In a treeless plains farmers and ranchers struggled to come up with materials needed to make fences. They had no wood for the posts.
Barbed wire came into use by the 1870's and 1880's, and farmers and ranchers needed fence posts to string the wire. Wood, the traditional substance for fencing, was scarce to nonexistent in the region. The expense of shipping in wood for fence posts was too high for the fledgling farmers and ranchers in the area.
Fortunately, limestone lays just under the sod in much of the Kansas prairie. Three million acres of "Post Rock Country" rests underground from the Nebraska border to about 200 miles south to just north of Dodge City. Here lies the uppermost bed of the "Greenhorn" limestone formation which is eight to 12 inches thick.
It just so happened immigrants from Europe included stonemasons. As a result, most settlements had at least one person capable of cutting stone for posts. Many posts were needed, so others had to learn the art of stone-cutting to meet this demand. These skills have been passed down through the generations.
Being close to the surface and being uniform in thickness, obtaining limestone is fairly easy. Furthermore, the stone remains soft until quarried and hardens with exposure to air. The tools needed to extract were few and could be manufactured by the local blacksmith. All that was required was a drill, a hammer, a chisel, and a set of shims and wedges.
Once the soil over the top was removed, the cutters drilled holes into the stone eight inches apart in which they sandwiched wedges inside the shims. The cutter then hit the wedge with a hammer which split the stone. Though tools required were few, skill required in cutting the stone was great.
A disadvantage was the weight of the stone. A five to six foot long post weighs about 350-400 pounds and had to be transported to the site.
Once at the fence line, the posts were placed in holes 18 to 24 inches deep, about 15 feet apart (320 per mile), and prepped for the placement of barbed wire. Often the post was notched to hold a smooth portion of wire wrapped around the post. Corner posts were often propped on two adjacent sides with smaller posts placed at a 45 degree angle.
By the 1920's this method of fencing was no longer cost effective, but limestone fence posts still dot the western Kansas landscape. A few are still made today.
Durable and fire resistant, limestone buildings have been constructed since the early settlement days. There was a resurgence of limestone use during the Depression of the 1930's when the Works Progress Administration built numerous buildings and structures from the locally mined stone.
Renewed interest "post rocks" has made them a symbol and an art form in central Kansas. Many yards are adorned with these icons from Kansas' farming and ranching history.