Stone Walls – The Bones Of New England

Originally published in The Smithfield Magazine – November, 2023

The Bones of New England

By Jim Ignasher   

     As October surrenders its colorful foliage to the starkness of November, the centuries-old stone walls that crisc-cross our wooded landscape come into view. We New Englanders tend to take them for granted. We know the walls denote former boundaries of long ago farms and homesteads, but seldom give thought to how they were made, or the distance those stones may have traveled.

     As a point of fact, the stones in those walls may have come from as far away as northern New England; carried to Rhode Island by the glacier of ice that covered the region about eleven thousand years ago. In some places that ice was a mile thick, creating tremendous pressure on the landscape as the glacier slowly pushed and ground its way southward. When the glaciers melted, the torrents of rushing water further carried stones, rocks, and boulders, towards the sea. In many cases, the massive grinding and tumbling action exerted on the rocks rounded the edges thus creating the “cobbles” which make up a large number of the walls in Smithfield.

     To illustrate the power involved with this process, the glacier also left behind large “Glacial Erratics”, which are huge granite stones weighing many tons that seem to be randomly placed across the New England landscape. One that locals are no doubt familiar with sits on Rt. 44 just east of the Apple Valley Mall. This particular erratic, as large as it is, is a mere pebble compared to the Madison Boulder in New Hampshire, which is 83 feet long, 23 feet high, and weighs in at 5,000 tons!

     Some of New England’s stone walls date to the 1600s, but historians estimate that the majority were constructed between the 1770s and 1830’s, with some walls still being built in the early 1900s. Constructing these walls was very labor intensive. Upon obtaining a virgin tract of land, the early New England farmer had to set about building a shelter and then clearing the land of trees for crop planting. Many trees were “old growth” having stood for centuries before falling to the axe. In the 17th and 18th centuries wood was used for everything, from furniture making to fuel, so the lumber was put to good use. Even the large tree stumps, once pulled from the soil, were used to create an ugly and temporary fence. These stumps were sometimes incorporated into stone walls, but have long since rotted away.

     After the stump removal process, the farmer would have found the ground littered with fieldstones, which he also had to remove. He then hauled or carried them to where he decided the edge of the field would be, and thus began building what would become a stone wall. Larger stones were transported using a “stone boat”, or “stone sled”, which was a homemade platform made of thick oak planks. If he was lucky, the farmer had oxen to assist him. If not, he might enlist the help of neighbors in what was called a “clearing bee”, where farmers would alternate between each other’s fields to get large jobs done.

     The type of wall constructed depended upon the types of rock cleared, (such as flat or rounded), the urgency in which the task needed to be done, and the skill of the farmer. The walls weren’t meant to be decorative, but functional. When one sees a wall that has been carefully and artfully constructed at an old home site, it indicates a luxury of time and certain level or prosperity.

     In reading the forested landscape, one can figure which field was created first by the presence of a stone-lined cellar hole denoting where the farmhouse once stood. Other fields leading outward came later. One can also tell which fields were likely used for farming verses livestock. A field used for livestock might contain the remnants of an ancient tree in the center to shade the animals, or contain more rocks than one used for crops.

     If one notices a break in a stone wall, it’s likely that there was once a wooden gate there, and if one’s lucky, they might discover a hand forged strap-hinge or two just under the groundcover.

     In rare cases, stones were incorporated into a wall to form three or four steps up one side and down the other, thus eliminating the need for a gate.

     By the late 1800s, many farms, for various reasons, came to be abandoned, and by the 1940s the New England landscape was once again reforested.

     I doubt those early settlers considered that the walls they were creating would eventually become an intricate and visually pleasing part of the local landscape, but did they realize the walls they were building would last for hundreds of years after they’d passed into eternity? One can only wonder.



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