Border Lines

From the Gazette Fence File:

The boulder-strewn hills of the Vineyard are enduring but many of the relics of a more recent past are not. Consider the split rail fences of fragrant cedar. A generation ago they were familiar in the landscape, though not so much as the stone walls.

A split cedar rail fence was and is a beautiful thing, weathered to a soft gray, rugged and knotty in contour, well patterned with lichens. The view of such a fence ascending a long hill beside a sandy road was one of the sound, shipshape, quietly appealing symbols of a way of life that wound and climbed and dipped like the road.

Not a few modern observers have expressed surprise that the Island could have had cedar trees of such size and number as to produce these rails. Well, it didn’t, at least in the era recent enough for the rails to have survived for present inspection. The Vineyard’s “cedars tall and straight” as described by Gosnold’s voyagers could not have outlasted the first generation or so of industrious settlers. The cedar rails known to our grandparents, and some of them to the present time, were brought here by the schooner load from Maine or somewhere Down East. They were sold on the Island for a few cents, cheaply enough to compete with the stone walls which, though costing nothing for material, were laborious to build.

Now most of them have either been burned in fires on Vineyard hearths or are being absorbed gently into the soil and mould of the countryside and of slow time. But all that are left are singularly beautiful in their homely way and some, containing recesses for wild bees, are even musical, appealing to all human senses at once.

As the cedar rails have gone and are going, so has gone and is going the old way of life of which they were a part and in which they regulated the order of many things, such as keeping sheep in and strangers out, or marking the course of rights of way and roads that went to church or school or far beyond.


We have heard that the cutting of trees along the state road between the Tisbury town line and North Tisbury took out some of the so-called “right angle trees” so famous in the Vineyard landscape. This is a great pity. In the absence of an accurate explanation, many visitors have attributed such trees to the Indians, probably because they seem to belong to historic, rugged days, and to skills and native magic antedating the white man.

The mature trees were never bent; they were made to grow in this right angle fashion, and stand now as the remains of the old lop fences which belong in the ancient company of stone walls, rail fences, native hedgerows and any of the hardy means of enclosure for pastures or for marking property or ways of travel. To make a lop fence, you found a young oak, preferably a sapling, in the approximate position you desired. You notched the tree at a suitable height and bent it over to the ground or caused it to lean by means of a weight.

Other trees than oaks were seldom used, although this may be because oaks were almost always more readily available. Once in a while the notched tree might defeat the purpose of the fencer, but usually it would form a transverse bar like a natural rail, and then turn skyward again. The distance from the ground to the transverse would depend upon the will of the fencer and also upon the luck he had with his design.

In any case, the lop fences continued to grow long after this method became obsolete and until the purpose of “right angle trees” had been forgotten.


As to fences, Vineyard towns used to have cycles. Some observers even talked about “fenced generations” and “unfenced generations.” When old-time fences came down it was usually because the owner could not afford to keep them up. Or he needed them for firewood and no longer had sheep to graze in an enclosed pasture.

When fences came up again on old Island properties, it was usually to keep people from cutting crosslots. Cutting crosslots was an approved Vineyard custom for a couple of hundred years, but finally there were so many people enjoying the privilege that the matter verged on one of traffic control. Too bad. Cutting crosslots was a part of our civilization and made living down the Neck or over Yonder more humane and desirable than living in Babylon.

However, the rebirth of fences adds a thrifty dignity to the Island scene, a running theme of decoration at once chaste and charming. Seldom may good taste be materialized with the use of such meagre materials — posts, stringers, slats, and most of all, white paint.

Compiled by Cynthia Meisner