Audubon, John James, artist, and John T. Bowen, printer, Lepus Sylvaticus, Bachman, circa 1845-1848, Smithsonian Institution, Peters Prints Collection, Creative Commons CC0 license.1
There they are: Mr. & Mrs. Cottontail and one of their many offspring. The Eastern Cottontail and its relatives were a common sight in Jonathan and Mary Clark’s world, just as they are today.
We seem to have a bumper crop of rabbits in our suburban Wisconsin yard this year and, no doubt about it, the bunnies are cute and entertaining. But for the gardener, rabbits mean trouble. If you are trying to raise vegetables and fruits to feed your pioneer family, these amusing little fur balls are the enemy. They can consume huge amounts of seedlings and sprouts in just a day or two. What’s a gardener to do?
Last year—after they ate through the plastic fence around our vegetable garden and then devoured our entire crop of green been sprouts—I went to the local big box store and got a roll of metal wire rabbit fencing and some steel posts to hold it up. That worked great for us, but it made me wonder: what did Jonathan and Mary Clark use to keep the ravenous rabbits at bay? Well, I don’t have any documentation from the Clarks’ farm, but during my researches, I have noticed some popular 19th-century methods of rabbit control.
Hunting rabbits with a rifle or shotgun was considered by many 19th-century Americans to be good sport, as well as a way to put meat on the table. And, from what I can tell, it was a popular enough activity that there was a demand for decorative prints of the hunters—with, of course, their dogs—and the hunted, such as this lithograph, published around 1830-1860.
Unknown artist, Two Hunters and Their Dogs Resting After Hunting Rabbits and Birds. [Place not identified: publisher not identified, between 1830 and 1860] Library of Congress.
Trapping was another common approach to rabbit hunting and control. William Sidney Mount’s c. 1854 lithograph, below, is one of several similar scenes that appeared as popular prints in mid-century.
Mount, William Sidney, Catching Rabbits, New York, circa 1854, Smithsonian Institution, NMAH, Harry T. Peters “America on Stone” Lithography Collection, Creative Commons CC0 license.2
Build a fence
It’s one thing for us 21st-century gardeners to head down to the big home center and pick up some steel fence posts and rabbit wire when we want to build a fence, but what did our Mequon settlers do when they wanted to enclose a garden and keep the critters out? Here’s one approach that I saw last summer at the flower and vegetable garden at Old World Wisconsin’s 1870s Hessian Immigrant Farm:
Photos credit: Reed Perkins, 2022. Click photos to open larger images in photo viewer.
The fence here is made of evenly-spaced round wooden posts, about 4 or 5 inches in diameter, set in the ground so that the posts, and the fence, are about 4 feet tall. The fabric of the fence consists of saplings, about an inch in diameter (or less), woven horizontally between the vertical posts.3 The bottom edge of the fence is made of boards, about 1 x 4 or 1 x 6 inches. The gate consists of a frame of the same lumber supporting a panel of the same woven sapling fence.
It’s a handsome fence, made of common local materials, and the weave of the sapling fencing is probably tight enough to keep most rabbits and larger animals out. Did the Clark House garden have a fence like this? I don’t know. It’s possible that this style was particular to Hessian immigrants. It’s also possible that this kind of fence was popular in the decades after widow Mary Clark moved her family to Milwaukee in 1860-1861.
Readers, what do you know about Midwestern gardens and fences, circa 1840-1870? How might the Clarks have protected their family’s fruits, tubers and veggies?
That’s all for today. See you soon with more Clark House history.
- The curators at the Smithsonian had this to say about our Audubon rabbit print:
“This hand-colored lithograph was produced for “Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America,” the Imperial folio edition, published between 1845 and 1848. The work was a field study of North American mammals. It included 150 stone lithographs produced in three volumes of 50 prints per volume. The lithographs were based on watercolor drawings by John James Audubon and after 1846, son John Woodhouse Audubon, who completed the series due to the elder Audubon’s failing eyesight and declining health. Another son, Victor Gifford Audubon, assisted with the drawings backgrounds. The lithographs were printed on non-watermarked heavy white paper and coloring was applied by hand before the prints were bound. Reverend John Bachman was a naturalist of note, as well as John James Audubon’s friend and father of both daughter-in-laws, so he provided the accompanying letterpress narrative. It made the production truly a family affair. The slightly later Octavo edition contained 155 prints of smaller size.”
- William Sidney Mount’s Catching Rabbits also has an interesting story, again courtesy of the Smithsonian curators:
“Black and white print of two boys, Henry Luke Rowland (standing) and Lewis Smith Davis (kneeling) in a forest clearing. One boy holds up a rabbit while the other resets a home-made wooden trap. Their clothes, though upper class in origin, are torn and patched and include high boots, a fur cap, vest, and fitted coat.”
- This fence’s posts-with-woven-sapling construction reminds me of the wattle framework of wattle and daub construction or the similar “infill” parts of half-timbered framing (quite common in many of the German lands). It’s an old technique, but was it used much—for buildings or for fences—in old Washington/Ozaukee county? I don’t know.
One thought on “Rabbits!”
Fred and I visited Old World Wisconsin last Saturday, and as you have, we admired the stick fences.