw my chance.

Gazing momentarily at the dozen mares in that corral, each with a foal at her side, I began.

“Dad,” I asked most casually, “Which colt would you say is the best of all this year’s crop?”

He thought for a moment, though we all knew the answer: “I would say Baby’s colt,” he said finally. Of course it was the right answer. That young gelding was a stunning, deep red bay color with black mane and tail, a white sock on one foot (four white socks is considered a bad luck critter among horse people), and a white blaze on his face. Even more importantly, he had beautiful lines and an equally beautiful, easygoing personality.

I Spring The Trap

Everything was set. Almost everything. With Dad, his word was his bond… especially if he said those words in front of at least one non-family witness. Every intelligent child learns the Rules for dealing with his particular parent(s). Dave was my witness. Now, just one more careful step….

First, I openly agreed: That colt was clearly the best of the bunch, wasn’t he? Yes, indeed. No question about it. Then the closer:

“Hm. If you were to put him up for sale, what do you think he’d be worth on the open market?”

I didn’t literally hold my breath, but close to it. In that day and age, a baby horse of that quality but with no breed papers might bring as much as $100. Certainly he was worth $75 if he was worth a penny. Dad opened his mouth.

“Oh…I’d say…seventy-five dollars.”

“SOLD!!!” I bellowed in a voice that could have been heard at the house some 300 yards distant.

Dad was stunned. His jaw dropped. He tried to wiggle out of it, but did not dare actually back out against my will. There was that witness…. I had the money, and ownership of the year’s finest “new horse” on the place transferred to me. Of course, he got his counter-revenge too, in a way. When I wanted to name my new colt Bonfire, he forbade me to do what was (to him) such a foolish thing.

Never mind that it was no longer his horse. Resentfully, I finally settled on Bobby, though naturally I called him Bonfire whenever the two of us (horse and rider) were alone. When Bobby/Bonfire was three years old and had been trained (by me) as a fine, gentle pleasure horse, I sold him for the princely sum of $200 to a pair of secretaries from Missoula, Montana. That $200 paid for my first long term set of wheels, a 1952 Chevy.

Even better, only after I graduated from Drummond High School and headed off to college did Dad finally buy himself a power posthole digger for the back of one of his tractors.

As Usual, Dad’s Training Paid Off In The End

Elvin M Baker, the father who taught me so much whether I wanted to learn or not, passed from this world in 1997. His teachings continued to bear fruit, however. For example, my first wife and I had bought a house at the edge of Belgrade, Montana, in 1966. We had it less than a year before moving and putting it back on the market, but during that brief time, two key events took place.

Event #1: In June of 1966, during summer vacation from college at Montana State University, I decided to quit rodeo after an injury in the bull riding event at Blackfoot, Idaho. The quitting and the injury were not directly related–but that is a topic for another Hub. One thing was crystal clear above all others, though:

If I was done with rodeo, I needed a day job. Fast. And I found one: Building fence along the new section of I-90 just going through the area at the time. My foreman, Cliff, was a mighty good man out of Butte, and we got along well indeed. We did good work, and that same fence (with intermittent maintenance) stands yet today.

Event #2: At the same time, I build a much different fence around our new home’s sizeable back yard. The treated fence posts were much the same, but instead of barbed wire (hardly a trademark of suburbia), I wove 1×4 boards in a truly pleasing pattern.

In 1998, being in the Belgrade area for a family wedding, I decided to take a look at “my old house”…and most importantly, my old fence. Instead of acting like a dork by knocking on the current owner’s door and introducing myself, I snuck around (that’s cowboy for “sneaked”) by the Conoco station that now borders that property.

The fence still stood. One busted board needed replacing, and it could have used a coat of paint, but every post remained “sentinel straight”. Thirty-two years old at the time, looking like it could well last for another hundred.

Yes, Dad taught me well. Even so, if I need to plant more than a few posts at any time in the future, I’m looking for a power post hole digger. If I had to go back to using nothing but a spud bar and shovel, I’m relatively certain it would even today qualify as a pet peeve.

10 thoughts on “Barbed Wire Fences and Post Hole Diggers

  1. Good story. My six brothers and I had to teach ourselves and each other the manly arts, with mixed results (Dad died when the oldest was still a teenager and I was six). By the time we started on the fence around this property, there were five of us working intermittently, and I ended up being the straggler because I couldn’t hold down a day job. Less than a decade later, three posts have failed, if you don’t count the one on the road side which was the victim of a hit-and-run (I still need to replace that one, but for now it holds with a splint and wedges). As for the boards (7/8×3.5in dog-eared cedar), we squeezed them tight up against each other and sunk the assorted deck screws in too deep, so during the first winter you could hear the skinnier screws popping in half as the wood expanded. If I had to do it again I’d probably secure the boards on alternating sides of the horizontal supports to cut down on wind stress. Your 1×4 woven fence sounds interesting. Did you weave the boards vertically or horizontally?

  2. I know what you mean about screws popping. Not going to admit just exactly where that happened, though. 🙂

    I set the posts 6′ apart and wove the 12′ boards around the posts, the ends of each board ending up on the same side of the “end posts” (end posts for that board) and bent around the opposite side of the post in the middle. Then reversed on the next board “up the stack”. Rinse and repeat. Or maybe they were 16′ boards and I set the posts 8′ apart. I’d have to go back to Montana to look again to be sure; it’s now been 50 years since I did that job and 18 years since I took a sneak peek.

  3. That does sound like a purty pattern, and horizontal boards eliminate the need for support lumber.

  4. It was (is) definitely “purty”. Yeah, the structure was solid with only the posts and the boards themselves counting as “support lumber”. Never done anything similar before or since, but have to feel I was at least a little bit inspired the day I came up with that one. The main motivation was a sale at a local lumber yard that got us all the 1″ x 4″ boards needed at $155 per thousand board feet. Haven’t seen another lumber bargain like that. Of course, gasoline was averaging around 29 cents per gallon at the time, too. 😀

  5. Hmm, now my wheels are turning. I’d like to try a fence with just posts and boards, no fasteners. With a dado blade, the posts could be grooved on each side along the length, set in the ground, and fence boards slipped down horizontal-wise into the grooves. It would require precision, could be a fun challenge. I’d have to verify that the wood wouldn’t eventually shrink lengthwise too much (where’s that board-stretcher?). Alternatively, the posts could be doubled up with space between. Nah, too expensive. Might it be feasible to use double 2x4s for posts?…

  6. Hmm your ownself, Leonid. All of that does sound like an interesting challenge, but I’m a big believer in nasty old steel fasteners wherever possible. Have seen wood do too much shrinking and warping to trust going without. I suppose double 2″ x 4″s could possibly be used for posts, but getting them in the ground “right” would be a bear of a problem, and you’d have to used treated lumber (of course).

    Frankly, you’re getting way too “woodworking esoteric cabinetmaker fancy Dan” for me; I’m more “eclectic redneck” in my approach. Not saying your thought process couldn’t produce the ultimate work of art in fencing; it’s just not my style. 😀

  7. Yeah, I hadn’t really thought about potential (inevitable) warpage. Now I’m remembering all the crooked cedar boards my brothers and I did our best to straighten as we fastened them. My fancy-pants idea might work with really beefy boards and posts. But at that point it starts to resemble a wall.

    Oh, well. I’ll dream on, but for now the only real fencing project on my mind is a chicken-wired area for my sister’s bunny. T-posts and probably a 2×4 gate frame which I will stake into the ground (several young trees around that I don’t want to disturb with post holes).

  8. You’re making sense, Leonid. Now, for a humor-at-the-author’s-expense tidbit: I’m currently building an open faced shed for a large generator, mostly following the pattern of one I built last year in a different location for a smaller generator. Did some top-framing today (my term, top-framing, but it fits what I was doing). Got done for the day, stepped back, and–dang! Cockeyed!

    Figured it out. We now own a backhoe, so instead of digging the usual 4 holes for the shed’s treated 4″ x 4″ corner posts (between which I poured a 6″ concrete slab a few days ago), I’d used the bucket to dig two short trenches. Which meant that where I dug too deep, the posts didn’t have very firm dirt beneath them, just relatively loose fill dirt. The post tops were level in the beginning, but once I started pounding 10d nails down on top of them, toenailing crossbeams, the right front post, especially, sank down another 3/4″ or so.

    Solution? Thought about that. Going to drill a hole in the “short” post–from the side, so the hole will be covered by siding when the project is finished–screw in a long lag bolt, position a bottle jack under the bolt head, and smoothly lift the post back to its perfectly level position. Then build and install the little stud wall, nail everything solid, and voila! Problem solved. Don’t need the posts to be “fence line solid” or anything; they’re just there to anchor the shed against possible high winds–which we do get here from time to time.

  9. I assume the walls rest on the concrete slab..? If not, you could nail a couple of treated 2x4s horizontally to the posts at ground level to ‘float’ the structure.

  10. Yes, the walls do rest on the concrete slab. They’re also nailed to the posts, the overhead beams, AND the concrete itself. Picked up a technique from YouTube a few years ago about that: Drill a hole of the right size, then pound TWO 10d nails (or 16d if it was a big enough project) down through the boards into the concrete–tight enough hole to “jam” the nails nicely, not so tight that they can’t go in at all). So, bottom line, the entire shed “floats as the concrete pad floats”, but also has those posts two feet deep into the ground as anchors against any truly ferocious wind gusts.

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