Then Again: Vermont’s stone walls were never meant as fences
Vermont’s stone walls were originally used as “linear dumps” rather than as a means of enclosing fields, says a University of Connecticut professor. Photo by Craig Michaud
Editor’s Note: Mark Bushnell is a Vermont journalist and historian. He is the author of “Hidden History of Vermont” and “It Happened in Vermont”.
N.New England wouldn’t be New England without its stone walls. Walk through the forests and fields of the area and soon you will likely come across one.
How many are out there? By one estimate, New England has about 240,000 miles of stone walls. To put that in perspective, that’s longer than the coast of the United States. In other words, if you could somehow stack these stones in a tower, the moon would collide with it the next time it approached Earth.
These amazing facts come from Stone by Stone, a book by the University of Connecticut geology professor Robert Thorson. And that’s just the introduction.
Maybe you can’t get blood out of a stone, but Thorson gets a good story from one. Although he has written half a dozen other books since Stone by Stone was published in 2002, Thorson says he knows who he is referring to when someone asks him to talk about “your book.”
Thorson was surprised by the stone walls he saw as he moved east. After growing up in North Dakota and working in Alaska, he was used to open spaces. In New England he encountered much smaller rooms, wall by wall. “What impressed me was how massive they were,” he says, not individually, but together. So he set out to find out how it came about. Thorson made himself an expert on the walls – he studied how and why they were built – and came to appreciate them in ways that he learned their creators didn’t.
The walls are as part of nature as anthills, says Thorson. “The ant doesn’t build these beautiful hills on purpose. The ant doesn’t even care about the hills, ”he says. “We fixate on the anthill because we see it. The ant doesn’t. In addition, they are just disposal heaps. “
That was exactly what stone walls were. In the days before stone wall construction became an art form, the walls were “linear dumps” as Thorson put it. Landscape historian John Stilgoe explains, “The stone walls of New England … were built by men who were far more interested in clearing than in fencing.”
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Thorson discovered that the practical effects of physics determined the structure of stone walls: since the human ability to lift objects is at its maximum at about thigh height, stone walls were built that high.
He also learned why most stone walls enclose small fields. Doing some math, Thorson found that clearing one 8 acre field would require 58 miles on foot while eight 1 acre fields would require less than 20 miles. Incidentally, most of the walls in New England fall in the two to four acre range.
Those walls weren’t built all at once, Thorson says. “I don’t think the people out there were bragging about and just lifting the stones aside (and building the wall),” he says.
An old stone wall in the Stranahan Town Forest in Marshfield. Photo by Cate Chant / VTDigger
Initially, pioneers found only a few stones in their fields. They mostly dealt with so-called erratics, surface rock left behind by the retreating glaciers. Pioneers simply threw the stones they found into a heap. Only later did the farmers stack them along the disused strips at the field edges. The ground under the stones was rich and quite deep.
Then, when settlers needed more land, they started clearing the forests. Cutting and “improving” the land continued to the point where Vermont was about 70 percent open by 1870. Today, with the decline in agriculture, the state is 70 forested.
After the trees disappeared, the ground tended to freeze deeper. The resulting bursts of frost moved stones to the surface. As the spring rains melted the snow, the land was more prone to runoff, which eroded the ground and exposed even more stones. Eventually, as the fields were planted and harvested, more soil was lost and more stones rose to the surface.
At the beginning of the 19th century, some of the children were the state’s main export item. They went to try their luck in factories in the south or in the opening areas in the west. However, they didn’t leave because the land was too rocky, Thorson says.
In 1864, Louis Agassiz, one of America’s foremost scientists, said of New England: “… the ground has already been largely cleared of its rocky fragments. … In time they will undoubtedly disappear from the surface of this country, as they did from that of Europe. “
By the time the Vermonters and other New Englanders left in droves, Thorson estimates that two-thirds of the rocks in the ground had already worked their way to the surface. Farmers would have noticed that the situation had worsened over time, but he says, “You were past the peak of the rush and it was like painting, a little touch-up.” Farmers may have stone on theirs from time to time Walls hung, but that’s about it.
Don’t be fooled by how rocky many fields in Vermont look today, warns Thorson, that is not a fair representation of what the farmers have left behind. “People with no memory and no geological background look at these fields and say,” What a nightmare, “he says. What they are actually looking at is a field that could easily be cleared if a farmer had been there to look after it to stay.
Thorson has a theory as to why people subscribed to the legend that early New England farmers fought horrific rocky fields to make a living. He calls it “the myth of the eastern cowboy”. And it’s just as misleading as the Western cowboy myths – Thorson points out that Western cowboys were only common for a couple of decades and had virtually no economic impact. These cowboy stories had three elements, he says: a person, an animal, and an enemy. In this case the cowboy, his horse and the Indians. In the east, the early farmer (think of the man on those minutemen statues, the musket ready, says Thorson) and his ox play the first two roles. “And what is the enemy?” he asks. “It doesn’t work without an enemy. It’s an imaginary enemy ”- the rocky ground.
Despite our images of the past, wooden fences were always more common in New England than stone walls. We have little evidence for these fences, says Thorson, because wood decomposes on a biological schedule, not a geological one.
Some parts of Vermont had almost no stone walls at all. In the “marble belt” and slate areas in the state’s southwest quadrant, the glaciers shattered the relatively soft rock, so little was required to build these linear landfills.
In examining stone walls, Thorson found that the thickest concentration of them was along the Connecticut coast to about Portland, Maine and about 100 miles inland.
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“Vermont is not the epicenter,” he says, “but it is the epicenter of the image of stone walls.”