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When lines are drawn

By John Gould / June 6, 1980



The counterintelligence system I maintain to assist me inthese effusions has kept me well informed on the recent flare-up of fence trouble in Vermont. Robert Frost, who was not a Vermonter at that time, offered that good fences make good neighbors, but we of the venerable Association of New England Fence Viewers prefer the corollary, that good neighbors make good fences. There is nothing more absurb than for two neighbors to dwell together in dispute, and while they, themselves, are never amused, the average line-fence hassle is hilarious to everybody else. When I was a fence viewr, some time ago now, I was never called upon to officiate, but I did look over the statutes made and provided, and It interested me that Maine's chapter of laws about joint property lines was longer than the chapter on public utilities. Along with the annotations and references to court decisions, there was a lot to read.

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This Vermont matter involves Messrs. Marsh, Reed, and Wade, Fence Viewers of the sovereign town of Shaftsbury, and Neighbors Resch and Peters. Farmer Peters keeps a herd of milkers, and employs a gentleman cow as consort. Lately Mrs. Resch looked out her window and found the Peters cattle in her field. She noticed she was surrounded, bull and all. According to my report, she then notified the police, which calls to mind a certain quotation:

When constabularly duty's to be done, The policeman's lot is not a happy one.

Trooper Robert Vargo responded, and role all over the filed in his police cruiser, herding the beasts across the line and back onto the Peters proppity. Peters was brought before the Deestrick Court forthwith and then the fun began.

Well, the court is not a fence viewer. Peters said his cows ran loose because his neighbors didn't mend their walls. They said Peters didn't fence at all. So the fence viewers aforesaid appeared, looked the property line over, and explained something that was well established long, long ago: that a line fence is a joint responsibility and that Peters and Resch are equally responsible for putting up a fence between them. Oh, yes. That's where matters stood at my latest information, and perhaps by the time Mr. Resch pays for his share he may wish he had known this provision earlier.

Fence viewers aren't concerned with property lines; they are not surveyors. They are not interested in wandering cattle, or in damage done by them. Their purpose is to decide a fair division of the line-fence responsibility, and back when the country was new and fences were first going up, they were mighty important. Suppose you have a property line that starts at the road, runs through some open fields, and then goes into the woods. Since fence posts are more easily come by in the woods, it would not be fair to divide the building of the fence 50-50 as to distance. The man who is going to have his fence posts close by should do a longer stretch. So the fence viewers will cogitate, and decide on a 40-60 division. This goes on record, and will stay on record until the fence viewers come back some day to revise the matter. My guess would be that Messrs. Peters and Resch have not bothered to research the original viewing of probably 150 years ago.

Fence lore is engaging. One time a judge had to decide on leaning. The two neighbors met at their line fence, and as they chatted one of them leaned against the fence. It gave way and he fell, sustaining -- he alleged -- injuries. Inasmuch, as he was then leaning on that part of the line fence which was the responsibility of the other man, he filed. The judge, no doubt repressing a smile, seriously decided that leaning is normal and expectable use of a fence, and that fences must be constructed strong enough to sustain an average lean. Judgment for the plaintiff.

The snake fence, or rail fence, became known as a Virginia fence, and the term was used by our Maine sea captains for tacking. The fence, made of long poles laid up in a zig-zag fashion, goes back and forth as it goes along. So when tacking into an unpropitious wind, sailing all day and going nowhere, the skipper would put in the log, ". . .made Virginia fence today." Since a joint property line rightly has but one dimension -- length -- the question of how long the logs might be in a Virginia fence became moot, and a couple of neighbors once fought about it. Again, the judge went along, and decided the "line" has got to be wide enough to accommodate the fence and the trespass required to fix it. These are good things to know, even in Vermont.