02 May 2014

Stone Walls

Welcome back. During my grade school years, poems rhymed. I remember having to memorize Kilmer’s Trees and Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. I especially remember Frost’s Mending Walls, even if it didn’t rhyme and we didn’t have to memorize it. Though I later learned the poem might reach back to classics or be used as a metaphor, at the time, I was content with neighbors annually repairing the wall that bounded their properties: “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Our Upstate New York neighborhood had open fields, unfenced lots and a few wood or chain link fences, but no stone walls. With Frost’s poem, they weren’t hard to imagine. Here on the farm in Wisconsin, it takes no imagination.

The Farm’s Stone Wall

The shop, the road and the stone wall,
which runs almost as far as the trees.
Not long after the snow melted last spring, I started wondering about the stone wall along the road in front of the house. On earlier visits, I saw the stones by the driveway to the shop, yet it didn’t register that they were one end of a wall whose other end was about 750 feet down the road.
The field side of the stone wall
 near the shop.

The wall, which reaches my hips in spots, is mostly 3 stones high, hardly reaching my knees. Its width, 2 or 3 stones across when built, now holds at least one more toppled stone in places. The location at the edge of a field, borders the roadway that was likely part of the farm before becoming a town road.

Two sections of the stone wall.
The stones were no doubt cleared from the field to improve its suitability for farming; glacial till or drift covers the area, with material ranging from clay to boulder. As for who built the wall, when and how, my father-in-law isn’t certain. He guessed that the wall was built by his grandfather, adding, I’d like to have seen him move those stones.

A book cover photograph of the farm’s stone wall.
The date is unknown, but nearly all cars in the U.S.
had steering wheels on the right before Model T’s
came out in 1908.
A 2014 photograph of the area
in the book cover photograph.
Stone Walls in the U.S.

Similar stone walls associated with agricultural fields are found around the world, especially in the British Isles. In the U.S., they’re common in several areas, particularly Kentucky, Virginia and Texas; but they were concentrated in New England and parts of New York, where an 1872 U.S. Department of Agriculture report estimated their length at 250,000 miles.

Restored stone puller (ohara-mill.org)

Most stone walls in the Northeast were built between 1750 and 1850 by farmers clearing their fields, though many were also built by slaves, prisoners or low cost laborers. Construction was normally as dry walls, knee to hip high and some shoulder height. There were walls built as fences, but most by far were simply intended to hold stone taken from the field.
Clearing the land with horses and
a stone-boat. (www.gltrust.org )

The tools used generally involved a horse or ox, winch and rope, and once the stone was unearthed, a stone-boat (like a sled) to drag the stone to the wall.

Wrap Up

A top view of the farm’s
stone wall shows
 toppled stones.

The old stone walls in the U.S. are being destroyed; possibly half of the walls that once stood are gone. Blame nature and time, blame those who take the stones for other uses, including new walls, but mostly, blame development that needs more space. There is a move toward preserving the walls like historic buildings, and states have passed laws, imposing fines that are more reminder than punishment.

Do we need every wall? If not, which should we keep? Those can be difficult calls to make. While they’re still standing, I’d like to see those I read about in northeastern Wisconsin. 

A beaten up section of
the farm's stone wall.

First, I’ll check out the other stone walls my father-in-law said I could find elsewhere on this farm. Thanks for stopping by.


-Frost reading  Mending Wall:
-Commentary on Mending Wall:
-Photo cover book: Mead, H., Dean, J. and Smith, S. 1971. Portrait of the past: A photographic journey through Wisconsin. Wisconsin Tales and Trails, Madison, Wis. 176 p.
-Example reading on stone wall preservation and laws:

-Background reading on stone walls: www.stonewall.uconn.edu/
Amazon book links:


  1. Love this post! There must some great stories waiting to unearthed in those stone walls. Photos are great. Will await the next chapter, perhaps we will learn why stone walls in Wisconsin when they were much more prevalent in the Northeast?
    thanks Waren