Fence post reminder of cold mornings

Published 9:32 am Friday, October 28, 2011

by James D. ‘Archie’ Howell

It is roughly made. Two short logs slanted up at the front, through which holes are bored to attach a length of chain.

At the center of this chain is a clevis. Clevises are much in use on the farm; they are a fitting to attach other things to. This particular clevis is attached to a singletree, which is in turn attached to traces, hames, a horse collar and horse.

This is a working sleigh or sled. It is used to transport almost any object, heavy or light that will fit onto its four- by six-foot surface.

Today it will be used to haul a two-man crosscut saw, a heavy sledge (we pronounce it sludge) hammer, some steel wedges, a couple of axes and extra rope (sometimes called “plow” or “plowing” line because of their other use).

It’s fence post mauling day. Many folks use a heavy, long handled wooden maul for the job, hence the term “fence post mauling.”

It’s cold; fence posts are mauled in winter, when tree sap is mostly dormant. It must be close to freezing this morning; we are wearing heavy coats, with layers underneath.

We humans walk alongside and in back of the sled. The ground is rough and the sled bounces around, too much to stand on. The horse doesn’t seem to care.

We exit the back gate of the “lot” and cross a small branch of the swamp that is behind our house. We plod along to the top of a rise along a fence line at a back field.

White oak is more numerous here and larger. We are looking for larger trees today; they will yield corner posts that can stand the pressures of long fence lines.

A tree is selected; it looks about 20 inches in diameter and has a good three sections of 8-foot long logs that can be split into fourths for the posts. My brother and the hired hand set to work felling the massive tree, trimming small limbs and cutting the logs, steadily working the 10-foot blade of the saw, resting only between logs.

Each log is split into fourths, using the sledge hammer and wedges. Four corner posts in each log. The white oak will withstand sun, rain, ice, snow and the pressure of tightened fences for years to come. The work is backbreaking, but no one complains. It’s what you do on the farm. The posts will be transported back to storage on the sled.

The work of felling the tree and splitting the logs is adult work, way too much for me; so I dawdle and explore the nearby swamp, alternating my attention between the wet areas and the dry as time passes. We break for dinner (we call the noon meal dinner) and trail the horse to the barn for the break. After dinner, I’ve had enough and don’t return to the job site with the others. Age does have advantages.

When I travel back roads and see the cross-braced, heavy oak posts left over from another era, I understand what it takes to place just one of those posts in the ground. I feel the cold of a winter morning, and sense the scudding sound of sled runners and horse’s hooves. I hear the rasp of a crosscut saw, the ring of steel on steel and the crackle of a log splitting. I am home.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at archiepix@kingwoodcable.com.