"Hewing Oak Posts"

BY Harold A. Franklin






























1900 Pioneers

Linne area pioneers, William Erickson on left with his two children, Vivian and Ted, trimming newly made fence posts split from valley oaks on their farm about 1900. Photo: Courtesy of Lucille Erickson Rader.

Settlers in northern San Luis Obispo County found large valley oaks growing in the rich bottom land of the area. If the trees' trunks were more than 3 feet in diameter and had a straight, unbranched section of more than 8 feet high, these trees were called "post oaks" and were saved for that purpose. It was not unusual to find trees greater than 5 feet in diameter and straight for 18 or 20 feet high.

Posts were needed to establish property lines and contain livestock. The tools for post making were simple and everyone had them: cross-cut saw, spitting maul, wedges, powder drill, black powder and fuse.

The post oaks were sawn down, never dynamited, and their trunks cut into sections from 6 to 8 feet long, depending on the landowner's preference. Usually posts were made about 6 1/2 feet long. The powder drill was used to bore a 1-inch diameter hole to the center of the log; the hole was about 2 feet from one end. Black powder was poured into the hole to the depth of 6 to 8 inches and a length of fuse inserted. Another inch or two of powder capped it off. Dry, fine gopher-mound dirt or sawdust was poured into the hole and tamped lightly to hold the shot's energy.

The fuse's end was lit, burning an inch a minute, and the post make scampered behind a barrier 25 or 30 feet away to avoid flying bark and splinters. Very large trees were shot a second time. Slabs 4 to 8 inches thick were split off using a variety of wedges. Small starting wedges began the crack and were replaced by wider wedges. The splitting characteristics of the trees varied widely and experience guided the post maker.

The lighter-colored outside sapwood was split off and cut into stove wood since it would  rot after being in the ground for several years. The dense, dark heartwood was then split off into individual posts 3 to 8 inches wide. Often posts were triangular in shape as well, depending on how the slab split. Odd chunks too twisted and gnarled to split would yield forty or more posts. The green posts were racked up in "tee-pees," herringbone rows, or stacked crisscross to dry and season for a year before being set in the ground.

Cured oak posts lasted for fifty years or more. They are still commonly seen in North County rural fence lines, interspersed with the more common redwood and steel posts. The last farm fenced with oak posts was done by Albert Anderson and his sons, Carl and John, in 1958 along Live Oak Road in the Bethel District. Oak posts are a symbol of the resourcefulness, hard work and thriftiness of those who settled and farmed in this area.