In Maine, Even the Stone Walls Have Stories
A Pictorial History of New England's Stone Walls
European practice of common herding - where a community's livestock is pastured under the eyes of one herdsman - to the individual ownership of pastureland called for some sort of fencing. Stone, home-grown stone, would help solve the fencing problem - as well as help solve the problem of what to do with it.
Within a generation, the seemingly endless supply of wood had begun to shrink. With the clearing of the hillside forest, the protective layer of mulch on the forest floor had eroded, thinning the insulating blanket that protected the deeper soils from the effects of the freeze and thaw cycle. This, combined with the absence of the protective root layer, caused the long buried, glacially deposited rocks to work their way toward the surface. As the cold reached down from above, it froze to the top of a rock and lifted it just a bit. Some soil slid into the void beneath so that when the next thaw came, the rock settled, but just a bit closer to the surface. It didn't take long for a once rock-free field to produce a new bumper crop of "New England potatoes."…
After the Revolutionary War came a time of optimism and high spirits. Life settled down. An explosion in education took place. Transportation links, vital to farmers living far from population centers, improved. As urban population pressures grew, the young moved out into the wilds and formed new communities.
As the population and the demand for farm goods blossomed, so did the need for farm fencing. The ample supply of wood, which the original settlers used for their early fencing, had long ago been consumed. Stones were the logical substitute - all too plentiful and wonderfully long lasting. During this period most of New England's stone walls were laid up - thousands and thousands of miles of them, built by farmers and slaves, Indians and farmhands, women and children.
But the good times were not to last. Inexpensive long distance transportation arrived with the opening of the Erie Canal and the advent of rail transportation soon thereafter. Trains were carrying midwestern produce to Boston at a much lower price than New England farmers could afford to grow it. By 1860, Maine's wheat production had decreased by two-thirds due to western competition.
The railroads also made it vastly easier for people to travel to better opportunities. The urban centers of the east drew thousands from the hilltop farms to manufacturing jobs and the amenities that the industrial revolution created. The first steps on the road to the abandonment of thousands of small New England farms had been taken. Their ever faithful stone walls would soon be all that remained to remind us of the valiant battles fought by families to wrest a place for themselves out of the wilderness…
Beginning with the basic geology of the region and why New England has so many darned rocks, he presents a chronological overview of the varying styles and methods of wall building and includes conversations with six contemporary wall builders. The result is a surprising and refreshing look at stone walls, and at the history of New England.
Hardcover, 120 pages, 192 color reproductions, 12-1/4" x 9-3/4".
WILLIAM HUBBELL lives in Cumberland Foreside, Maine. His photographs have appeared in such magazines as National Geographic, Time, and Life. Good Fences is his fifth book.
- By: William Hubbell