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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Rock Fences

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
From Boerne to Burnet and beyond, the Hill Country is noted for its numerous rock fences, stock pens and cemetery enclosures. You see them most often in counties settled by German immigrants, but a more fundamental common denominator is the availability of building material -- variably shaped rocks.

Far more lasting than wooden rail fences, this type of enclosure was common before the advent of barbed wire, though some of the were built as late as the early 1900s. Most of them still stand more than a century-and-a-half after being built.
Texas Hill Country rock fence
A Hill Country rock fence

Photo courtesy Shannan Yarbrough, 2005
Louis Grosz, born in Hueffenhardt, Germany in 1853, came to Texas when he was 18. His uncle, Phillipp Eckert of Mason County, had written and told him what tools he needed to bring to make a living in America. Grosz weighed his two trunks down with iron, including a broad axe needed to build a log cabin.

As Estella Hartmann Orrison related in a family history she self-published in 1957, “Eckert Record,” when Grosz finally reached the Hill Country he had to go to work to repay the $50 his uncle had advanced him for his passage to Texas. His first income came from laying rock fences at 50 cents a day in an era when no one had yet considered working only eight hours out of 24.
Likely toiling from “can see to can’t,” Grosz’ rate of compensation amounted to only pennies on the hour. And the work must have been brutally hard. Roy Bedichek, in his 1947 book “Adventures with a Texas Naturalist,” estimated the stone fences on his place in Hays County weighed “not less than a ton per linear yard.” The rule of thumb passed down to the present is that it took one man one day to build three feet of fence three feet high.

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That three-feet-a-day pace involved not only the relatively mindless toil of finding, digging up, lifting and hauling suitable rocks but the more cerebral activity of sorting and stacking them just so. Gravity held these fences together, not mortar. The rocks had to fit snugly and be balanced.

Picture working a gigantic puzzle with very heavy pieces in a climate where most of the time it’s too hot and sometimes too wet or cold or both. Throw in a sore back and the occasional displaced scorpion or rattlesnake and you have a pretty tough way to make four bits a day. Oh, and hostile Indians still posed a danger in Mason County when Grosz had to earn money as a rock fence builder.

While rock fences also are known as “German fences,” research by University of Texas graduate Laura Knott, a landscape architect specializing in historic preservation revealed that dry-laid fences did not originate in Germany. Rather, the style used in Texas and elsewhere in the South seems to have been modeled after rock fences common to Great Britain.

Knott theorized that German Texans learned of the style and imitated it. On the other hand, it doesn’t take a rock-it scientist to figure that a potential farm field strewn with plow-breaking stones could be both fenced and cleared by stacking those very stones.
Kansas rock wall and barn
A rock wall in Kansas
TE photo, 2005

No matter their origin, rock fences are of two varieties: Single thickness walls about one foot wide and double-sided structures. Those two-siders, obviously, stood the stoutest.

In building the thicker fences, a rock-stacking artisan put up one wall and then another parallel to it, leaving enough room in between for a fill of smaller stones called “hearting.” The builder connected the two walls with long, flat stones known as “throughs.”

In the course of her university research, Knott found a Blanco County farmer named John Cox (no relation to the author) who learned both fence-building and some philosophy from his father.

“I remember a day that he was building fences and I was learning,” Knott quoted Cox. “‘Rocks must fit as close as words,’ he said as he put a rock in place….He never put a stone where it didn’t want to stay. ‘Work with nature, not against it…if you want a fence to stand.’”

As for Grosz, after repaying his relative by laboring at fence building, he moved on to easier ways of making money like blacksmithing, furniture building, stone cutting and farming. In between, he and his wife raised 11 children.

Though Grosz could do many things, he must have been pretty handy at the work that paid for his immigration. He continued to hire out periodically as a fence builder. When his sons had grown strong enough, he put them to work hauling rocks while he did the stacking that required more experience. He continued to build stone fences even after wire made them obsolete.

Like railroad workers laying track, the Grosz’ stayed in the field until they finished a job, moving their camp site as their enduring handiwork slowed progressed across a field. Twice a week, Grosz would send his boys home to fetch more grub while he stayed in camp near the fence in progress.

A relapse of measles, not hard work, killed Grosz at the age of 45 in the spring of 1899. They buried him in the Gooch Cemetery on the eastern edge of Mason. Most, if not all, of his rock fences still stand.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
February 7 , 2008 column

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