Heartbeat: Respect the rock jack...and those who build it

A rock jack anchors the corner of a pasture fence.

The other day I rode out to the hills with my husband to check the cattle that graze his range near Salmon Creek. This vast rolling grassland known as the Zumwalt Prairie is simply referred to by local landowners as "the hills."

Before there were fences, livestock men ran their cattle, sheep and horses together. Then, as more homesteaders moved in, fences were built to enclose their properties.

Since the soil was so rocky, and digging postholes was impossible, those early settlers figured out a way to build fences using materials at hand. From the nearby forests, they cut seasoned tamarack fence material - which means they split posts - and made stays. They also used rocks.

That's how the rock jack was born. A clever wooden cage made from "fence material," filled with rocks to anchor it firmly to the ground, provided support for the fence. So...a fence line looked like this: Rock jack... stay- stay- stay- stay, rock jack... stay - stay, and on over the hill, or across the draw. Stays are just that. They don't stick in the ground, they merely "stay" or hold, the five-strand barbed wire in place.

If you look closely, in widely scattered areas of the county, you'll still be able to see some of the first fences ever built here. Although most rock jack fences have been repaired and maintained over the years, they remain a testament to those early fence builders, who labored to construct them.

When we reached Deadman Creek, dry now during this drought year, we found where a cow had broken down the fence. Since one of those old original rock jacks was beginning to rot away, my husband (now 76) took out his tools and went to work building a new one.

With a skill learned in his youth, he nailed the framework of the rock jack together, then filled it with large rocks. Next, he spliced the broken wire, and stapled on a new stay to replace a broken one.

Today in Wallowa County, we have many artists, not the least of whom are the ranchers, who perform tasks such as these on an everyday basis.

Next time you're driving around the country pause to admire a different kind of artistry.

Perhaps you'll run into some fence builders - like the Moore boys. Stop and tell them what good work they do. And hope there will always be private landowners to maintain one of the wonders of Wallowa County. Long live "the hills" ... strung together with their rock jack fences.

Janie Tippett is a longtime resident of Wallowa County and a well-known local writer.

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