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Trading Six-Guns for Wire Stretchers

Posted on: November 19, 2013

ImageThoughts about fencing the West from an excellent book my friend Pauline Sheehan loaned me titled “The Cowboy Way” by David McCumber —

“I’ve always thought that fences are to the West what a splinter is to your thumb: foreign, painful, unsightly and an unfortunate fact of life. Fences represent limit and compromise and the closing of the range, and therefore many cowboys hate them. When line riders, who rode the rough perimeter of a spread in the old days, became fence riders instead, trading in their six-guns for wire stretchers, it marked the true closing of the frontier, and what once seemed infinite in its possibility now became circumscribed and clearly defined. Fences didn’t solve the problem of wintering cattle; to the contrary, in bad storms stock would pile up against fences and become trapped in snowdrifts. But of course the possibilities had never been infinite, and too many cattle had left the once-lush sea of northern grass in ruins. At least fences put paid to the philosophy that there was plenty of grass for all, and they made each rancher’s grazing philosophy–and responsibilities–more evident. Since the 1880s, there have been disputes in Montana about ranchers fencing others away from public lands. Now, as access to wilderness shrinks and recreational pressure increases, many sportsmen find fences emblematic of the perceived tyranny of selfish landowners. Access issues will only get worse as the West gets more crowded.”

The author, who worked on a Montana ranch for one year to “take a measure of himself,” wrote in the next paragraph: “Despite my antipathy to fences and the dire warnings I had received, I was surprised to find that I love fixing fence.”

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