You know those old fences you see in south Louisiana? The ones made out of old cypress that look they could fall over with a strong gust of wind? Those are called “pieux” fences in Louisiana. In English, “pieux” essentially means a “running-fail fence.” Almost every Cajun or Creole farm or plantation in south Louisiana, and particularly in Ascension Parish, was equipped with some type of pieux fence before 1900. The reason that those old fences have survived precisely because they are made out of that old cypress, which is rot resistant (in fact, most of the pre-World War I homes in Louisiana employ cypress somewhere throughout the house). Most properties were enclosed and surrounded on three sides by a pieux fence, and all houses facing the Mississippi River in Louisiana were separated from the river by a fence, a ditch, a public road, and a levee.
A pieu is defined in Louisiana (and France) as a riven or split plank.¹ In Louisiana, the act of splitting the planks was called fendre (meaning “to split” in French) and it was accomplished with a coin wedge (the Cajuns were particularly adept at this practice). The posts, planks and rails were made of cypress, which was in abundant supply in the bayous that extended back from the natural levees of the Mississippi River. The planks could be rough hewn or split. The upper ends of the planks were shaped in points, while the lower ends were set in a shallow trench. A pieux fence made a sturdy fence, albeit one that became shorter over the years as the bottoms of the planks rotted and the fence was remade.² Pieux fences were simple to construct. Holes to accommodate the rails that held the pickets were cut in the uprights with a “pierce(r) pieu“, a tool which resembled an adze with a narrow, trough shaped blade. Usually, about 4 or 5 pieux were placed between each upright, spaced about 8 or 9 feet apart. The posts were originally about 6 feet in height.
Unfortunately, the innate “fendre” knowledge of Cajuns in today’s modern world has become almost non-existent. The number of people who know how to split the cypress planks and build a pieux fence can be counted on one hand (one of them conducted a workshop at the Pitot House a few years back). However, some dedicated preservationists are attempting to shine new light on the process of constructing a pieux fence, including semi-annual practices such as white-washing (yes, most pieux fences in the 19th century were whitewashed, just like in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer). White-washing protects the ancient cypress from insects and mold, and will restore the fence to its original appearance. If it wasn’t for concerned and interested citizens, it’s conceivable that the art of constructing pieux fences could vanish.
So if you see a pieux fence along a country road in Louisiana, take a second to stop and admire it. They are a vanishing piece of historic Louisiana and ought to be given their due amount of respect.
If you have any pictures of old pieux fences, please share!
¹ Edwards, Jay Dearborn and Nicolas Kariouk Pecquet du Bellay de Verton. A Creole Lexicon: Architecture, Landscape, People.
² Poesch, Jessie J. and Barbara Sorelle Bacot. Louisiana Buildings, 1720-1940: The Historic American Buildings Survey.