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.
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.
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. Ranchers and their hands began hanging their predator kills from the fences like so many captured pirates.
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.
Another popular barbed wire fence ornament is the head of aquatic species of the biological order Siluriformes, better known as catfish.
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.
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.
I think the boot-on-a-fence post phenomenon is merely another manifestation of Texas folk art.
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.