With the leaves off the trees fall is a great time to explore the stone walls of White Memorial. There is, perhaps, no better-known example of man’s reshaping of the Litchfield County landscape than stone walls. Robert Thorson, author of the superb history of these creations, Stone by Stone, wrote that “abandoned stone walls are the signatures of rural New England, the “relics of a vanished agricultural civilization.”
Perhaps there is no better metaphor for the history of Litchfield County than its ubiquitous stone walls. Constructed from colonial times through the middle of the nineteenth century, they stand as testimony to the intrepid early settlers who cleared the land in the hopes of making a living from the county’s soil. In plowing their fields, they utilized these unwanted stones to dam streams, mark roadways and property boundaries and pen in livestock. Yet the explorer is struck to find these vestiges of an earlier time in the county’s deepest forests, an indication that this land was once cleared and worked but has since been reclaimed by forests as lifeways in the county changed.
The stones that form these walls were deposited by the Laurentide Ice Shield 15,000 to 30,000 years ago, which scraped down to New England’s bedrock and scattered billions of stones across the region. Initially, the earliest stonewalls were built from stones obtained from quarries. The “Little Ice Age” of the 18th century, however worked stones to the surface through deep freezes and the erosion caused by spring runoffs. Thus, the clearing of stones from pastures and fields became an annual spring ritual. Farmers brought these stones to the fences that lined their properties, often by hand or by sleds pulled by oxen. Over time, these piles were reworked into more architecturally-significant structures as the supply of labor on farms grew. Eventually the walls shaped the landscape by forcing rain to different streams or building up soils.
Stone walls served several purposes for farmers. When the communal land practices of the earliest colonial days shifted to a philosophy of individually owned land, stone walls were used to define boundaries. Farmers often piled stones until they reached the lowest level of a split rail fence. Stone pens were utilized for what Thorson has termed the “strategic dropping of manure” for use as fertilizer. Elaborate stone walls were utilized as status symbols. More than anything, however, stone walls were simply ways to dump stones that were obstacles to farmers in their fields.
New England farmers built five principal types of stone walls. These are:
Dumped Wall – A simple line of piled stones.
Tossed Wall – With stones stacked like firewood, this is the most common of stone walls. It required a bit more attention that the dumped wall.
Single Wall – stones piled on top of each other. These were used to surround pastures.
Double Wall – Parallel walls with smaller stones used to fill in between.
Laid Wall – Featured stones in a “weave” pattern.
A 1939 study estimated that there were 240,000 miles of stone walls in New England, which contained more stone than the remaining monuments of the ancient world put together. Unfortunately, Connecticut (unlike Massachusetts and New Hampshire) has no law that protects its stone walls, and they are slowly falling victim to bulldozers or being quarried for new stonework.