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Tony Vagneur: A storytelling structure

Tony Vagnuer
Saddle Sore

If you drive north of Minneapolis, you see a curious thing — old farmsteads with empty houses, beautiful barns and wooden fences, fairly well abandoned, some of them in rather dilapidated condition. Built right in the middle of these once-thriving farms are large, modern houses with big lawns, looking totally out of place. A very strange dichotomy, an ode to the past trampled on by modernity.

In his recently published book of reminiscences, my friend Gregory K. Harkness tells the heartwarming story of a cabin his father and mother painstakingly built over the years. Eventually, his father erected a border fence around the property, laboriously digging every post hole himself in very rocky ground and hanging the fence rails with an exacting eye. This he did in his ninth decade.

Some years after his father’s death, a neighbor began complaining about the slouching fence rails — it wasn’t all neat and tidy, looking like the neighbor thought it should. Without any concern for my friend or the history of the fence, the neighbor, with shallow, psychologically fastidious focus, kept harping on about what he perceived to be an eyesore. The rails eventually came down and in good stubborn fashion, were stacked haphazardly and askew, along their common property line.

My neighbor across the lane has an old, wooden fence surrounding his property. Just inside the gate sat a timeworn loafing shed, sagging and held up only by sheer force of willpower. Every year, through fierce spring wind storms, brutal winter blizzards and summer’s blistering heat, it tenaciously held its ground. And every day, it received my admiration, as well as a wondering glance until, like all things manmade, its terminal velocity was finally reached. Maybe there was a memorial service, just to thank it for gracing our viewplane for such a long time.

With the shed remains hauled away and to the neighbor’s credit, some of the worst slumping and drooping fence rails were replaced, maintaining a continuity to the property border, all without detracting from the perceived antiquity of the fence. The neighbor should be congratulated for respecting the tradition, the history and the uniqueness of that which surrounds his property.

Barbed wire fences, if no longer in use, should be taken down and hauled away immediately. Over the years, working as a Forest Service volunteer, I have spent countless hours picking up old wire lying on the ground, or still partially up, creating a dangerous trap for horses or wildlife. My friend Ron Baar has helped in this endeavor.

Wooden fences, if no longer in use but not blocking any ingress or egress, can be left up for posterity. If you get around the mountains much, you have no doubt noticed old, disconnected, washed-out gray wooden fences, well-built, gracing various locations in the woods or near open meadows. Most of those old, railed up barriers were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in areas around 1930s Aspen. If you don’t understand the soulful importance of fences, read “The Mending Wall” by Robert Frost.

Those fences were built on national forest grazing land, but the CCC also did other local work, such as improving the trail to Crater Lake, which used to be called Upper Maroon Lake. In 1936, the CCC helped the Roaring Fork Winter Sports Club (now the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club) build the boat tow on Aspen Mountain. My friend, Eddie Gregorich, long dead, a pugilistic, knife-making Aspen native, worked for the CCC one year, and had a few stories to tell.

When I was a youngster, my grandfather had a huge pole barn near his house, a barn we kids used to play in quite a bit. One year, a very long lodgepole pine appeared at the eastern end of the barn, propping it up. We took some kidding about that, but all in good fun, and the barn stayed up a few more years.

After Gramps died, my dad made a deal with a firewood man — tear the barn down and you can have the wood. And, you can live in Gramps house for the winter while you accomplish the task. I ate dinner with the firewood man’s family once and afterward they took me to town for the movies. At 12 years old, I missed my grandfather and thought the whole affair a bit sacrilegious.

In Gramps defense, may I say the house that he and his father built is still standing square and proud, and good-looking, 135 years after its initial construction.

In any case, save the old if you can, for the sake of history. And, as poet Robert Frost once said, “Don’t ever take a fence down until you know why it was put up.”

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.


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