Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Fence Laws of Frontier Illinois.

In the frontier days of farming in Illinois, there was a huge debate amongst the farmers about fencing. Illinois was a closed grazing state so fences were required and those "cowcatchers" on old locomotives weren't just decorative.
John Bull Locomotive with a cowcatcher.

Illinois settlers needed to keep their livestock away from their crops and the railroad tracks. On the prairie, trees were scarce and wood was a precious commodity. Building fencing to contain cattle was an expensive proposition. Split rail fences were expensive, $500 ($12,000 today) per mile. A prairie fire would easily destroy the costly fencing, sending all a farmer’s hard work and money up in smoke. Wire fencing at the time was brittle, not galvanized, causing the wire to rust and easily break. In the early 1840’s, a movement to use these thorny trees as fencing began. Illinois was the first of the prairie states that introduced the Osage orange as a living fence. Young trees and new growth on trees have sharp ½ to 1 inch thorns. Thorns, its dense growth when pruned, and its ability to survive extreme conditions are the reasons this tree came to the prairie.

An example of the Osage Orange or hedge apple tree fencing.
In fact, one of the relatively few requirements for the new "township" system of government enabled by the Illinois Property Line and Fence Laws [1] in the 1848 Illinois Constitution was the requirement that Townships appoint Fence Inspectors. 

By the 1850s there was widespread acceptance of the thorny and dense-growing Osage orange (Maclura pomifera) or "hedge apple." 
A dead hedge fence. Note the trained trunks to keep the growth close to the ground.
Although economic and effective barbed wire had largely taken over by the 1880s, many of the hedge apple fences were used and maintained into the 1940s, Among the 400 parcels totaling over 40,000 acres of agricultural land in Will County that were purchased by the Army in 1940 for the Joliet Arsenal, hedge fences, often allowed to have grown into trees, were everywhere.
Osage hedges on both sides of an old farm road that were neglected and had grown into trees.
Surely some diligent nineteenth-century farmer lost one of his Osage bushes and took the two or three years to train the hinge cut into something that covered the gap in his fence. One of the amazing things that still stand as subtle testimony to life frontier Illinois so long ago.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.

[1] Illinois Property Line and Fence Laws. A summary of key Illinois laws relevant to the property line and fence disputes.

Lawful Fence - IL ST CH 765 § 130/2
  • Must be 4.5 feet high.
  • In good repair.
  • Constructed from rails, timber boards, stone, hedges, barb wire, woven wire or whatever the fence viewers of the town or precinct state is appropriate.
  • It must be sufficient to prevent cattle, horses, sheep, hogs and other stock from getting on the adjoining lands of another.
Responsibility to Maintain a Division Fence - IL ST CH 765 § 130/3
  • A division fence is one separating the land of 2 or more persons.
  • Each person must make and maintain a "just portion" of the fence.
  • A hedge fence cannot be more than 5 feet high.
Fence Dispute Settlement - IL ST CH 765 § 130/7
  • Two official Fence Viewers will define the portion of the fence to be built or maintained by each.
  • In counties under township organization, the board of trustees will serve as fence viewers in their respective towns.
  • In counties not under township organization the presiding officer of the county board, three fence viewers in each precinct.
Wrongful Tree Trimming Act - IL ST CH 740 § 185/2
  • It is a violation to cut or cause to be cut any tree unless you have full legal title.
  • Violators of the act will be liable for three times the value of the tree.
  • Utility providers have a right to cut any tree that interferes with service.

1 comment:

  1. Really fascinating, Neil. I only knew of Osage oranges as a tree - I had no idea they were grown and trained as hedge fences.


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