wire fence is a simple, highly effective element of agricultural
infrastructure intended to keep a land owner's livestock on the inside
and other animals and people on the outside.
All it takes is an ample supply of cedar posts and multiple coils
of barbed wire. Oh, and a lot of hard work. How many posts and how
much wire depends, of course, on the acreage to be fenced. Whatever
the quantity, the standard Texas barbed wire fence consists of five
or six strands stapled between posts set 8 to 15 feet apart. Those
posts usually stand about four-and-a-half feet high.
Invented in 1876, barbed wire began to crisscross Texas in the first
half of the 1880s. Despite a little dust-up known as the Fence Cutter's
War in which some folks who did not want to let go of the old
free range days slipped around at night snipping newly built barbed
wire fences the fences became ubiquitous. Texas Rangers killed
a few of the fence cutters and the nefarious use of wire cutters faded.
Soon it occurred to fence owners that objects could be hung from strung
barbed wire or the posts that connected the strands. Since the fences
weren't particularly high, that precluded hanging cattle rustlers
from them, but barbed wire barriers proved irresistible to those wanting
to adorn them with other things.
For decades the most common objects found dangling on barbed wire
fences were dead coyotes. Coyotes were for a long time considered
critters non persona because of their propensity to help themselves
to calves and lambs. Accordingly, they were shot on sight. Those that
weren't killed that way were trapped or poisoned.
Ranchers and their hands began hanging their predator kills from the
fences like so many captured pirates. In an earlier time, deceased
swashbucklers were left dangling as a warning to others, but seeing
one of their buddies draped on a barbed wire fence surely did not
deter coyotes from looking for groceries. Apparently, however, it
made the landowners feel better. Basically, it was just a braggy way
to dispose of a carcass.
Larger predators like mountain lions occasionally ended up draped
on some rancher's fence, but these days a big cat taken on private
property is more likely to end up in a taxidermy shop or on Facebook.
I've also seen the remnants of a big rattlesnake slung across a fence,
but it won't stay there long if a rancher has feral hogs on his property.
Those invasives are the most commonly killed nuisance animal today,
but since properly handled and cooked pork makes for good grub, a
deceased boar or sow is not likely to be relegated to a fence. Besides
that, the larger ones weigh too much for even the tightest strands.
Another popular barbed wire fence ornament is the head of aquatic
species of the biological order Siluriformes, better known as catfish.
The custom of hanging the head of big catfish surely began in East
Texas, where there's more water, and then spread west with the construction
of stock tanks.
Having known of these common barbed wire fence features for years,
a question from retired Navy Capt. Lewis Smith of Wimberley
challenged my Texan-ness to my boots: Why do people put boots on barbed
wire fence posts?
My lack of knowledge in regard to this particular aspect of Texas
lore caused me to consult the great authority on everything-Professor
Google. And sure enough, it turns out that placing old boots on fence
posts has become a thing.
While only a handful of writers have booted up their word processors
to consider the phenomenon, there are several theories as to why its
done. It has been opined that boots are placed on fences for a practical
reason, which is to protect the tops of posts from rain. But considering
the durability of cedar, that's a pretty lame thesis. I've also read
that before telephones became universal, ranchers who might live miles
from their front gate would place a boot on a highway fence post to
indicate they were home.
Another theory is that cowboys mourning the loss of a favorite horse
would put up an old boot to honor their steed's memory. Or as a memorial
to a fellow cowhand who has passed. Yet another theory is that the
"posting" of old boots is a figurative tip of the Stetson to the worn
out footwear themselves.
While I freely admit to having been caught off guard by Smith's question
worse than a curious coyote who poked his paw in a steel trap, I question
these theories. For one thing, a good pair of cowboy boots have never
been cheap. It makes far better sense to get them re-soled rather
than relegating a nicely broken-in pair of boots to fence posts. As
for the "the rancher is in" theory, most Texas ranchers I've met could
care less whether passersby know they're home on the range.
I think the boot-on-a-fence post phenomenon is merely another manifestation
of Texas folk art. Adorning fence posts with old boots is only slightly
less quirky than the late Amarillo
millionaire Stanley Marsh's half-buried
Cadillacs off Interstate 40 in the Panhandle,
but the media is far less expensive. One of the more ambitious old
boot displays can be found in Kerr
County on the fence line six miles southwest of Hunt,
off State Highway 39. Most of the weather-worn footwear is on the
west side of the roadway, but a few decorate posts on the east side
as well. The stretch has been around since the early 1970s. The firsts
boots that went up on the fence posts came from the property owners
and then their ranch hands. Since then, passersby have added to this
Boot Hill for boots.
However the boot-on-a-fence-post tradition began, people clearly get
a kick out of seeing them.