the picture

Autumn 2012 173

Just a few minutes outside of downtown Lexington, commercial and residential development falls away to this… undulating hills of lush green grass, grazing horses, and mile after mile of four-plank wooden fences.  In graduate school, I heard that the black fences in central Kentucky are the result of a keeping up with the Joneses scenario. The owner of one farm who had some sort of tie to the asphalt industry painted his fences with the sticky black pitch almost as an advertisement for the diversity of the product and before long his neighbors were following suit.

I did some quick Googling to see if I could find any corroboration for this story, but came up empty handed. However, I did find that as late as 1955 white plank fences painted every spring with a lime wash were an emblem of the Inner Bluegrass landscape. At that time, only Mereworth Farm had black painted fences. In the decades following, black fences became as ubiquitous as white. Now, I couldn’t find any link between Mereworth Farm and asphalt, but it is possible that Mereworth is the farm from the story.

In the debate between black fences and white, there are other justifications than an aesthetics. Some horse trainers believe that white fences are safer for valuable thoroughbreds as the are more easily seen by the animals, possibly preventing injury. On the other hand, black fences painted with either creosote or asphalt are lower maintenance as the pitch preserves the wood, prevents cribbing, and the fences have to be painted only every five or so years, rather than every spring.

Have any of you heard the tale of the asphalt Barron? Do you prefer the look of white or black? What do the fences in your neck of the woods look like? Four-plank? Five? Black, white, natural wood?


  1. Gary Soderman

    Back when the fences were made of first growth lumber, they didn’t rot so quickly, and whitewash was a good aesthetic choice .. Now it is almost out of necessity that the fences be protected !! .. Maybe that’s the reason behind black fences vs white ??

  2. The Lexington Streetsweeper

    Gary may be right about the whitewash but things are not as idyllic as it was when we were younger.
    It simply comes down to a question of economics, go online and check the prices for farm fence paint. The asphalt black paint is about one third as much as an acrylic white and an acrylic black will be $20 cheaper per 5 gallon tub. How many gallons will it take to paint all of your fences and then throw in your labor expenses.

    • bricksandmortarpreservation

      I have to admit that never have I ever priced fence paint! But it makes sense. The almighty dollar is almost always a huge factor in, well, everything. So if black paint/creosote/asphalt is less expensive, is having white fences a status symbol/sign of wealth at this point? While you see lots of black fencing in Central KY, you also still see a lot of white.

  3. msshe

    My grandfather kept painting his fences white, as did his father before him. I actually don’t know the history, but I think I like the dark fences better. Sheila

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