“Good fences make good neighbors,” contends Robert Frost’s working companion in the poet’s classic, “Mending Walls.”
Although the statement has little immediacy to many New Englanders, any farmer recognizes its practicality, and it was a basic tenet of the region’s forefathers in an era when agriculture was the only way of life. Good fences kept the cattle in the pasture, and more importantly, out of the neighbor’s cornfield.
In the Granite State, as in much of northern New England, it was rocks that needed to be shifted to one side before the fields could be tilled, and they naturally evolved as the material for fencing. Generation after generation cleared farm fields of rocks heaved up by frost, and consolidated them into untold miles of stone fences.
It is at this time of year, however, — late fall and early winter — when the foliage recedes, that the land reveals the extent of its legacy. Most obvious, of course, are those walls, many still square and erect, that line roadways and pastures. But the balance lie deep in the forest, and are a testament to the endurance of our predecessors.
Among the initial tasks facing early settlers was fighting back the forest for farmland. “Making land,” as it was termed, was a rugged endeavor, accomplished by hand labor, pry bars and a stone boat and oxen to drag rocks to the side of the clearing. In this context, stone walls rose up as the child of necessity.
The arrival of cattle and other domestic animals added another dimension to the labor, since enclosures not only needed to keep livestock in, but predators out. A solid fence, the saying goes, “was pig tight, bull strong and horse high.” The menace of bear and wolves, coupled with the importance of maintaining amicable ties with what few neighbors one had, made the upkeep of walls a civic duty of sorts.
In time, fence building and maintenance was integrated into the structure of town government. As farms prospered and villages grew, it became the responsibility of town meeting or the selectmen to regulate height and upkeep of fences. Howard Russell recorded in his book “The Long Deep Furrow –– Three Centuries of Farming in New England,” “At first in Guilford, Connecticut, the height was set at four feet, but by 1653 a ‘sufficient fence’ there had to be 4-1/2 feet tall. At Salem, the requirement at first was 3-4 feet; at Portsmouth, Rhode Island, in 1671, 4-1/2 feet. By that date, experience had taught many towns to insist on five feet.”
Eventually it was standard practice for every town to choose fence-viewers to see that they were the required height and strength, and settle disputes between neighbors.
It became such an ingrained part of local government that as late as the turn of the 19th century, the office of fence-viewer was still important enough to be incorporated into the legislative machinery of new states like Ohio.
Predominantly New England walls were dry built, not held together with mortar. The northern climate is hard on cementing agents, which tend to crack when subjected to a wide range of temperatures and frost action. The most striking walls have been kept in place only by skillful workmanship and patient balancing of the stones.
As Eric Sloane points out in “The Vanishing American Landscape,” “Old timers had a knack for fitting stones together. Dry wall masonry was such an art that a wall or foundation could be recognized as the work of a particular builder.”
“Give me where to stand and I will move the earth,” Archimedes is reported to have said in reference to the principle of the lever.
Innumerable New England farmers have proven his point. Endless toil was their lot in life, but brains and an awareness of physics as well as brawn built stone walls.
Large rocks were moved with a fulcrum and lever, operated either by hand or with an ox. In fact, most heavy things weren’t carried on the farm, but rather skidded on a stone boat or dragged by oxen.
If that wasn’t feasible, a change in season brought ice, which facilitated many jobs. These men paced themselves for endurance, and like their draft animals, weren’t fast –– just strong and steady.
Howard Russell, in “The Long Deep Furrow,” described the fence building process in this manner:
“To build an enduring wall was not only laborious but a work of skill. First the loam was dug out down to the top of the subsoil or the frost line. A bed of small stones, sand or gravel would replace it if needed. Large boulders, hauled on a stone boat, were next rolled in to serve as a foundation and allowed to settle. Last, field stones of smaller size selected for contour and proportion carried the wall to its intended height of three, four or five feet. The half-high fence must be topped with a crotch fence and rail. If clearing fields was a main object, the farmer laid up parallel walls a few feet apart, and the interval this formed provided an excellent dump for more surplus rocks.”
The result was the prod-igious lengths of wall that are an integral part of the New England landscape.
Accounts vary, but three centuries ago a day’s work was measured in rods –– an awesome 16-1/2 feet of stone wall.
“A standard rule was a rod of wall a day for an ox team, two men and a stone boat,” states Hayden Pearson in “New England Flavor.”
“The builders would ordinarily lay up four rods a day, four feet high, at costs that varied from 16 to 75 cents a rod,” counters Howard Russell’s book.
In any event, early walls were strictly utilitarian, and only later did ornamental work become more common.
Wealthy men with country homes hired walls to be built on contract, and stones were cut to fit, rather than laid as circumstance found them. Elaborate stiles, or steps, were incorporated to facilitate crossing, and massive split granite posts supported gateways.
For the most part, however, stone walls mark the continuous labor of necessity. The best maintained are also the most conspicuous, while a large percentage run miles into the deep woods with no discernible meaning.
Tumbled and disheveled by time and the elements, only a sense of the presence of other generations remains.