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Fences

Thomas Jefferson employed several methods for creating fences at Monticello. Wood, stone, and living plants were all considered viable options. Stone was utilized for fencing the earliest vegetable garden.1 Elsewhere, an iron chain fenced the semi-oval shrubbery circle on the east front of Monticello; and, in at least one instance, Jefferson referenced the digging of a trench called a ha! ha!2

Wooden Fences

Jefferson used two types of wooden fences: "post-and-rail" fences and "paling" fences.3 Though he found the construction of wooden fences to be "great & perishable work,"4 according to entries in both his farm book and his garden book, he never stopped using wooden fences for separating his fields.

An extensive paling fence completely encircled the vegetable garden and south orchard.5 It was ten feet high with pales 5' 3" long and 5" to 7" wide, which were "dubbed one another on the middle rail like clapboards." The posts were locust and twelve feet high, sunk 2 1/2' into the ground. Rails were made of heart of poplar or pine, as both trees grew abundantly on the mountain. This fence was begun in 1808 by Elisha Watkins and completed about 1809.6 Nothing of the original fence survived into modern times; a reconstruction of one section was erected based on Jefferson's specifications.

Live Fences

In 1794, Jefferson planted peach trees to create dividing lines between various fields.7 Live hedges were utilized to surround the orchards, beginning in 1805.8

Jefferson's failure to introduce hedge fences sooner may have been the lack of a hardy plant of a suitable size and strength that would grow at Monticello.9 Thomas Main, a Georgetown nurseryman, must be credited with convincing Jefferson that the Crataegus phaenopyrum, or Washington hawthorn plant – which grew wild in the environs of the Federal City – would meet the conditions on the mountain.10 Joseph Dougherty, Jefferson's factor in Washington, wrote him in March 1805 that he had procured 4,000 plants from Main and that they had been dispatched to Monticello.11 These plants probably went into the south thorn hedge that encircled the south orchard and vegetable garden.12 Extensive plantings followed and by 1809 the hedges were established firmly enough to be shown as separate entities on a survey of that year.13

Jefferson directed that there be 6" between plants and no plant was to be any closer to a road than twenty feet; there is no indication as to their height.14 These fences must have been a useful adjunct, because Jefferson wrote in 1808: "[A]s a thorn for hedges nothing has ever been seen comparable to it [the Washington thorn]; certainly no thorn in England which I have ever seen makes a hedge any more to be compared to this than a log hut to a wall of freestone."15

After their firm establishment the hedges were vigorously maintained, which can be noted by Jefferson's directives to his overseers.16 Their condition in 1816 was pointed out in a letter to Joseph Cabell, who had inquired as to the best plant for a "live" fence: "I have extensive hedges of it, which I have too much neglected. the parts well grown appear rather weak against cattle; yet when full grown will probably be sufficient."17 This letter is one of the last references to the hedges which, no doubt, were neglected until they finally vanished from the hilltop.

- "Fences," Monticello Research Report, n.d.

Further Sources

  • Jefferson Library Information File - Garden Wall.

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