Osage Orange, a Miracle or a scourge?

Osage Orange, a Miracle or a Scourge

Preface:Osage Orange is the name of a tree, better known in Northwest Missouri as "Hedge". It is not native to Northwest Missouri, but once it starts growing, it is nearly impossible to get rid of.

Before the settlers came to Northwest Missouri, the prairie was a rather lonely place. There were very few trees, just rolling hills with lots of native grasses blowing in the breeze in the summer, and wind swept hills in the winter. It was not an easy place to settle, because there was little or no wood available for houses or fire wood, and perhaps more importantly there was NOTHING WITH WHICH TO MAKE FENCES in order to manage and corral livestock.

Note: The Bennett family did purchase a plot of land at Flag Springs, which is about 15 miles Southwest of the farm. That land was along the Platte river and contained trees. These trees were cut, transported and used for lumber on the farm, but to my knowledge was not useful for fencing.

Today we forget there were few cattle or hogs in that country, as there was no way to keep them on your property! Therefore, the major job initially was to plow the natvie grasses, and grow grain crops. Wheat, corn, oats, barley, and grasses or legumes for hay grew exceptionally well on the prairie.

What to do without fences? There was a solution. Sprigs of Osage Orange, or "hedge" were shipped in by rail. The hedge sprigs were planted around the perimeter of the fields, and after 5-6 years was tall enough to be trimmed back to waist high, and the cut limbs were woven between the original sprigs. This made a fence that was impenetrable, even by (some say) rabbits!

As the hedge grew, some of the limbs became large enough, and long enough for fence posts, even corner posts. Hedge was an extremely hard wood, causing many a cuss word as axes bounced off it without doing damage. It was very hard to work with, but once shaped properly, and dug in as posts, lasted for years. By the late 1800's metal fencing was available, and could be strung along lines of hedge posts, making it easier to mark off smaller fields. By 1940 metal posts were purchased, and were mixed in with the hedge posts. As a child in the 1940's, I recall nearly every 40 acre field had hedge on all four sides.

By 1960 as I was leaving the farm, so were the vast majority of other young men and women. This left no one home to help put in and gather the crops. Farming had to change, and it did. Tractors and other implements became huge mechanical machines that did almost all the work by themselves with just one operator. They were efficient, but most efficient if they did not have to stop and turn around because of the limitations of the field...fences!

The solution was to remove the fences, metal fencing as well as the hedge posts, and the by now 40 foot tall hedge rows. Cutting the hedge ouot with chain saws produced a few more posts, but was not a solution, as the tree stump remained, and within 2-3 years had grown back even bigger than it was before it was cut! Bulldozers were brought in to level the hedge rows and push them into large piles which were burned. By then many of the old farm homes had been vacated, as there was no one left that was needed on the farm. As the older farmers died, their houses and barns fell into disrepair, and became fodder for the bull dozers who were taking out the fences. Livestock farming has changed, and often in Northwest Missouri you now may find large barns that contain thousands of hogs. They are raised entirely on cement floors in the barns. The effluent runoff and smell has caused great concern among the few farmers who remain in the area.

Today, it is almost more than I can take, to go up and down the roads I knew as a child. Where houses were, there is nothing. Where barns held cows, sheep, and hogs, there is nothing. A person can now stand on a hilltop, and see for miles in any direction without seeing another dwelling or farmstead.

The prairie has returned to it's own.

John Bennett