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Boots on Fence Posts

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

A barbed wire fence is a simple, highly effective element of agricultural infrastructure intended to keep a land owner's livestock on the inside and other animals and people on the outside.

All it takes is an ample supply of cedar posts and multiple coils of barbed wire. Oh, and a lot of hard work. How many posts and how much wire depends, of course, on the acreage to be fenced. Whatever the quantity, the standard Texas barbed wire fence consists of five or six strands stapled between posts set 8 to 15 feet apart. Those posts usually stand about four-and-a-half feet high.

Invented in 1876, barbed wire began to crisscross Texas in the first half of the 1880s. Despite a little dust-up known as the Fence Cutter's War — in which some folks who did not want to let go of the old free range days slipped around at night snipping newly built barbed wire fences — the fences became ubiquitous. Texas Rangers killed a few of the fence cutters and the nefarious use of wire cutters faded.

Soon it occurred to fence owners that objects could be hung from strung barbed wire or the posts that connected the strands. Since the fences weren't particularly high, that precluded hanging cattle rustlers from them, but barbed wire barriers proved irresistible to those wanting to adorn them with other things.

For decades the most common objects found dangling on barbed wire fences were dead coyotes. Coyotes were for a long time considered critters non persona because of their propensity to help themselves to calves and lambs. Accordingly, they were shot on sight. Those that weren't killed that way were trapped or poisoned.

Ranchers and their hands began hanging their predator kills from the fences like so many captured pirates. In an earlier time, deceased swashbucklers were left dangling as a warning to others, but seeing one of their buddies draped on a barbed wire fence surely did not deter coyotes from looking for groceries. Apparently, however, it made the landowners feel better. Basically, it was just a braggy way to dispose of a carcass.

Larger predators like mountain lions occasionally ended up draped on some rancher's fence, but these days a big cat taken on private property is more likely to end up in a taxidermy shop or on Facebook. I've also seen the remnants of a big rattlesnake slung across a fence, but it won't stay there long if a rancher has feral hogs on his property.

Those invasives are the most commonly killed nuisance animal today, but since properly handled and cooked pork makes for good grub, a deceased boar or sow is not likely to be relegated to a fence. Besides that, the larger ones weigh too much for even the tightest strands.

Another popular barbed wire fence ornament is the head of aquatic species of the biological order Siluriformes, better known as catfish. The custom of hanging the head of big catfish surely began in East Texas, where there's more water, and then spread west with the construction of stock tanks.

Having known of these common barbed wire fence features for years, a question from retired Navy Capt. Lewis Smith of Wimberley challenged my Texan-ness to my boots: Why do people put boots on barbed wire fence posts?

My lack of knowledge in regard to this particular aspect of Texas lore caused me to consult the great authority on everything-Professor Google. And sure enough, it turns out that placing old boots on fence posts has become a thing.

While only a handful of writers have booted up their word processors to consider the phenomenon, there are several theories as to why its done. It has been opined that boots are placed on fences for a practical reason, which is to protect the tops of posts from rain. But considering the durability of cedar, that's a pretty lame thesis. I've also read that before telephones became universal, ranchers who might live miles from their front gate would place a boot on a highway fence post to indicate they were home.

Another theory is that cowboys mourning the loss of a favorite horse would put up an old boot to honor their steed's memory. Or as a memorial to a fellow cowhand who has passed. Yet another theory is that the "posting" of old boots is a figurative tip of the Stetson to the worn out footwear themselves.

While I freely admit to having been caught off guard by Smith's question worse than a curious coyote who poked his paw in a steel trap, I question these theories. For one thing, a good pair of cowboy boots have never been cheap. It makes far better sense to get them re-soled rather than relegating a nicely broken-in pair of boots to fence posts. As for the "the rancher is in" theory, most Texas ranchers I've met could care less whether passersby know they're home on the range.

I think the boot-on-a-fence post phenomenon is merely another manifestation of Texas folk art. Adorning fence posts with old boots is only slightly less quirky than the late Amarillo millionaire Stanley Marsh's half-buried Cadillacs off Interstate 40 in the Panhandle, but the media is far less expensive. One of the more ambitious old boot displays can be found in Kerr County on the fence line six miles southwest of Hunt, off State Highway 39. Most of the weather-worn footwear is on the west side of the roadway, but a few decorate posts on the east side as well. The stretch has been around since the early 1970s. The firsts boots that went up on the fence posts came from the property owners and then their ranch hands. Since then, passersby have added to this Boot Hill for boots.

However the boot-on-a-fence-post tradition began, people clearly get a kick out of seeing them.

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" January 16, 2019

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