Kentucky’s Limestone Fences
Humans in the Neolithic Age were a crafty bunch. Around 12,000 BCE, people from various parts of the world had domesticated wild crops and livestock, choosing instead a subsistence that didn’t solely depend on hunting and/or gathering.
Gone were the days of following migratory herd animals. People moved towards a sedentary social order where agriculture and toolmaking became the cornerstone of human civilization. These two elements shaped the geographic landscape for generations to come, creating a dialectical relationship between the wilderness and the innovations necessary to make it habitable for humans.
This brings us to Kentucky, where the topography had originally been modified over thousands of years by Indigenous inhabitants. Native American societies like the Cherokee employed slash-and-burn forest management techniques that produced nutrient-rich soil and cleared space for farmland, which was possibly the earliest use of rotational farming in the region.
When European explorers crossed the Allegheny Mountains into Kentucky, they discovered the land had already been cultivated with gardens and waterways that connected a wide expanse of Indigenous settlements. Slack Farm near Uniontown, KY is a famous archeological example of such a site, which consisted of seven distinct villages dotted along the Ohio River that had been socially linked by the Caborn-Welborn people that occupied it. It wasn’t long before Europeans began to adopt the agricultural strategies that Native Americans had been practicing for centuries.
German immigrants are largely credited as being the ones who harnessed this blend of native/immigrant styles to their fullest extent and created one of the most recognizable architectural features in the state: the limestone rock fence.
Anyone who has traveled through Kentucky has likely come across these ubiquitous rock fences that line the perimeter of farms, parks, and historic settlements. Many of these structures were created when German homesteaders tilled the soil and discovered limestone beneath the surface. As more land was cultivated, more rocks were revealed until finally, farmers were left with a huge pile of limestone slabs—enough material to construct a fence.
Mike Caudill, an environmental advocate from Harlan County, KY, called these fences by a regional colloquialism: a “hoe-ding.”
“The ground up in there is so rocky that if you were working your cornfield, you’ll hear your metal blade ‘ding!’ ‘ding!’” said Caudill, referring to the limestone wall around his family farm. “A whole lot of stone walls you see in Central Kentucky, they were made for the same reason. You’re plowing along and turn over another rock—well put it over there. Soon enough you got enough to make a fence out of it.”
In 1836, a writer for the Farmer’s Cabinet (a New Hampshire-based newspaper that operated from 1802 to 1900) agreed that clearing rocks from fields allowed farmland to be more productive and provided settlers with durable construction material. This notion gained popularity in Kentucky during the early to mid-1800s as statewide lumber shortages inspired farmers to replace their wooden picket fences with stone walls.
As rock fences became more mainstream, they were also recognized for their association with an old stoneworking craft known as drystone masonry. Instead of using mortar to bind stones together, this method relies on the geometry of interlocking rock pieces to uphold structural integrity.
Drystone construction has been a staple of human civilization since the Neolithic age, appearing in Mayan, Incan, and ancient Greek architecture. But in 19th century Kentucky, where farmers already knew that drystone walls were a better investment than wooden picket fences, the craft eventually turned into a status symbol for the region’s landed plantation families.
In the book “Rock Fences of the Bluegrass,” authors Carolyn Murray-Wooley and Karl Raitz described how limestone walls emerged as one of the most beloved features among Kentucky’s colonial-era estates: “People admired the high-quality rock fence for its permanence and its picturesque qualities, and so it symbolized taste, refinement, and a concern for the aesthetic over the mundane.”
Perhaps the most well-known stone wall from this period resides in Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, located in Harrodsburg. According to the Shaker Village website, the fence surrounding the 3,000-acre community was built in the 1840s by neighboring non-Shaker masons who were paid $1,000 for every mile they completed.
The legacy of Kentucky’s limestone walls demonstrates how human societies have used (and continue to use) historically-transmitted strategies to tame these rock-filled fields, which transforms—and also compliments—the built environment.
In “The Blue-Grass Region of Kentucky and other Kentucky Articles,” novelist James Lane Allen waxed poetic about the symbiotic relationship that existed between Kentuckians and the limestone on which we stand:
“One cannot sojourn long without coming to conceive an interest in this limestone, and loving to meet its rich warm hues on the landscape. It has made a deal of history: limestone blue-grass, limestone water, limestone roads, limestone fences, limestone bridges and arches, limestone engineering architecture, limestone water-mills, limestone spring-houses and homesteads—limestone Kentuckians! Outside of Scripture no people was ever so founded on a rock.”