Cobbled Up Gates and Fences



The older (and lazier) I get, the more creative I become at putting up temporary fencing that ends up being permanent. Not so long ago I plugged a gap in a deteriorating pasture fence with a section of ancient spike-toothed harrow. The harrow is so old I call it Adam. Heaven knows how many acres Adam had leveled after the plow before he was retired to our tree grove. He thought his useful days were over, I’m sure. But desperate for a way to fix the fence in a hurry, I spied the rusty old soul leaning disconsolately against a hickory tree and knew he was just what the situation required. Now Adam has a whole new second career ahead of him and looks quite jaunty in his new role. In fact so well does his left section hold off the sheep that now his right section has become a fixture in another hole in the fence. Some enterprising soul might want to give this idea serious thought. There must be thousands of Adams rusting away in farm machinery graveyards far and wide. Start marketing what could be called Forever Fence.

Over the years, I have used all sorts of things to plug holes in fences or to serve as gates to the entrances of fields or barn pens. Wooden shipping pallets make passable “temporary” fences and pens and if you know how to beg pathetically, you can often get pickup loads of them at factories. Out in the weather they last about five years which is forever enough for an old man. Four of them wired together in a square make very handy impromptu lambing pens. Three of them will do the same against a barn wall. If you have a lot of old baling wire (lengths of which I have also used to thread through rusted out sections of woven wire fence), you can wire a bunch of pallets to each other and set them up in a zigzag fashion to make a fence that doesn’t need posts.

In Wendell Berry’s latest lovely book, A Place In Time, he tells about his fictional character’s old cobbled up pasture fence, “the wire stapled to trees that had grown up in the line, spliced and respliced, weak spots here and there reinforced by cut thorn bushes and even an old set of bedsprings.” I feel certain that description is not fictional. Lillian Beckwith in her The Hills is Lonely (another book I love) describes crofts in Scotland where thrifty owners used bedsprings for gates in their stonewalled yards or “parks.”

My ugliest fence repair so far is a rolled up length of old woven wire fence about the size and shape of a 55 gallon barrel. I jammed it into a washout on a hillside under a wire fence that was sagging precariously between posts. Ugly yes, but it not only kept the sheep from squeezing under at that point, but anchored the fence and almost stopped the gully from getting any deeper. And that gives me another idea. I have several old leaky barrels that would work quite well plugging other developing holes in my fences. They would “last as long as they need to,” as we practitioners of the cobbling art like to say.

But I offer as the grand champion cobbled up fence of all time one that I saw along a backcountry road in the next county south of our place. I think I wrote about it before: a sort of feedlot arrangement surrounded almost entirely by junked school buses. The buses had hay in them and the cows could stick their heads through where the windows used to be and eat.


When we inherited my late fathers 4 acres out in the sticks, we also inherited a large pile of rusting metal that had been plundered by all and sundry (and added to…) for various community projects. It wasn’t strange to see people milling about the pile extracting bits and pieces for various projects. When we were making our veggie gardens we needed something to hold our raised beds together and in place and ended up using lots of rusty old spikes that an artist who used iron as her medium had left behind years ago…I completely identify with “Adam”…some of the stuff we have here is very old and has been collected from all over the place. I gave a fair bit of it away but kept a lot for fossicking around in. Its amazing how creative you can get when you are a penniless student hippy who until recently didn’t have to worry about containing ANYTHING but who now needs to maintain the status quo between our property and our neighbours (who have considerably stricter parameters of just what constitutes a “fence” than we do 😉 ). I favour the “weaving stuff in and out of the fence till it can’t be navigated” principal. I love the idea of rusted out school buses…not only could the cows eat the grass growing inside them but the chooks could move in! 🙂

Persimmon Ridge Honey Farm January 7, 2013 at 12:52 pm

Just heard about building a fence through a water gap using plastic barrels. Somehow you tie them together, half fill them with water and tie them off to posts on either side of the creek. They are supposed to rise with high-water but otherwise keep the livestock in. Has anyone seen or used these?

    Persimmon Ridge, this barrel thing is a new one to me. Even if it didn’t work, it will scare livestock away from it.I thought I had tried just about everything to fence over a creek. My mind is already writing a humor piece about this. Thanks so much for the inspiration. Gene

thetinfoilhatsociety January 6, 2013 at 9:19 am

This is a sore subject with me right now. The javelina have discovered how to bull their way through our sad attempt at fencing. I have to go to the desert and get more large rocks to line both sides of the fence to keep them out; every morning I have to repair a particular section as they just push through any repairs I make. I don’t even have anything growing, and haven’t had for some time because of them — I was hoping if there were no good pickins, so to speak, they would move on to better pastures. So far that has not worked out so well.

And the neighborhood dog has dug under in two other places. He is so focused on getting in our yard (he’s a small guy and thinks our cats will play with him the same as ‘his’ cats do) that he digs under the stones until there’s a space between the stone and the fence big enough for him to squeeze through. What’s worse though, is that the chickens have found the holes on more than one occasion then we have to lure them back in with treats or chase them. I’m thankful for two things though: one, he’s a very small dog and he’s afraid of the chickens, and that the chickens aren’t afraid of him and chase him off.

We are not supposed to have electric fence because we are in a subdivision, but I think that I may have to invest in some anyway. It’s getting to be a full time job keeping the neighborhood dogs, racoons, and javelina out, and the chickens in!

Doing the same as you Gary Burnett. I take fencing to the next level. If you can pour water through it, the goats can get out. I also need a very strong fence to keep the deer from plowing through them. High tensile fence is about $1.50/foot installed now with my son and I with 7 foot t-posts, plastic insulators and 14 gauge wire. We use 8 strands for the baby goat area. 8000 volt electric, AC fence chargers are used. I do not like fixing fences in mid-Winter so make sure they are able to withstand anything nature has including heavy ice.

I think cobbling up is the essence of surviving as part time homesteaders! We do keep improving our fencing each year, but there are rolls of old wire wedged in the gap where the gully runs (and that has worked very well!). I’d love an idea for a fence gate over a rutted drive. The gully idea won’t work since the gate must swing, but I have too much of a gap underneath part of the gate and the little dog gets out. We use pallets and stock panels for temporary fences inside the main fence. I like the zigzag pallet idea, wish I’d thought of that earlier!

Persimmon Ridge Honey Farm January 3, 2013 at 8:03 am

For us “ratty farmers,” there is a beautiful article on cobbling together fences from what is at hand at entitled “Yesterday’s Fences for Today’s Homesteads.”

My hubby has been well into the cobbling together of items for our farm and all items are labelled Franken…….., as they are made out of cobbled together pieces of wood mainly. I think your fence would qualify as a Frankenfence.

Here are a few things he has cobbled together over the last season – you’ll have to scroll through a few pictures of our farm and Latvia to see them all
They wouldn’t win any prizes for visual appeal but they are definitely functional

I love Tim Kelley’s reply too, sounds like a story in the making

And even ten on fences:

1. Ratty fence, ratty farmer.

2. Cobbled fence, expensive fence.

3. Fencing is art.

4. The 19th c. Shakers held that a garden was an exact reflection of the gardener.

5. This is what my mother said of my half-assed effort at hanging out the wash: “What is worth doing is worth doing right.”

6. Gordon Stevens, who owned a restaurant where I once worked as a waiter, said the first thing he looked at when someone entered the restaurant was their shoes.
7. If you’re thinking about your fence in the night, you’re not thinking about your fence in the day.

8. The reason why so many of us disapprove of God’s heaven is because we so disapprove of His heavenly fencing.

9. If I were a goat, a hog, a red hen, or even a miniature donkey, I would prefer taut, woven-wire stock fencing above all others. That’s because while I couldn’t get out, neither could certain others get in.

10. Does Wendell use bedsprings for gates?

As far as using pallets, I do it a little different ! I use the slat parts as kindling and i use the the 2×4 material as fence stays that I attach with old wire through holes drilled in the 2×4 with a portable drill.I have also used oak boards from really big pallets to make gates. Oak is hard to find out here in Colorado. West of here in an area known as Browns Park you can see many examples of fences and gates that were made out of something that was no longer used for its original purpose.

Let us not forgot the ancient farming and herding ancestors of the old countries: United Kingdom, Africa, Asia etc. who made (and some still do) good use of wattle/hurdles. As I understand the process, Wattle hurdles were made from cutting coppiced hazelnut bush and similar shrub growth, then weaving them into a gate or older version of a stock panel. These were supported and connected as we do modern stock panels into fence form throughout arable ground and forested field so sheep and cattle could graze in the woods attended by a shepherd during the day, then be put to bed in an open field that would eventually be used for growing grain. The sheep defecated and urinated the digested feed and water from the forest which was eaten during the previous daylight into the open field at night. In this way fertility of the fields was maintained. It would be a modified version of our current practice of rotational grazing or feeding bales of hay on pasture or crop field

Of course wattle/hurdles eventually came to form not just fences, but a framework or structure for daub and wattle construction of building walls , and eventually the idea was expanded to include roof structural support of woven woody material for thatching with reeds or grass or straw.. I’m pretty sure the idea for the sport of running the hurdles originated from either ambitious young folks leaping such hurdles for fun or possibly to escape an angry ovine or bovine. I also suspect they used their version of old harrows etc to patch holes in the wattle hurdle fencing as feasible. I doubt however they used metal because, unlike now, metal was simply too valuable to end its days resting in a fence line. Yes, as does Gene they used what they had to meet their needs, so the fine art of cobbling has a long, illustrious history.

That gets me to thinking. I have fruit trees that need pruning of sucker growth and a fair amount or Red Osier Dogwood material that , if not used for making traditional arrows might serve well to make some wattle/ hurdles. I just checked the price of electric fencing and to tell the truth I can’t spend any more $$ for such, so if I get ambitious (never a sure bet) I’ll give the wattle/hurdles a shot. Well otherwise I need to burn or shred such pruned material and making fencing might just be a good alternative use.

However, I haven’t figured out how the ancient farmer-herders kept the critters from just chewing through such woody material or if occasionally panels did get chewed through so they just made more. I do know from experience that a horse with beaver-like inclinations can chew through a cedar fencepost in short order, so maybe making wattle hurdles was a full-time job. In contrast, I’ve yet to see a horse chew through a metal harrow posing as a stock panel, but apart from the esthetic appearance, which my wife so disapproves of, I’m concerned if ,for example, a child should fall on such an implement. Harrow teeth can make some nasty wounds; don’t ask how I know.

Dear Gene,
I guess there’s no great moral principle at work here, but I try to work on getting at least one short piece of fence perfect each year. I’m too old to do the things you do (constant patching). As far as those old fences tacked onto trees and so on, those people who follow and must remove old trees because of falling branches may suffer a bad accident if they use a chain saw and staples, nails, and wire. That said, I’m about to patch up my moose-fence: so far it has 2 x 2’s, 1 x 4’s, 2 x 4’s and a couple pieces of black plastic water line doing the job until I can do it right.l

I’m just the opposite as I grew up constantly repairing old worn out fences I swore if I ever farmed for a living I’d have good fences.I’ve spent the last ten years refencing the farm I live on with extra heavy woven wire with barbed wire on top and as of late have gone to fencing whole fields with stock panels.Seemed a little excessive at first but I have fields that I can run goats,calves,hogs,geese,LGD and turkeys in and still not have worry they’ll be in the road in the morning.With me good fences are a necessity since I’m boredered by a subdivision as well as a road, lawsuits from roaming livestock on either can make the cost savings from poor fences seem mighty small in a hurry.I’ve even known some farmers with poor fences to have their farm liability policies canceled after a claim was paid because of roaming livestock.

These kind of repairs are what make homesteading even remotely possible. You can’t always afford to “do it right” and still make ends meet. Any good ideas for fencing over creeks (for goats)? So far, I found one on the Internet that involves a steel cable and a cattle fencing panel with a weight of some sort at the bottom.

Yesterday I found out you can “sew” your toilet innards back together with fishing line! The part attached to the plug at the bottom that used to be a chain years ago is now what looks like a plastic zip tie. Mine broke and I was able to thread a needle, pierce both ends of the broken plastic and tie it back together. Not only does it save you money and a trip to town, it let’s you feel resourceful…til the next mishap!

Gene, I just started raising sheep a couple years ago, about the same time I also started reading your articles and books. When I read once that you’d used cattle panels to patch a fence, I was hooked!
I’m a fence mover. I use electric netting fence to rotate the sheep through the pasture during the summer months. My flock started out very small so I’ve kept them close to the house and moved the cattle panel fence (great barrier from stray dogs and coyotes) out as my flock grows.
I know it’s an expense but it’s so easy for this ole gal to take down and move when need be, and I’ve never seen one of my ewes figure out how to get over, under, or through them like some other types of fences I’ve tried. Thanks

Gene, I love the story about the cows eating hay out of the school bus. I wish you had a picture!

    Jeannie, so often I regret not having a picture. In this case I simply could not work up the courage to go in there and take one like some idiot tourist. Tim Kelley, your writing is just delightful. Thank you. Gene

This reminds me of my earlier adventures as a “back to the lander” in 1982 in Cocke County in east Tennessee. My wife and I had left central Ohio for greener pastures as far from civilization as we could get. Let me tell you, a holler in Cocke County is that place.

Anyway, our neighbors were a couple of farmers eking a living out of 55 acres of red clay and mountainous terrain. John was 85 and Mable was 75. They were milking about a dozen cows by hand and had a small income from a tobacco allotment. I would say their total income for any given year was $2-3000.

My wife and I being 24 years old and about as green as the trees were living across the creek on our own ten acres of rocks, red clay and trees in a pop up tent camper with no electric or running water. We had about as much background in farming as G.W. Bush. Having left Marion, OH and a good railroad job behind and no experience growing anything but a little pot it was all we could do to keep up with these people who were three times our age. (John would walk up and down 500 foot hills to bring in his cows for milking every evening. I had seldom seen a hill of that size having grown up in Marion, OH.)

Getting to the point of the story, John was a master at fixing any problems he might have around his land. He called it fixing it up for the next guy. Every gate, fence post, nail, bolt or piece of metal was held together by string or anything at hand. Everything was a month or two from falling apart but as usable as could be. Some of it was sheer genius. Most of their fence was electric and tied to trees or old car parts or whatever was close.

Their house was a dilapidated shack with a continuously used smokehouse behind it. The smokehouse was held together with tons of salt that had accumulated there by osmosis from a thousand hams and hog snouts and whatever else they could render from a hog. (We were lucky enough to attend a hog slaughter that fall.)

John and Mable also kept a huge garden which John broke up with a 25 year old rototiller that would work out a body builder. He always said, “grow enough for us and the other guy.” And that is what they did, growing stuff we had never heard of like Okra and pokeweed and collard greens among all the regular favorites. I don’t remember having eaten so well since then and our gardening skills, while considerably improved by their knowledge, don’t compare. I think 60 years on a farm gives you the knowledge you need to make it thrive. Even though to an outsider it looked to be a wreck, it was clearly a masterpiece. (John had bought the place after the war, WW1, and a trip to the “north” for work in a Cleveland, OH car factory in 1920 something, then returned to pay cash for the place.)

We learned a lot from those two. We were so lucky to have had that experience. Mable, by the way, was diagnosed that summer with cancer and died shortly thereafter but John lived on another ten years and died in an old veteran’s home in Johnson City, TN at the age of 95. I am sure giving nurses hell the whole time.

    Your “weed” farming experience in Ohio should [put you in good shape living in east TN. We
    lived in the next county over and watched the “pot patrol” fly over.

      I remember those too. The police had to fly over they were afraid to come in the holler in a car, they wouldn’t make it out. Any car that drove in either end would be eyed by the watchman at the first house and if they didn’t recognize them they would start calling back in the holler to warn people. It might be the “reveenuers.”

Ah, but to quote book from a certain author that I’ve recently re-read (for the ump-teenth time), “Good fences still make good neighbors”. 🙂
Yes, patches have their place, but the danger is they become permanent. Or as permanent as they can be.
Love your writing, Gene!

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