Iwas 9 years old when I first learned about electric fences. It was August 1957. We moved from a rented farm at Republic to 39 neglected acres west of Elkland, just across the Dallas County line.
The fences between us and the neighbors were old, but sufficient. Nary a single wire bordered the road, though; neither did any suitable fences divide pastures on the place. We needed fences. We needed them right away. We brought with us the start of our Jersey milking herd.
I don’t recall how many — eight or 10, I think. A few days before our move Dad had taken me to a friend’s farm and began pointing out cows that were ours. I didn’t know we had more than the few at home. Anyway, we needed fences — fast.
Open range was not an option. Dad’s answer was a pulsating Wizard electric fence charger from Western Auto, a roll of smooth wire and boxes of porcelain insulators. Compared to electric fencing of today, it was pretty simple. We didn’t have fiberglass or plastic posts to stomp in the ground, devices to tighten the fence, braided wire or electric tape. Maybe they made such things, but I never saw them. It was all new to me.
We commenced to building fences close to the barn, nailing insulators to random posts in old fencelines and persimmon trees (I imagine some of those insulators are still buried in the growth rings of a few of those trees).
The nails were a doubleheaded type — so we didn’t hammer and break the top of the insulators — with a leather washer between the metal and the porcelain. I don’t recall how we fastened the wire — mostly with a loop around the insulator, I think.
You can imagine the first fences we built going from tree-to-tree. “Dog-legged” would have been a compliment. Of course, there was more to it than stringing wire. We first had to cut the weeds, rose bushes and and buckbrush out of the fenceline. I liked watching the sparks jump, though, as the fence burned through stems of grass. As simple as it was, that single hot wire worked pretty good — as long as it didn’t short out.
Even then, a dead wire was enough to stop most of the old cows — they weren’t slow learners. Nosy heifers and bull calves were sometimes a different matter. Of course, it seemed they never got out in the daytime.
Searching by kerosene lantern light for calves in a persimmon and sumac jungle is not one of my most-cherished childhood experiences. Compared to today’s electric fences, ours didn’t pack much of a wallop; but nobody grabbed hold of a wire for fun, either. We had electric fences on the place from the day we moved in ’til the day Dad died — for a long time with that same ol’ Wizard charger buzzing in the milk barn.
Even after we’d built permanent fences, Dad used hot wires for calf pens, bull pens and just to break up pastures. I found a hot wire makes a fine hog pen, too. I imagine my brother still has a hot wire somewhere on the place.
As boys we had our share of educational experiences with electric fencing, but like the cows, we were not slow learners. On one such occasion I held the wire down to step across and then assured my younger brother it must have been turned off at the barn. He took a firm grip with a bare hand and let out a holler like he’d been shot. I reckon that’s how it felt. I never took into account the leather gloves I was wearing.
I learned an important lesson in electrical current conduction that day — entirely at Russell’s expense. I think he thought I’d tricked him. Nope, I was just more stupid than he knew — but just that one time. No matter how staggering the electric current, it wasn’t enough to deter a particular young Jersey bull named “Lad.”
When he was just a calf I watched him burn his nose, then back up and take a run right through a hot wire. He didn’t learn much better as he got older. The only way Dad ever got him to notice an electric fence was by hanging 18 inches of chain from the ring in his nose — and even then he was as likely to burst through as run away from it. We’d didn’t keep Lad much past his first set of calves. He was always meaner than a hot wire, and a lot more dangerous.
After he once pinned my younger brother to the ground, he was soon gone. Electric fencing has come a long way in the past half-century. The equipment displays and model fences built by USDA/NRCS specialists barely resemble what I knew as a boy. We would have made good use of high tensile wire, portable posts, wire spools and fence tighteners when I was a boy.
Sure would’ve beat running wire between persimmon trees. Any fence, though, was better than none.
Jim Hamilton is a senior writer for Neighbor Newspapers and editor of Country Neighbor. Contact him at email@example.com.