Behold the humble barbed-wire fence, the five-strand sentinel of Texas woods and plains. Untold thousands of miles of barbed-wire fence divide the state, so ubiquitous outside the city centers that while you’re speeding along the interstate, they almost go unnoticed. Fewer than 150 years ago, Texas was a place largely without fences. The land was without boundary or barrier. Animals and people could roam unfettered from horizon to horizon. The sky touched the ground.
Texas evolved as an open-range state, meaning that livestock owners were under no obligation to secure their animals or prevent them from roaming. The cows, as it were, had the right of way, and the grass and water were there for the legal and public taking. The nonindigenous folks who settled Texas initially lived with their livestock loose and kept it out of gardens or crops by using wood fences or stacked rock, or even prickly hedges. West Texas, however, does not have an abundance of wood, and as the frontier pushed farther west, solving the issue of hemming in one’s livestock, or hemming out someone else’s, became pressing. “It is not too much to say that in the middle and later years of the decade 1870-1880, the questions pertaining to fencing occupied more space in the public prints in the prairie and Plains states than any other issue—political, military or economic,” Walter Prescott Webb wrote in The Great Plains.
A commercially viable patent for barbed wire was granted in 1874, and with that, the manner in which livestock was raised and the settlement of the country forever changed. Barbed wire fragmented and demarcated the land. It disrupted the culture and movement of Native Americans and the buffalo they depended on. It ended the storied cattle drives and prompted a period of fierce, bloody disputes over land use, ownership, and fence cutting. As Texas grew more populated with both people and domestic animals, the notion of a closed range took hold, in which landowners were required to keep their own livestock on their own property, secured by a fence.
In the 1910s and 1920s, individual counties started to vote on whether they wanted to be open range or closed range. There’s no complete listing of Texas counties, or partial counties, that are open or closed, and even now the classifications aren’t always clear. Closed range is mandated around state and federal highways, but open range can exist on farm-to-market roads. Domestic turkeys are generally allowed to free-range, but not everywhere. Hogs may free-range during late fall and early winter, so long as county voters approve. Back in 1918, the good citizens of Fannin County voted to prohibit horses, mules, jacks and jennets, and cattle from running at large. As an afterthought, they decided in a second election to likewise prohibit free-ranging hogs, sheep, and goats. But was it really closed range? Ninety-nine years later, the county’s range status remained murky enough that the local district attorney formally sought an attorney general opinion on the matter. “In what has recently become an annual Fannin County tradition, this office has been repeatedly asked whether Fannin County is currently an open- or closed-range county,” he wrote. The AG’s response: closed.
Fence in Low Places
Big Bend’s native pronghorn prefer to scramble under fences instead of jump over them. Consequently, some landowners build fence with a smooth wire as the bottom strand, set about eighteen inches above the ground, allowing pronghorn to easily duck under.
There are still places in Texas that have doggedly remained open range, such as areas within Presidio and Jeff Davis counties, where the fences fall away and drivers must watch out for the cattle that wander unencumbered on the road. Mostly, though, mile upon mile of barbed wire crisscrosses the state, having been legislated, litigated, surveyed, and fought over, and much of it was strung by laborers now gone for many decades. “These old cedar post fences—some of them have been here since they first fenced this country, at least one hundred years,” says Jack Wood, who has run a fencing crew out of Marfa since 1992. “Nowadays, our metal fences won’t burn up in a fire, and they’ll be here a long, long time too.”
A friend swears there are a thousand different ways to build a barbed-wire fence, decisions to be made such as the number of strands, the optimal distance between posts, and whether those posts should be cedar, metal, or a combination of both. Many elements remain the same. Standard barbed wire comes on a spool, and when it’s completely rolled out, the length equals a quarter mile. Fencing is therefore done in quarter-mile sections. Jack Wood uses air compressors to run rock drills, and a pneumatic post driver, but most folks use straightforward basics: gloves, pliers, wire cutters, maybe a pry bar to help make a hole in rock, post hole diggers in case of soft or sandy ground, and a post driver, a two-handled clunky steel tube that is slammed repeatedly on top of a post to pound it into the ground. (Important to note: the driver is heavy enough that if inadvertently dropped onto a toe, it can induce thirty seconds of hopping around and swearing.) A familiar-looking winch-like tool was introduced to me as a comallón, which I realized a brief moment later was, in fact, the Spanish-ification of “come along.”
The first thing in building fence is deciding where it goes. Wood sites his lines with binoculars or a surveyor’s transit and lays out orange flags every six hundred feet. The right of way must be cleared by hand or, if possible, with a skid steer or dozer. Next come the braces. “The bracing is the strength, the life, of a fence,” says Wood. A steel brace in the shape of an H, concreted into the ground, anchors the fence; it’s the starting point. Every quarter mile that follows is a stretch brace, which has a more triangular shape. Placing the braces just right is important, according to Wood. “They need to be as straight as you can get them. If they are out of line, the fence will pull against itself, but if the braces are straight, all that tension is in one line and the fence is more likely to stay straight.”
When the braces are aligned, Wood ties the bottom strand of wire onto the H-brace, about a foot off the ground, and goes to the stretch brace, where the line is stretched tight and tied. The taut wire is used as a guide for slim metal T-posts that are driven into the ground every twenty feet; a more substantial post that helps sustain the fence’s strength is placed every one hundred feet. “You want all the tops about the same height, about 54 inches from the ground,” Wood says. “Then you stretch the other four wires, using a clip to clip the wires to the posts.” Finally, cedar or lightweight metal stays are fixed at intervals between the posts, for stability and to keep the wires evenly spaced, and cement is poured to cap the tops of the braces. In this way, a fence can run for miles, with a stretch brace every quarter mile, until another H-brace is necessary to turn a corner or hang a gate.
A crew of three or four men working in good flat country can fence a quarter mile a day, Wood says. His first professional job was on a rugged Brewster County ranch, where it took the crew a year to build 24 miles of fence with hand tools. “It slows down considerably in the mountains,” he says. “That’s when your help can get disenchanted, packing posts up the side of a hill. That’s when they start quitting.”
Nothing about fencing is particularly easy. The ground is frequently unyielding and sometimes outright rock. Braces must be cemented three feet into the ground; T-posts must be driven eighteen inches deep. Old fences have to be carefully dismantled, coiled, and removed. Braces usually have to be welded on-site, since prefabricated braces are unlikely to suit uneven ground. And barbed wire is, well, barbed and sharp. “It’s real satisfying when it’s done,” says Wood. “But I’ll tell you, it’s work to get there.”
My son Huck worked on a vast ranch south of Marfa the summer he was sixteen. He’d heard from his boss, the ranch manager, stories about the ranch’s resident fencer, a robust Mexican man in his mid-sixties nicknamed Pariente. Pariente is a fencing hero. The tedium of fencing does not faze Pariente; instead, he enjoys it. Driving posts doesn’t cripple him; it makes him stronger. The heat is his friend. He has fenced that land mostly by himself, which is his preference. The boss had marveled at his work ethic, his love of fencing, and his deep irritation with those souls who were occasionally hired to help him. The helpers invariably talked too much, according to Pariente, or they wilted easily or were sloppy in their work. No one stuck around. One Sul Ross State University student hired to work with him lasted a single day, then slipped off the ranch in the night, never to return. “Pariente is the fence-building-est sumbuck I’ve ever seen in my life,” the ranch manager said.
Huck was apprehensive that first day with Pariente. Huck doesn’t speak much Spanish; Pariente doesn’t speak English. Huck had not fenced before. The sorry Sul Ross student who’d slipped away was in Huck’s mind when Pariente set him up to pound a T-post into the ground. He went at it with gusto, and then the next one and the one after that. Half an hour into the workday, Pariente put his hand on Huck’s shoulder. “Más despacio,” he told him. “Tenemos todo el día.”
And so they fenced. Their days had a predictable rhythm. Fence, and take a break. Fence, and take a break. At noon they ate lunch in the ranch truck, followed by a snooze. Then it was back to fencing until the late afternoon, when they’d ride to the house and drink Pariente’s homemade licuados on the porch. “Somos suaves,” Pariente told him one day.
At the week’s end, the boss strode up to Huck after conferring with Pariente. “Well, I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news,” he said. “The good news is that Pariente likes you. He says you work hard. The bad news is that Pariente likes you and he says you work hard. He wants you again all next week.”
This summer, on a June morning while the day was still cool, Pariente expertly wrapped a line around a brace and twisted it taut and neat. The air rang with the clank of three teenage boys pounding T-posts at his direction. He walked down the line, adjusting their position here and there. Once the first line was set, the boys were dismissed to gather the old wire and take it away. He wanted to work alone. Before everyone left, there was a question. Pariente, how many miles have you fenced in your life? He straightened up and looked at the sky to think. “No sé. Muchas,” he replied after a moment. “Mucho trabajo. Mucho, mucho, mucho trabajo.”