The Fence Problem

Cattle, hogs and even horses were allowed to roam free in WNC and most of the rest of the United States until around 1900. They roamed the streets of Hendersonville and Asheville, even downtown. You may think that this sounds crazy. However, until that time, the only fencing available was wood. You occasionally see split-rail wooden fences today, but they are put up as more a decoration than anything else. In the past in WNC, with all of our mountains covered with trees, it would have been impossible to fence in 100 acres with a split-rail fence.

You would have had to cut the trees down, cut the limbs off, and then drag them for miles to where you lived. Once you got them to your farm, it would have taken forever to put the fence up, even if you had a dozen men helping you. But what about barbed wire? It wasn’t invented until 1867 and was not improved enough to be used as fencing until 1874. It would have taken 20, 30 or more years for every farmer and rancher to get the wire and put it up.

Some people in WNC branded their livestock like they did out west. But most would cut notches on the ears of their animals. Each farm would have its own distinctive notch pattern.

Twenty-five percent of the trees in the mountains of WNC where chestnut trees. The roaming livestock would eat the chestnuts and grow fat from them. This was a cheap way to feed them.

Everyone would fence in their gardens to keep the livestock out of them. People often trained their dogs to chase the chickens and livestock out of their gardens, but this practice soon became ineffective. Farmers had to grow constantly larger fields of crops to feed the rapidly growing population. Trouble soon developed between the farmers, cattlemen and city residents.

People in Asheville and Hendersonville grew tired of livestock running loose in their city. Farmers resented spending money to fence in their fields. A movement began to force livestock men to fence in their cattle. In the spring of 1892, Henderson County Commissioners decided to hold an election on requiring livestock to be kept in fenced enclosures. Even in the city, most people kept a cow to furnish them with milk and butter. City residents often kept a hog to fatten up in the summer and eat in the winter.

The population began to divide into those for and against the stock (or fence) law party. The campaign became bitter. You could not be neutral. Families and neighbors turned against each other. Both sides wrote letters to the Hendersonville Times newspaper. Letters were sent to the paper saying women and children would go without food and that poor men and their families will have to go without milk, butter and meat in the winter. Many people said that if God had intended for animals to be kept pens or fenced in then the Bible would have said so.

People turned out in very high numbers on election day. The fence law was defeated by a large majority: 1,049 to 560. The biggest surprise was in the city of Hendersonville. Everyone thought the city would vote in favor of the fence law; instead, its people voted against it by a 3:1 margin. The fence law was much more unpopular in Hendersonville than in the county. The only two places that voted in favor of the stock law were Hooper’s Creek, which borders Fairview, and Clear Creek, which borders Hoopers Creek on the south.

Hooper’s Creek and Clear Creek grew more farm produce than the other townships. They petitioned the Henderson County Commissioners to permit them to have a special township election to levy a tax to build fences between their townships and the other townships in the county. The stock law supporters again carried both townships and the law went into effect.

The farmers in the other townships soon saw how well the stock laws worked in Hooper’s Creek and Clear Creek. They asked the commissioners to allow their townships to vote on the stock law and were given permission. In a few years, the stock law had been passed in every township in the county.

This helped the problem, but it reappeared on the west side of Henderson County. Transylvania County still allowed livestock to roam, and the animals would cross the county line. The Henderson County Commissioners approved funds to build a brush fence along the Henderson/Transylvania line. Trees were cut along the county line, so felled trees overlapped each other. This brush fence made it impossible for farm animals cross the county line.

Bruce Whitaker documents Fairview-area genealogy. To get in touch with him, contact the Crier at [email protected] or 828-771-6983 (call/text).

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