Fencing the prairie was hard work for early Kansas ranchers and farmers who had to hand-dig holes for posts. Mechanical diggers made their lives much easier.
Trees were scarce in the dry prairie climate, so settlers were forced to find methods other than the traditional split-rail fences common to wetter eastern states. Although farmers in some parts of Kansas were able to build walls of stacked stone, in many areas the farms were simply too large for this to be practicable.
Barbed wire, introduced in the 1860s, proved highly suitable for enclosing the region's large farmsteads. Even barbed wire fences, though, required posts to support the wire. Farmers and ranchers had to hand-dig postholes to a depth of two or three feet. Because posts spaced about 10 feet apart, this translated to more than 1,000 hand-dug holes to fence a 160-acre plot.
The appearance of tractors and other power machinery in the twentieth century lead farmers to experiment with ways of making their jobs easier. John Habluetzel was one such farmer. Needing to put up new fences for livestock after moving to a Wamego, Kansas, farm in 1943, Habluetzel scavenged parts off other equipment to construct a machine-powered posthole digger. His invention was remarkable enough to be featured in the Kansas State Board of Agriculture's 35th Biennial Report (1946):
"Side beams of the attachment are off a plow, the control lever off a cultivator, power take-off bar and clutch off an old mower, and the 7-inch auger off an old separator. Completely controlled by one man from the tractor seat, this digger can be driven along the proposed fence line and will put down post holes two-and-one-half feet deep at the rate of one a minute."
Photographs from the report depict Habluetzel operating the posthole digger (pictured at right). He is shown installing durable metal fence posts instead of the traditional wooden ones. For many years Kansas farmers had used the wood of Osage Orange trees, which grew wild along the state's stream banks, for fence posts because the wood was slow to rot. By the 1920s farmers were turning to metal posts because they were easier to obtain and relatively inexpensive.
After digging many holes for fences on his own property, Habluetzel used his mechanical digger on neighbors' farms, charging them 10 cents per posthole. He estimates he operated the machine well into the 1950s. At this time, Habluetzel and his son were farming around 1,000 acres and had 4,000 chickens and many livestock.
Habluetzel kept the posthole digger on the farm until donating his invention to the Kansas Museum of History in 1999.
Entry: Posthole Digger
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: November 1999
Date Modified: December 2014
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