Owning history: The beauty of stone walls | Columns
South County has beaches, forests, ponds, rivers, lakes, and a large collection of ancient buildings and communities. But perhaps the most iconic feature is stone walls. I don’t mean the flat stone filled with mortar, cut or imported, but the beautiful, graceful and sturdy dry stone wall. The walls define boundaries, roll over fields, get lost in the forest or are sometimes interrupted by a road or motorway. Many walls have been around for centuries, defying the harsh New England climate, overgrown trees, shrubs and vines, and even the occasional impact of a car.
The US Department of Agriculture’s 1872 report, Statistics of Fences in the United States, estimated approximately 250,000 miles of northeast US stone walls. Some of South County’s stone walls date back to the 17th century, while most of the walls were built between 1750 and 1850. Before 1750, most farms had wooden fences, which were replaced by stone walls built from the debris of the receding ice sheet 15,000 to 30,000 years ago. This rubble, made up of the slate, slate and granite bedrock of northern New England and Canada, was exposed in the 18th century by deforestation and harsh winters that exposed the rocks in the fields.
Dry stone walls come in many forms. For the early peasants, walls may have been nothing more than a pile of stones cleared from their land. After the pile, the single-width stone wall evolved into a double wall, which is a parallel row of stones filled with smaller stones in the middle and a larger stone that is regularly placed through the middle for stability. Walls were dismantled and rebuilt when more time and resources became available. A dry-laid wall can withstand constant reconstruction, frost buoyancy, water ingress, movement and the effects of nature and people.
Dry-laid stone walls are flexible so that they can move without damage. The techniques of the slightly sloping sides, occasionally through stones, stepped joints and packed smaller core stones allow every movement to close the wall closer together. Perhaps the best feature of the local stone walls is the built-in stone wall step (Casey Farm has many) where a wider continuous stone protrudes so you can walk over the wall.
Before the King Philips War, walls were built by farmers and Native Americans (initially as slaves, later as servants, and then a community of paid artisans in the mid-19th century). The flood of the wall after 1750 came from a baby boom after the revolution, with many young farm workers moving and laying stones. And the period during and after the American Revolution suffered from a lack of available wood, which made it more important to stay warm and support a family than to rebuild wooden fences. In the 1800s, farms established themselves and time could be spent defining property or restricting livestock. The stone handicraft built walls, foundations, buildings and chimneys, and many families carry on traditions begun generations ago.
Building a dry-laid stone wall requires muscle strength, but more important are refined skills and a keen eye for spatial relationships. As with many skilled trades, it takes years to learn. Many farmers may have learned by failure, but it takes years for a skilled dry stone mason to learn and a lifetime to master. There are many local, national, and international groups dedicated to craft preservation. The skills of finishing a drywall are not the same as using mortar. Walls without mortar rely on skill, gravity and frictional resistance.
Dry stone walls have some protection in Rhode Island. Theft of historic stone walls is a criminal offense, whereby the culprit can be held liable to the property owner. Some local regulations require a review before making changes, such as: B. Portsmouth Stone Wall Preservation Ordinance and various local historic districts that protect buildings and stone walls alike.
We are fortunate to have such an amazing variety of waterways, rolling landscapes, and breathtaking architectural history in South County. We are equally fortunate to have plenty of skilled craftsmen to help with maintenance. We should value these skills highly. Many bricklayers are generations deep while others have followed their passions, but all share a love and zen for building drywall. So the next time you zoom past a wall, you’ll find that the wall started out as a purpose that has endured hundreds of years of abuse and neglect, and is steadfastly composed of skill and habit.
Rob Cagnetta started Heritage Restoration Inc. in 2001 as a diversified construction and restoration services company, from general contracting, building maintenance, window restoration to fine craftsmanship – all with the aim of maintaining and enhancing a building’s beauty, function, efficiency and charm.