In the Pine Ridge area of northwest Nebraska and the Black Hills of South Dakota, old fence corner posts and fence line posts are found. They measure 6 to 12 inches in diameter and 4 to 6 feet in height above the ground. A dark gray to black color with green lichen on the north side and evidence of knots characterize this post with a longevity exceeding one hundred years.
In the Pine Ridge area, the posts were probably created in several ways: They were cut from standing dead pitch pine trees, live trees were cut into post lengths and set on fire to make the pitch run, or posts were transported from the Black Hills after 1886.
I believe the cut pitch pine posts were set in the 1880s and early 1900s during the homestead period. In Dawes County, the earliest surveys by the General Land Office occurred between 1878 and 1882. The government standard stake in this period was a post 4 by 4 inches by 4 feet set 12 inches in the ground. Pine trees were probably cut to furnish these stakes.
Why did the posts last so long? Ranchers, foresters, and loggers indicate that forest fires would run through a stand of pines when the “pitch was up.” The heat would cause pitch (resin) to run and provide a protective cover.
Not all “burns” would yield a quality, long-lasting post. A retired Forest Service ranger friend, Marvin Liewer, stated, “After years of observation in the Black Hills and Pine Ridge, I believe the posts were created not by one fire, but by a series of [slow-moving] fires over the life of the tree. . . . The tree was damaged; pitch flowed to protect the wound, and the tree continued to live.”
Over 115 years have passed since the first government surveys. Over the years, road construction, fires, erosion, floods, cultivation, cattle, and humans have obliterated many of the original corners along with the old pitch pine posts, making it even more important to preserve what is left of these marks in our history.-Rollin C. Curd, Dawes County Surveyor