Post Rock Country
Unique Reminders Of Bygone Days
By Karin Deneke
They were heading for the Kansas prairies, prepared to take on the many challenges of homesteading. Covered wagons, tightly loaded, often pulled by teams of oxen, labored west on a rutted Santa Fe Trail. European immigrants, many from Germany, brought with them among their most valuable possessions, the crafts and skills they had practiced in the old country.
Today, travelers passing through central Kansas on Interstate 70 may not notice these unique reminders of our early pioneer history. They are limestone posts crafted by innovative homesteaders more than a century ago. Symbols of backbreaking work, now common fixtures along the pastures and road sides of central Kansas. Called “post rock fences,” they are posts chiseled from local cream-colored limestone and connected with strands of barbed wire.
The Kansas Territory opened for settlement in 1854, and soon after, the first people of European ancestry arrived. Statehood followed in 1861. The Homestead Act of 1862 signed by President Lincoln during the Civil War, brought waves of immigrants to the plains of Kansas to claim free land for homesteading.
There was, however, a significant obstacle, the plains of central Kansas were with a few exceptions, predominantly treeless. To fence in their claims, homesteaders needed an alternative fencing material. It so happened that the answer to this problem existed directly underneath their feet.
Limestone layers below the surface of the prairie sod offered the solution. And homesteaders turned to the material below for their much needed fence posts. The stone was soft enough—when first excavated to allow the necessary cuts. Yet when exposed to air, it eventually hardened considerably. Hammers, chisels, a set of shims and wedges, as well as drills, often crafted by the local blacksmith, were the simple tools of the homesteaders. Barbed wire, invented in the 1870s, was used to connect the posts.
The work was backbreaking, the weight of one post—five to six feet long— averaged between 350 to 400 pounds. Just to set one of these monsters, a team of horses pulled a sled or platform, sometimes made from a large forked tree limb with branches laid crosswise, to a hand-dug cavity of 18 inches to two or feet deep, where it was then tipped into the hole. One at a time, every 15 feet, these post rocks were set. A finished fence line contained an average of 320 posts per mile. Corner posts were propped to remain in vertical position by leaning other stone posts against them at a 45-degree angle. To accommodate the barbed wire connecting the posts, each post had to be drilled at the edges. One method was to string smooth wire through the holes to create a tight loop. Barbed wire was then strung through these loops.
Consider the lack or absence of any type of mechanical means in those early days, and you will respect these monumental efforts of our pioneer families in conquering our wild places.
What we refer to now as the Post Rock Country of central Kansas, stretches 200 miles as the crow flies across the state, beginning at the northeast end near the Nebraska state line to Dodge City and Wichita on the southern end. During the peak of their use, 40,000 miles of these post rock fences were erected in central Kansas.
The posts became a symbol of innovation. The natural resources of the area dictated an alternative means of fencing to the conventional wooden posts used in other locations where timber was more common. An excellent building material, limestone was used for many projects, such as exterior and interior walls for homesteads and outbuildings, bridges, liners for dug wells, fireplaces, foundations, steps and porches.
Traveling the rural roads of Kansas, historic homes and barns, churches, bridges and public buildings still remind us of the limestone building boom. During the early homesteading days, mortar needed to lay the stone blocks, came from slacked lime broken pieces of limestone, burned in crude kilns along creek beds.
Starting in the 1920s, limestone construction declined. Railroads transported a variety of building materials to the prairie state. Slowly regional development passed its climax. Many people sold their farms and left for jobs in the growing cities. You can’t miss the abandoned homesteads, with caved in roofs and walls, often hidden in a jungle of weeds, now habitat for birds and small and large game.
The Great Depression during the 1930s brought a brief comeback for limestone. Funded by the Federal Government, work projects such as the Works Progress Administration rejuvenated temporarily limestone construction projects.
The limestone resources of North Central Kansas are found across an area of close to three million acres. The Greenhorn Limestone formation—as the layer used for the rock posts is called—lies close to the surface, an 8- to 12-foot bed extending with little interruptions for miles. It is the top of many layers of sediment deposited by a series of interior seas that covered Kansas between 500 million and 65 million years ago. The sedimentary limestone was formed from shells, coral and aquatic vegetation. If you look close you can spot evidence of fossils in the posts.
Prior to settlement, the Kansas Short and Tall Grass Prairies supported large herds of buffalo, elk, mule deer and antelope. Matter of fact, the state symbol of Kansas is the American buffalo. In the early days of homesteading these animals supplied the pioneers with much needed food. Wildlife populations declined as more people moved to the prairies.
As the years went by, Kansas developed a large livestock industry, now ranking third in the nation with six million cattle raised on ranches and in feed lots. The loamy soils of the state are well suited for small grain production, primarily wheat. Average size of a farm is now between 800 and 1,200 acres. The rural population in Kansas declined during the last two decades as farmers and ranchers sold out, migrating from the country to the cities, leaving behind many ghost towns. Travelers on the back roads of the Kansas prairies can’t miss the yellow and black flash of the Western Meadowlark as it flies overhead, never far from the ground. The birds’ habitats are the open fields and meadows. They raise their young in nests made from woven grass, well hidden in the prairie vegetation. The male meadowlark prefers to perch on fence posts, often rock posts, belching out his garbled and abrupt song.
To this day, limestone is harvested from quarries in the Post Rock Country of Kansas. A number of industries have emerged—among them a cottage industry crafting number and address signs for homes and farms. Post Rock museums now commemorate the history and application of the limestone rock. (Let’s not forget Dorothy’s yellow brick road in the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz!)
Lincoln County is deemed the Post Rock Capital of Kansas. Post Rock fences have survived tornadoes and prairie fires and are a proud reminder of the ingenuity and work ethic of our brave pioneers.
Karin Deneke lives and writes in Colorado.