Dam Remains along Butternut Brook

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Remnants of a stone dam along Butternut Brook in Litchfield. This is a common feature on the Litchfield County landscape.

These remnants of dams are on Butternut Brook, along Duck Pond Road in Litchfield. They transport the explorer back to a time when the region’s many small industries were powered by water, an era historian Kenneth Howell has called an “empire over the dam.”

A grindstone, most commonly used in a gristmill to grind wheat into flour, or more commonly in New England to ground kernels into corn meal.

Water power was cheap and usually – except in droughts – reliable. Dams would hold back enough water to turn the water wheel, which in turn powered the drive shaft. Attached to the shaft was a vertical gear, which in turn transferred power to a horizontal gear. This, in many Litchfield County mills, turned the grindstones that turned wheat or corn into flour.

The Butternut Brook crosses Brush Hill Road (called Ripley Road on this older topographical map). The dams are located near Duck Pond Road’s intersection with Milton Road.

While Litchfield proper never saw industry rise above the level of small grist and saw mills, greater sources of water power in Milton and Fluteville (a section of town along the Naugatuck River bordering Harwinton, now lost to the Northville Dam) larger operations blossomed, powering lathes, blacksmith shops, and clock making. And of course, the dams in Northfield fueled that borough’s knife shop.

The streams of Litchfield County are dotted with hundreds of remnants of old dams, a reminder of the small industries that helped make life in this once isolated corner of Connecticut a little easier.

Look for a future post specific to Milton’s industrial heritage.

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Stone Walls

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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.

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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.

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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:

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Dumped Wall – A simple line of piled stones.

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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.

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 Single Wall – stones piled on top of each other. These were used to surround pastures.

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Double Wall – Parallel walls with smaller stones used to fill in between.

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Laid Wall – Featured stones in a “weave” pattern.

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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.