Osage Orange Fences

As we drive in the country of east central Illinois, we can still occasionally see rows of trees that form a boundary for someone’s farm. In most cases this is all that is left of a vast network of hedgerows that less than a century ago were the boundary fences of most of the farms in our area. Remember that there was not a tree in sight when Bement was first laid out.

The hedgerow fences were made up almost entirely of a tree called the Osage Orange, native to the area where Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas come together, and used by the Indians for their bows. The wood, and sometimes the tree itself, was called “Bois d’ Arch" or “Bow-wood.”

When planted close together and trimmed at hedge level, the Osage Orange formed an excellent fence that was referred to as "horse-high, bull strong, and hog-tight." The trees produced a thick quantity of thorns that were long and sharp. Limbs were often cut into fence posts and lasted for many years in the ground. The wood also burned hotter and longer than most wood and was resistant to most insects and diseases. It was the home to wildlife and fowl of all kinds.

Illinois College in Jacksonville was twelve years old when Rev. J. P. Thompson of New York traveled through Illinois in 1851 and wrote about the work of Professor J. B. Turner: "He experimented with various shrubs for hedging without success until he made, trail of the Osage Orange; this grows rapidly, endures the winter, and is covered with thorns. It has become universally popular, and already stretches across the prairie for hundreds of miles.”

For the early settlers of Bement, wind was a problem and the hedge seemed to be the answer to use as a windbreak. This was noted by Bement farmers, and miles and miles of Osage Orange were planted in the 1860s. Joseph Bodman’s diary of 1866 notes the following: "April, 19, Elijah Taylor has Osage Orange plants, April 20 went to Taylors with Stephenson and bought 3100 hedge plants and paid $20, for them and had Stephenson and his boys setting them this afternoon. April 21, finished planting the hedge, set 260 plants in 1-1/2 days and have 500 set somewhere else, April 24 Commenced planting Osage Orange seed." Those plants he raised from his own seed seemed to have done well, for years later he bought 20,000 plants, paying $3.00 per thousand, and on receiving them wrote, "My hedge plants came today. Are not as good as those I raised." On June 11, he wrote, “Set out 22,000 hedge plants this year.”

His brothers, Lewis and Luther, were also active in their efforts. An entry in their diary dated September 19, 1868 lists expenses of about $2,000 and stated that "12-1 /2 miles of hedge are growing and taking shape.”

In the off season, the farmers trimmed the hedges and cut out hedge posts. In the years that followed, several factors made the hedge fences more of a liability than an asset, and most of them have since been removed, leaving the neatly trimmed Osage Orange boundaries just a memory to some of Bement’s oldest residents.

From Bement Sesquicentennial book - used with permission

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