Once again this year, we plan to endure the challenges we know lie in wait at busy air terminals and other obstacles between Zion Canyon and our beloved New England , but by touch-down, my mind will be on other things: islands, light houses, lobster boats, back roads, old cemeteries, sugar houses, old barns, farmers’ markets, Fall gardens and. . . stone walls. Each a chapter in a pantheon of personal passions which have been part of my life; each something I grew up with, but will never take for granted. Stone walls are a good example.
In 1871 the U.S. Department of Agriculture published a “Statistics of Fences In the United States”. At that time, it noted that in New England and New York State alone, there were 252,539 miles of stone walls, enough to circle the globe ten times, and to build all the pyramids of Egypt times one hundred ! It has been calculated that such an effort would have required an army of 15,000 workers 243 years to accomplish. The “when”, and “why” and “how” of that story would challenge far more than a single column of newsprint; but let me give it a try.
The first colonial settlers in New England gave little thought to long-term fences, since to begin with, they were “new” to the whole ethic of private land ownership, and generally farmed cleared land “in common” with their neighbors anyway. Early towns were usually about 5 - 6 square miles, with a church, trade buildings and residences at or near the center, and farmsteads on the outer fringes. What fencing they did do made use of excavated tree roots and brush from newly-cleared forest growth.
What took them by surprise was that as fast as they removed rocks and stones from fields, more kept coming to the surface each time they plowed or cultivated – a consequence of the freeze-thaw cycles of that glacier-formed region which still continues two centuries later. At first, they threw the stones into random piles where they merely accumulated. Of course, some were used in constructing building foundations, chimneys and such. The initial reluctance to lay out “boundaries” and property lines was motivated in part by the need to maintain friendly relations with neighboring, and mostly accommodating Native Americans whose concept in land-sharing was at odds with the European idea of personal ownership. But newly-arriving Dutch and English settlers brought with them the practice of surveying, fencing and improving land. Since timber was readily available, and because trees needed to be removed anyway, split-rail fencing became a quick and economical means of establishing property lines. As the desire to control the breeding of livestock grew, so too did the need for fencing. In fact the maintenance
of fences and property lines became so important that each New England town designated someone to fill the “office of fence viewer”, whose job it was “to perambulate the bounds”.
As farmers continued to unearth more and more field stones, it was convenient to toss them under the rail fences where they wouldn’t interfere with other activities, and what’s more, wooden rails had a short life in the harsh New England climate anyway. As the forests disappeared, and fire wood for fuels became more of a factor with a typical family needing 30 – 40 cords a year, a new era of stone wall-building took hold, reaching its apex in the years -between 1775 and 1825. A key factor came at the end of the 18th century with the sudden increase in sheep-raising.
As stone-wall building became more of an art than a mere necessary activity, a strange partnership between man and beast came to the fore. Oxen had long proven to be the strongest, most durable, and best adapted beast of burden to the hard New England farm landscape. One man with a “stone boat” and an Ox needed only a good hammer and a set of stone splitting tools to lay up miles of straight plumb un-mortared walls and time-defying corners each season.
Growing up with Vermont’s stone walls, I was at first mystified by old walls built in a zig-zag pattern. There appeared no obvious reason behind such architectural whimsy among a breed of Yankees noted for their practicality. Why not simply build them straight! It was only when I understood the progression from hand-split rails to stone dry-walls, and tried to drive butternut fence posts into that rocky soil myself that I understood: Those early farmers had elected not to set vertical posts, but to overlay each stretch of rails across the ends of the previous stretch at a necessary angle, thus creating a zig-zag fence. Then when they began to toss their never-failing supply of each year’s stone harvest beneath the ever-deteriorating lengths of wood, the pattern which would survive for tens of unfolding generations was literally set-in-stone.
A modern hand-crafted dry wall preserving a legacy which lives on as an architectural gift left behind by ancient glaciers, moved and polished by centuries of time. Al Cooper photos.