Good Fences, Good Neighbors ... Maybe
Photo by John Cyr
You can straddle the fence, fence yourself in, drool over the grass that’s greener on the other side, jump the fence and whack the ball over the fence to bring the fans to their feet.
It seems as if there’s a bit of fence wisdom for any situation. Robert Frost cautioned, “Don’t ever take a fence down until you know why it was put up.” While Will Rogers is blunt about what a fence can tell you about character. “There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.”
Fences winding across the sweeping Kansas prairie, pockmarked by the occasional downed timber and nosed by the curious cow, hark back to the days of early settlers. Whatever your view of fences—and maybe you haven’t given them much thought at all—they’re an integral part of American history.
Lucas: October 20-Dec. 3
Wamego: Dec. 8, 2006-Jan. 21, 2007
Winfield: Jan. 26-March 11
Paola: March 16-April 29
Larned: May 4-June 17
Oakley: June 22-Aug. 5
For a complete tour schedule, please visit the tour site.
A Smithsonian exhibit touring the state, “Between Fences,” is a tribute to America’s fences and offers a conceptual look at why we build fences and the part they have played in history. The exhibit appears at the Grassroots Art Center in Lucas through Dec. 3. (See schedule at right for statewide appearances.)
Fences are not just about defining boundaries. They are powerful symbols, and the “Between Fences” exhibit, which was designed by the Smithsonian for communities under 20,000 in population, challenges viewers to look at all aspects of putting up fences. The exhibit was brought to Kansas with the help of the Kansas Humanities Council.
“The exhibit starts from when Native American Indians were here and there were no fences,” says Rosslyn Schultz, executive director of the Grassroots Art Center. “It continues to as current of a topic as the borders between Mexico and the U.S. and Canada and the U.S.”
One exhibit challenges the underlying emotion behind fences. Viewers can change the fence in front of a pictured house, choosing from different styles of fencing. The exhibit raises the question how those different types of fences change the perception of a dwelling, Schultz says. “Does the type of fence that you put up in front of your house – does that indicate socio-economic status,” she says.
Retired historian Larry Rutter of Meriden became interested in fences during his career with the Kansas Historical Society. But then again, growing up on a farm, fences were a part of his life long before that. “Fences were very significant,” Rutter says. “Most of my research has been done on rural fences, rather than urban or city.”
What drew Rutter initially was a popular fence style in certain parts of the state – the post rock limestone fences. This particular type of limestone is found near the top of the ground in certain areas of the state and is called Fencepost limestone. Because trees were so sparse, settlers utilized limestone as an alternative fence material.
Rutter was so interested in the limestone, which has been used to build many of Kansas’ historic buildings, that he spent two years learning to quarry the rock. But those wonderful limestone posts weren’t the settlers only answer to a treeless landscape.
“Early Kansans, especially those who settled in the central area where there were fewer trees, had sod fences,” Rutter says. “I have documented two or three places where there were literally sod fences for the lack of trees.” The sod fences, as did most fences of the 1800s, usually had a three to four-foot ditch dug out at the base of the fence so that whatever they were confining would not get out, he says.
The stone fence posts often had barbed wire strung between them, and Schultz says the Grassroots Art Center utilized that aspect of the exhibit to generate local artistic interest. A Create a Wire Sculpture event pulled in everyone from artists to amateurs. Throughout this small Kansas town, which has a population of just over 420, attractions are tied into the Smithsonian fence exhibit.
Ernie Poe, a sculpture artist from Sharon Springs, Kan., has created life-size buffalo, several horses and even a farrier out of barbed wire. His work is being highlighted now at the center, Schultz says. A national photography contest elicited fence art from photographers and the 50 plus entries received are exhibited at the center.
Programming for the fence exhibit pushed the edges of how society utilizes fences, Schultz says. In November, a presentation called “Fences of Freedom” tapped into the knowledge of a local Lucas man who was a prisoner of war in Germany. Another man spoke about Germans who were imprisoned in Concordia or other satellite prisons that appeared across the state during the Second World War
For more information about “Between Fences” and other activities at the Grassroots Art Center, visit the web site.