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Volume 24
Number 2
Winter 2006-2007
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Osage-orage core samples, Homestead National Monument of America, Nebraska. (Copyright Richard K. Sutton) Using tree-ring dating in hedgerow management at Homestead National Monument of America
By Richard K. Sutton
Published: 4 Sep 2015 (online)  •  14 Sep 2015 (in print)
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Osage-orange hedgerow at Homestead National Monument of America, Nebraska.

Copyright Richard K. Sutton

Figure 1. Osage-orange hedgerow provides a historically significant backdrop for the tallgrass prairie restoration efforts at Homestead National Monument of America.

A few minutes past midnight on New Year’s Day 1863, when the Homestead Act of 1862 took effect, Daniel Freeman filed one of the first claims at the Brownville, Nebraska, Land Office (Land and Community Associates 2000). He wisely selected his 160-acre plot, which is now part of Homestead National Monument of America, for its wood and water—resources often lacking on the prairie (Dale 1948). However, the wooded banks along Cub Creek, west of Beatrice, Nebraska, did not have enough timber for all his needs (e.g., buildings, fuel, and wooden fences). Hence, Freeman, like so many prairie settlers (Baltensperger 1987), adopted hedge culture as a way to demarcate property boundaries, control livestock, block wind, and provide fuel wood and fence posts (Hewes and Jung 1981). The historic Osage-orange (Maclura pomifera) hedgerow planted by Daniel Freeman is one of the few structures left from the time of his original land claim (Sutton 2005). One-half mile (805 m) of Osage-orange lines the southern boundary of Homestead National Monument of America and creates a backdrop to the nation’s second oldest tallgrass prairie restoration (fig. 1, above). Managed by the National Park Service, the 244-acre (99 ha) national monument celebrates and preserves the history of settlement of the Great Plains during the era of the Homestead Act (1863–1986).

Many prairie settlers … adopted hedge culture as a way to demarcate property boundaries, control livestock, block wind, and provide fuel wood and fence posts.

Earlier settlement of the Prairie Peninsula in Illinois had spawned the use of hedges featuring Osage-orange (fig. 2). This tough, thorny tree was collected by Lewis and Clark near St. Louis, Missouri, but was more common to northeastern and southwestern Arkansas, northwestern Louisiana, and southeastern Oklahoma. Touted by pioneer planters in Illinois, Osage-orange grew quickly on dry, windy sites and responded to hedging in which sprouts are encouraged then pruned and woven into an impenetrable barrier using a technique called plashing (Overman 1858). Billed as a plant to make “horse-high, bull-strong, and pig-tight” hedges, the likeness of Osage-orange to the barbed wire of the 1880s in Illinois—where it was invented, patented, and manufactured—is no mere coincidence. Ironically, many Osage-orange hedgerows continue to provide rot-resistant posts onto which barbed wire is strung.

Park managers speculate that the age of the hedgerow at the national monument is about 135 years old. However, the original planting date is unknown, as are Freeman’s actual uses and management of the hedge. The surmised age of the hedge suggests that the hedgerow trees may be reaching the end of their lifespan, though at least one Osage-orange specimen in Virginia, growing more than 1,000 miles (1,609 km) from its native range, is thought to be more than 300 years old. Loss or decline of the hedgerow represents an unacceptable historical and visual impact to the site and runs counter to the management policy to preserve and interpret these homestead resources for future generations. Hedgerows still grow nearby, but each year brings losses as a result of widening of roads and fields by county road engineers and farmers who covet the space that hedges occupy in the rural landscape (Sutton 1985).

Loss or decline of the hedgerow … runs counter to the management policy that is to preserve and interpret these homestead resources for future generations.

Based on recommendations of a cultural landscape report (Land and Community Associates 2000) and to verify the age of the hedgerow for the purpose of interpretation and cultural resource management, park managers contracted the University of Nebraska–Lincoln to study and draft a plan that (1) reviewed and analyzed the recommendations in the cultural landscape report; (2) focused on preserving the historic hedgerow’s structure; (3) inventoried individual plants in the hedgerow to ascertain their condition, size, age, and location; (4) proposed a tree monitoring protocol and timetable; and (5) examined impacts of adjacent land use. The study recommended procedures, practices, and scheduling of hedgerow maintenance and proposed alternatives that addressed ecological and sustainable management. The study also identified potential interpretation of the hedgerow and opportunities for its connection to a proposed new heritage center.

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This page updated:  31 May 2007

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