The Rush County Historical Society, Inc.
Uses of Post Rock Limestone
Those Peculiar Posts
When pioneers first settled western Kansas, they found the availability of wood for fence posts almost non-existent. What they did find, was a bed of limestone buried only a few inches beneath the top soil. Peculiarly, this bed of stone was consistently about 18 inches in thickness, the perfect dimension for fence posts. Even more, when properly handled, the soft stone could be easily shaped and once exposed to air, became hard and resistant to the elements.
The limestone was widely available many landowners had quarries on their land. For those that did not have the stone immediately available, quarried and dressed posts could be purchased for about 25 cents each. Add to that the newly invented and inexpensive fencing known as barbed wire, and a fence could be constructed at relatively low cost.
Once posts were quarried and dressed, moving and positioning the posts presented a challenge to the pioneers. A typical method for hauling the posts was to drive a horse-drawn wagon directly over each newly quarried post, and attach the post in a sling on the underside of the wagon. The farmer would then drive along the fence line and drop down posts at each location, usually set at 10 steps (approximately 30 feet) apart. Holes for the posts were dug about 18 inches deep, leaving about four and one-half feet of an average six-foot post exposed. When the posts were released from the underside of the wagon, one end would slide into the hole as the post was lifted upright.
Generally, only about 25 posts could be set in an average day. To keep wires from sagging, a wood post or fence stay would be placed between the stone posts. A typical quarter section (160 acres) of land required up to 90 posts to fence each side. To completely enclose a quarter of land required 360 limestone posts, 40,000 feet of wire and over 2 weeks of dawn to dusk hard labor to complete. Frequently, neighboring landowners would share in construction and maintenance of a common fence to save money and labor.
There are multiple methods used to attach the wire to the post. The most common method is to place the fence wire flat against the post and wrap a second wire around the post securing it to the fence wire on either side of the post. A problem with this method was that unless the tie wire was tight, it would eventually allow the fence wire to drift downward. To combat this, 3 or 4 shallow troughs are cut into the face of the post to hold the fence wire from sliding up or down, keeping wires equally spaced. Another method involved drilling a hole in the post, securely inserting a wooden peg into the hole and fastening the wire to the wood with a staple. Over time, the peg would dry and eventually loosen, causing the fence wire to become detached from the post. A third, less frequently used method involved drilling a hole diagonally through the corner of the post and securing the fence wire to the post by placing a second wire through the hole and securing it to the fence wire.
The number of wires attached to the post depended upon the type of containment needed. Cattle usually only needed three to fours wires, herds with small calves, or sheep or other small animals could require as many as 6 to 8 wires. On a typical 4-wire fence, the first wire was placed above ground level the distance of a hammer handle and additional wires were spaced the same distance apart.
Generally, most posts are positioned with the brown streak parallel to the wire. This is done to allow the natural expansion and contraction of the wire to rub a groove into the softer side of the post to keep the wire from shifting up or down on the post.
To prevent corner posts from being pulled out of plumb due to the tension of the tightly stretched wire, a second shorter post was wedged at an angle against the upright post. (See picture at top) On long fence lines, wedges were placed midpoint in the fence to take some of the load from other posts resulting from tightly stretched wires.
The lasting quality and beauty of the post rock fences is evident in the fact that many have remained intact for 60 to 100 or more years a tribute to the perseverance of the pioneer farmers who settled this country.
Building with Post Rocks
Initially, pioneers constructed their first homes from native sod simply because it was cheap and readily available. Sod homes were relatively easy to construct, but were susceptible to the harsh environment and required substantial maintenance. Many sod homes, known as dugouts, were built into the side of a creek bank. Large families were often crowded into these small one or two-room buildings in conditions that were far from sanitary. The houses were damp and musty in the winter and dry and dusty during hot summer months. Sod homes were acceptable for the short term, but settlers willing to stay for the long-haul wanted something more.
For commercial buildings, wood was still the material of choice. It was inexpensive, sturdy, and buildings could be quickly constructed. However, settlers in the young communities soon learned it also had drawbacks. As the railroads rapidly moved west, so did the people. Towns sprang up almost overnight. Rows of tightly spaced buildings lined Main Streets. Typically commercial buildings had wood framing, unfinished wood siding, a wooden false front, wood shingle roofs, and wood floors. A coal or wood stove provided heat. When a spark or ember strayed and fire ignited, it spread rapidly. The large amount of dry wood combined with virtually non-existent fire protection usually spelled disaster. It was not uncommon for entire city blocks to be wiped out in minutes. In 1905, fire destroyed the entire block on the east side of McCracken's Main Street. Four years later, another fire reduced the west side of the street to ashes. That same year, fire destroyed all but two buildings on a block at the north end of LaCrosse's Main Street.
Consequently, settlers sought more permanent structures that were more fire-resistant. Although brick was widely used in urban areas, it was expensive to ship into rural areas. Post rock was the answer. It was readily available, resistant to the elements, required little maintenance, and was fireproof. When properly “dressed” it made a very attractive building. Pictured to the right is the Alexander State Bank in 1909.
Quarrying post rock for buildings required the same process as was used for fence posts with few exceptions. Building stones were cut much smaller than fence posts to make them easier to handle. Once they were quarried, they were shaped, a process called “dressing” the stone. It most cases, it was the practice to saw all faces of the blocks except the exposed face. There were several methods of shaping the face, depending upon the final appearance desired. Rough hewn stones, used in early buildings, were not dressed resulting in mortar joints that were slightly irregular. Used when function outweighed style, rough hewn was the fastest method of construction. Quarry face stones were squared off for joints only. The face was left untouched for a more natural appearance. Pitched face stones had their edges chiseled back leaving a protruding face. Hammered face stones had simple to complex chiseled patterns in varying widths depending upon the design of chisel used. Sawed face had the exposed face trimmed smooth (see Table A).
To lay up a wall, the common method was to stack stones and join them together with mortar in the same method as laying bricks. Stone walls were generally quite strong due to their thickness - from eight to twelve inches. There were several methods of arranging the stones on a wall. The most common method was to lay equal courses of full stones in an alternating pattern to add strength. Stones were usually placed on the bedding plane as they were naturally in the quarry. This method left the brown streak visible on the face, but left fossils hidden. Stones were placed perpendicular to the bedding plane were referred to as shiners. Shiners allowed fossils to be visible on the face, but some evidence suggests that shiners are less resistant to weather. Many of the buildings on the campus of Fort Hays State University in Hays are constructed in this manner (see Table B).
There were a few unique methods of laying stones that were attractive and, according to some, had greater strength. Flagging involved using half-height stones (flagstones) in the same manner and conventional methods. Flagstones were produced by splitting large sections of fencepost limestone horizontally along the brown streak. They were generally used for sidewalks and flooring, although natural fractures in the stone created a lot of scrap. Masons soon discovered that the small broken pieces of flagstone made a very attractive building stone when laid in courses on the bedding plane. Random Ashlars were blocks of two or more heights and various widths fitted into a pattern. Another form of construction was known simply as Rubble. Fragments of irregular shape and size with one good surface and laid in a random pattern with the good surface exposed. Rubble has a completely random pattern whereas Ashlars are laid in courses (see Table B) Styles can also be combined for greater effect.
|Table A: Dressing Styles of Post Rock Limestone|
|Rough hewn||Quarry face||Pitched face||Hammered face||Sawed face|
|Table B: Construction Styles of Post Rock Limestone|
During the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) quarried and used post rock in the construction of bridges and public buildings in Rush County. The WPA was established in May 1935 as an agency of the United States government. A product of President Franklin D. Roosevelts New Deal, its main purpose was to combat unemployment caused by a national economic depression that had begun in 1929. The WPA cooperated with state and local governments in the field of public works and community service including construction of over 664,000 miles of highways, 285 airports, water and sewage systems, tunnels, parks and playgrounds, and over 120,000 public buildings. During its seven years of operation, the WPA provided employment for over 8.5 million Americans and returned over 10.5 billion dollars back into the economy. The name was changed in 1939 to the Works Projects Administration and the agency was liquidated in June 1943.
The WPA constructed schools including the Grade School in Bison and the Vocational Agriculture Building at LaCrosse Rural High School. They also constructed the Barnard Library in LaCrosse, and shelter houses, restrooms, and equipment buildings in the LaCrosse City Park. The WPA constructed multiple stone bridges in Rush County, two of which were eventually included on the National Register of Historic Places.
The End of an Era
Pictured to the right is the remains of a Post Rock limestone “Cooling House” located south of LaCrosse. Cooling Houses were used in the 1800s and early 1900s for water and food storage, and could also serve as a wash house. They were constructed next to a windmill with a pipe from the well pump to an inlet at the top of a storage tank located inside of the building. When the tank was filled, a release valve at the bottom of the tank could be opened and gravity combined with pressure created by the weight of the water provided a pressurized water system. The building was constructed of multiple thicknesses of limestone in the walls to provide insulation and keep the interior of the building cool.
Over the years, many of the limestone structures that once dotted the rural countryside were abandoned and left at the mercy of the elements. A number of the buildings still stand after nearly one hundred years of neglect, a testament to the quality of their workmanship. Limestone farm homes, once magnificent architectural works, are now vacant and in various stages of decay. During the mid-20th century, limestone facades on downtown buildings were covered or entirely replaced with modern brick or steel. Fortunately, local and state preservation organizations are protecting many of the historic limestone churches and a few public buildings, but more are being lost every day.
Limestone fences have also been rapidly disappearing from the landscape. As posts were damaged by livestock or other hazards, farmers replaced stone with wood or steel. Entire rows of stone posts that once surrounded cultivated land have been removed to either simplify mowing or allow farming right up to the boundary. Today, only a small percent of the original fence rows remain.
The Changes in Use of Post Rock Limestone
The development of the railways and automobiles increased the amount of lumber and steel available in Post Rock country. By the early 1920s, it was cheaper and faster for farmers to purchase wooden and steel posts rather than labor over stone quarries. Since wooden and steel fence posts are so much lighter than post rocks, enough for an entire fencerow could be hauled and placed by one man.
As for limestone blocks for building, the development of cement in the early 1900s nearly abolished the use of stone blocks in for building structures. Cement quickly became preferred over stones because it could be molded and formed much easier. Cement was also lighter and easier to haul than the limestone blocks.
Limestone is still quarried and used today, but typically as crushed aggregate (small pieces) rock rather than intact blocks. Limestone aggregate is used in cement, reinforced steel, and glass. Limestone blocks are still used for decorative trim, veneer (structural surfacing), decorative walkways, and in yard landscapes. Post rocks can still be seen along many of the region's highways. Most of these posts were placed over 100 years ago and still stand today as a reminder of the courage and strength of the Kansas pioneer.
Grace Muilenburg and Ada Swineford, Land of the Post Rock Its Origins, History, and People, 1975, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence