Wall builder tells stories of stone

MILFORD – “Why build all these walls in the woods?”

That’s the question people hiking New England forests for the first time almost always ask natives like Kevin Gardner.

And when Gardner explains how the walls got there, they don’t believe it.

They don’t believe that at one time New England was so “denuded of trees” it resembled the English countryside, with a patchwork of fields and villages, and here and there thickets of trees.

In 1775, New England was so tree-less, he said, in Jaffrey Town Hall they could see smoke from the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Anyone who spends time hiking the woods of New England sees them: our ubiquitous stone walls snaking through forests everywhere, up into the steepest hills.

Why they are here and why there are so many of them are two questions that Gardner answered at the Wadleigh Memorial Library last week.

Slim and energetic, he held his audience in rapt attention for nearly 90 minutes, weaving human and geological history while building a little stone wall on the table in front of him.

In 1871 the U.S. Department of Agriculture inventoried all the stone fencing in the six New England states and New York, he said, and found there were at least 250,000 miles of it, enough to go all around the world 10 times, enough to go from here to the moon.

“Anyone who spends 15 minutes” in our woods can see there is a lot of dry laid walls (built without mortar) in New England “more than in the entire rest of the world combined.”

In a relatively short period – 1775 to 1825 – forests were cleared and most of the walls were built, though stone was not the farmers’ first choice for fencing.

But when they cleared the land they uncovered “ton after ton of stones” that they threw to the edges of fields along the wood fences.” Wood was becoming scarce and practical farmers soon learned to take advantage of this waste product.

New England stone wall building reached its peak during the “great sheep craze” in the early-1800s when untold acres of forests were cleared and thousands of miles of stone walls were built to contain tens of thousands of merino sheep. The highly prized animals came from Spain and their fine, soft wool was in high demand.

The sheep made some farmers very rich and the rapid clearing of forests drastically changed the landscape.

“Sheep were responsible for all the crazy walls,” said Gardner.

Then came the Civil War. New England soldiers had learned about places in the country where the topsoil was six feet, not six inches, deep, and where farming didn’t seem quite so desperate or insane, Gardner said, and left New England in droves.

Then the Industrial Revolution created wage jobs, barbed wire was invented, and the pace of stone wall building slowed and stopped.

“New England began to sink into a kind of culture malaise,” he said, and “people simply began to walk away from their farms.”

The government invented “old home days,” a “miserable failure” that didn’t prevent population loss, he said, “but was a good excuse for harvest festivals.”

The waves of immigrants, Greek, Italian and Irish, who entered the country in the mid-1800s brought a different style of stone construction, building tighter and flatter walls than the old rough agricultural ones.

Then came the New England housing boom that started in the late 1970s, and it “completely revived the wall trade. We’re no longer in danger of losing this skill.”

But property owners should be aware of the two very different styles of stone wall building, he said.

Stone walls were originally much taller – built around 4 1/2 feet high, but time, weather and gravity took their toll. These old agricultural walls made of weathered stones are part of our heritage landscape and threatened not only by age and neglect, Gardner said, but also by thieves who target roadside walls for stones that are typically sent to Florida to make fireplaces.

Sadly the thieves are seldom challenged by people who notice the dismantling and think the workers are legitimate.

Robert Frost wrote “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” and maybe that something is the stones themselves.

“Every stone in the world has one ambition: to sink the the center of the world,” said Gardner.

Answering questions about the labor it took to build the walls, Gardner said, “These people were not like us – they were task oriented … These are people who would pick up a church and move it 500 years down the road, because the Methodists were signing too loud.”

The Hopkinton resident has been building stone walls with his family firm for 40 years. He has also been a performance critic, actor, director, teacher, feature writer and producer for New Hampshire Public Radio.

The talk was sponsored by the New Hampshire Humanities Council.

Gardner brought to the library his two books on stone walls to sign: “The Granite Kiss: Traditions and Techniques of Building New England Stone Walls,” and “Stone Building: How to Make New England Style Walls and Other Structures the Old Way.” He also recommended several books, including “Sermons in Stone,” by Susan Allport and “Stone By Stone,” by Robert Thorson.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.