The History of New England Stone Walls

One of the quintessential features of our New England landscape is the rambling stone wall.  Gray and lichen covered, these stone walls meander through the woods, and line our roadways and fields.  They are so common place one may almost dismiss them as some natural occurrence that has always been,  but in reality New England stone walls carry a long history and represent the monumental human effort that went into the farming and building of this country.

The Early Years

Early New England Gardens

Contrary to what you might believe, stone walls were not common in the earlier years of New England settlement.  When Europeans first arrived in New England,  the land was densely forested and covered with a thick layer of topsoil and humus.  Thousands of years of forest growth and decay had deposited the thick layer of organic earth, burying the more stoney glacial soils deep below.   Although the first settlers had much to contend with, stoney fields were not one of them.

Along with an absence of stone there was an abundance of trees.  Wood was light, easy to work with, and plentiful.  This meant that wood was used predominantly for building purposes including the fences that surrounded properties to pen animals, protect crops, and mark property lines.

The Revolutionary Era

It wasn’t until about the time of the Revolutionary War that mass stone wall production began, and hundreds of thousands of miles of stone wall were built in New England.

By this time private farming had become the predominate practice, and families spread out throughout New England to work the land.  As they worked and farmed the land, the forests were clear cut for pasture, and the earth turned up and plowed. 

At the time wood was a very valuable resource.  People used wood to build houses, heat homes, boil sap and for other industrial production.  The average family burned 35 cords of wood per year for heat and cooking alone, and by the mid 1800’s 75% of New England was clear cut.*  Without the forest and natural vegetation to hold and replenish the topsoil, the soil eroded and eventually exposed the more stoney glacial soils below.   

After erosion, frost heave played a major role in bringing stones to the surface.  Without the thick layer of well insulating topsoil, the frost line now reached the stoney soils below and they became subject to the freeze/thaw cycles.  Now, stones seemed to grow out of the ground as frost heave pushed and pulled millions of stones to the surface each year.   

Lastly, post Revolutionary War saw a new national optimism and a subsequent baby boom.  As families grew and turned their attention towards their homes and farms, there was now enough labor available to take on the task of moving the copious amount of stone that was appearing in fields all over.

Building the Walls

New England Stone Wall in Concord

New England stone wall at Old North Bridge in Concord, MA by Robert Thorsen

The stone walls of New England were not built all at once, but rather grew and evolved over the years.  Whenever necessity arose, or spare time permitted, farmers gathered stones and moved them from the growing fields to the next easiest location.  Sometimes that was a pile, but more often it was the edge of the field.  The earlier stone walls were most commonly ‘dumped walls’.  These stone walls were more or less refuse piles, or simply the most convenient place to dump excess material.  Other refuse, like stumps and brush, would also have been dumped at the edges of the field.  Along with the stone, this formed a barrier or delineation from the surrounding forest or neighboring fields.  

Before tractors and machinery, stone was transported on carts or a wooden sled called a ‘stone boat’.  The stone boat was low to the ground so easy to roll larger stones onto, and draft animals were used to drag them. 

Each spring more and more stone accumulated in the fields, and was transported to the edge,  and over the years the amount of stone grew.  Eventually as wealth and pride in one’s home/farm grew as well, time was spent stacking the stone into more organized and attractive stone walls.  “Stone by Stone” author Robert Thorson estimates that by 1871 there were close to 250,000 miles of stone walls, enough to stretch from the earth to the moon, or enough to circle the globe 10 times.  If an average worker can stack about 10′ of wall in day, these walls represent over 100 million man hours of labor.  

As the farming industry faded in America, farms were abandoned, the forest retook the land, but the stone walls remained.  To this day you can scarcely walk a mile through forested land without stumbling across and an old lichen covered stone wall – the last remaining relic of the rolling farmlands that were once there.

New England Stone Walls Now

Traditional New England Stone Wall - Concord, MA

A traditional New England fieldstone wall by Concord Stoneworks

Now days, we still build New England stone walls for a variety of reasons.  They create an attractive barrier to surround ones property which can mark property lines, contain pets and children, obstruct errant vehicles, and reduce road noise.  Weathered New England fieldstone is now a valuable material that we painstakingly reclaim from the meandering, overgrown walls in the woods, and re-use to build fieldstone walls and features of all sorts. 

It is a comfort to know that the stones being organized and stacked in one’s yard now are the very same stones that were once pried up with iron bars, dragged across the fields on wooden sleds, and stacked and handled by generations of fellow countrymen before us.  And although technology has progressed, in the end the same two hands are stacking stone by stone the very same way it has always been.

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