On the farm we knew what “Good fences make good neighbors” meant. The reverse, Good neighbors made good fences, was certainly true.
During the Depression, barbed wire was expensive. The barbed-wire fences around our fields and pastures were old and rusty, mended here and there by broken-down branches or fallen trees. One such section marked the division between the Roy lot and our neighbor Walter Brock’s back pasture. He didn’t have cash for new barbed wire fencing either.
The first we knew of any gap in the fence would be the appearance of one of his heifers wandering around with ours or one of ours missing when Dad put out salt on a ledge in the pasture. After a few choice words, Dad would go off to find where the animal had gone through the fence, find the hole, and plug it with some more brush.
Heifers had a propensity to find any available hole. At least, one of them would. They couldn’t find their way back, however. They would wander, lowing, beside the fence, following their group. Rarely would any of the other heifers join her.
Gar and Alvin’s nearest neighbor and his cows on the other side of Mack’s Mountain presented a different problem. The man made no pretense of maintaining his fences. His pastures were overgrazed. Not just one cow but the whole herd would come over the mountain in search of sustenance. When Alvin and his hired man, forewarned by the dog’s barking, looked down and saw the cows, they didn’t have to run to head them back to their own pasture. (Farmers needed every blade of hay, so they always mowed the roadsides. Hence, the view from the hilly fields was clear to the road.) Gar and Alvin liked collies and always had one of them. When I first remember their farm, they had a female named Lassie. Collies have a natural instinct to herd any group of animals. Lassie knew what to do without any directions. Barking as she went, she rounded up the cows and soon had them running back over the mountain. When she returned to the house, she was a happy dog, practically smiling, her tail wagging. She knew she’d done well.
Sheep were another problem altogether. If one found an opening, they all followed. Our neighbors, the Wilsons, kept sheep as well as cattle. The Wilsons had no more money to spend on fences than we did, so every now and then their sheep got out. One day we’d be busy with haying, and one of us would look up and say, “Oh, there come Wilson’s sheep!” We’d stop what we were doing and run to stand in the road that led to the Old Place or the road to Groton. We hoped to stop them before they went too far. The sheep tore across one of the fields we’d already hayed and piled against the fence around the pasture at the Old Place. Our dog, Tippy, was a beagle. He’d point out a partridge, but he didn’t chase heifers. They were too big and would turn on him. The sheep were just the right size for him. He barked and snapped at them and soon had them on the road back to their home. “Good dog!” Dad said, mopped the sweat off his brow, put on his cap, added, “Goddam sheep!” and went back to his work.
When Dick and I married and moved to East Peacham, our land bordered the road that went up the hill to Shepard Clough’s. Ben Berwick had a farm here in East Peacham. In spring, he drove his young cattle by our place, to Clough’s, where they would spend the summer. When I realized what was going on, I grabbed a broom and stood at the end of our drive. I kept the animals from wandering off the road. I wasn’t repairing a fence, but I hoped I was being a good neighbor.
Life was simpler then. Now dairy farmers have such large herds they don’t put them out to pasture. What, I wonder, can folks do to be good neighbors? Folk lore encapsulates many a basic truth. A man or woman who keeps their animals in check, who does not let them eat his neighbors’ crops or terrorize the neighborhood, is, indeed, a good neighbor.