In New England we are surrounded by history — I’m just a stone’s throw from Lexington and Concord, for example.
But even more immediate than the Battle Road are the stone walls that I see when I’m out riding the trails. Much of the land is now dense with trees and it takes some imagination to picture the landscape when it was pasture land and farming. In the mid 1800s 70-80% of the land was cleared and according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s statistics on fences in 1871, out of a total Massachusetts acreage of around five million acres, 2,481,767 was fenced – almost fifty percent.
The stone walls in my neck of the woods are lovely, meandering and remarkably durable, especially considering they were probably built a hundred years ago or more. That’s probably not surprising because back when they were built, stone walls were taken seriously. Most towns mandated walls as property lines and specified they be built to certain heights. Once finished, the fence lines were inspected by a representative of the town when they were finished to make sure they were structurally sound. Skilled stonemasons were well paid, earning as much as $3.50 per day.
Stone was the ideal medium for fencing because, once the land was cleared, wood was not so readily available but stones — well, they are everywhere.
According to Robert Thorson, a geology professor at the University of Connecticut and author of Stone by Stone: The Magnificent History in New England’s Stone Walls.
In the typical rustic stone wall, the stones are medium-sized and reflect Yankee pragmatism: Anything larger would have required more than one person to lift, and anything smaller wasn’t worth the effort.
Although these stone walls are veritable antiques, until recently they received little recognition for their historical value. In Connecticut, theft of old stones for use in new landscaping projects was so rampant that the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation named the walls among the state’s most endangered historic properties in 2002.
I don’t know if the walls I ride by have any historical significance but I think about those workers building them stone by stone and am glad that no one has repurposed them into a patio.