Loose Ends: Different fences

Dolly Viscardi
Robert Frost’s famous poem “The Mending Wall” and the line “good fences make good neighbors” is quoted time and again for its applicability to relationships between neighbors. Between Fences, a Museum on Main Street project from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, opened in December at the Rio Blanco County Historical Museum and runs through February. The collage of pictures and montage of materials pull the viewer into not only the history of a region but recognizes how fences “continue to be an integral part of our nation. The introduction of fences and their effect upon agriculture, industry and economics of an area changed history.”
Fences throughout the country differ in the types of materials used, as well as in cities and towns. Picket fences are more visible in the Midwest and East, while split rail and barbed wire fences can be found all over the West. The Northeast continues to have more walls made up of small boulders piled on top of each other. Fences in the Northwest include many cedar fences.
Members of the Rio Blanco Historical Society dedicated a great deal of time to making the exhibit’s presentation possible and it was interesting to note that many local photographs and items on the walls behind the exhibit tied into the theme. A framed collection of barbed wire, as well as newspaper articles accompanying the story of a local rancher with pictures of him “cowboying” out on the range, offered local flavor. Newcomers to our area often remark on the miles and miles of fences surrounding the ranches and notice how much effort it takes to keep those fences doing their job. Fences are symbols of safety and security, yet are also signs of prosperity in many areas.
Most everyone has childhood story or two about fences and climbing over them or between the rails or strands of wire to pet a neighbor’s horse or pick an apple or two. The symbolism of fences is not lost on children, as much of their pictures of home or neighborhood include a picket fence or two if they live in a small town or a split-rail fence if they live in the country. Invisible psychological or social barriers are also addressed in Between Fences, as the exhibit raises the question, “Fences and walls are said to provide security, but for whom?” The exhibit poses a second question as well, “Are they fencing in or fencing out?”
A local twist is apparent in an old photograph from the late 1800s, which shows a small group of the original residents of the area being held behind a picket fence in the area that is now known as the courthouse lawn. They had come to exercise their hunting rights and been gathered together and held within the area until the local law enforcement accompanied them back to the reservation in Utah.
One educational aspect of the traveling exhibit is the picket painting projects in the schools, which offer students the chance to not only learn about the history of their area, but to offer their perceptions about the effect all kinds of fences have on their lives. Lesson plans for grade levels 4-12 are available, in addition to a list of objectives and standards that can be met. Many of our local students’ efforts are on display on the sidewalks downtown.