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Stone wall. Photo by Zimmerman.  

Historic stone walls are part of our cultural heritage and are a thing of quiet beauty. More...

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The art and craft of masonry involve a kind of triumph over a hard, heavy, unyielding adversary,” says Charles McRaven, author of Stonework Techniques and Projects. “And once the rock is properly positioned, it’s there, a monument for centuries.”  Unless it’s sold to the highest bidder. 

Stone wall. Photo by Bet Zimmerman.

There is demand, particularly from wealthier communities in Boston and Rhode Island, for our weathered, lichen-encrusted local stone.  One wholesaler has sent out mass mailings, expressing interest in purchasing large quantities of stone walls.  The letter says, “Depending on the quality and quantity of stone material, your stonewalls could be worth thousands of dollars!”   

It is true that stone walls can be valuable.  Some have even been stolen under cover of darkness. And the rights of private property owners to do what they wish with their property are jealously guarded, especially by those who come from an independent, family farming background.  Ironically, those farming forefathers were the same people who laboriously constructed many of the stone walls that present-day trustees may be tempted to convert into cash. There are a number of reasons, some ethical, and some legal, why consideration should be given to preserving old stone walls instead.

  • It is legal to sell a stone wall as long as you own it, but it may not be legal to remove it.  Stone walls were often used to demarcate boundaries between properties, especially when wood for fencing was in short supply after much of this area was clear cut.  Many deeds reference stone walls.  “If stone walls are boundary lines, they cannot be removed unless both parties agree,” according to Jeffrey Stefanik, Director of Land Surveying for CME Associates, Inc. “If the wall is along the road, the road-side face is considered the boundary, so the homeowner owns the entire wall.”  But sometimes ownership of a wall is shared.  Stefanik notes, “If the wall is not along a road, and constitutes the boundary, then the center of the wall is the property line unless otherwise noted (which is rare).”
  • There may be other legal issues.  For example, if the stone wall were along a designated “Scenic Road” in towns like Woodstock and Brooklyn, a special permit from the Planning & Zoning Commission would be required before it could be altered or removed.  If the wall were located within a Historic District, a Certificate of Appropriateness from the Historic District Commission would be needed.  Towns like Durham, CT have regulations that demand a permit for excavation and removal of stones.  Some interior stone walls were used to keep cows out of wet, muddy areas.  If the work would occur in a wetlands or watercourse, a wetlands permit would probably be required.
  • Farmers often dug up rocks (sometimes referred to as “New England potatoes”) when clearing stony fields, and stacked them into walls just to get them out of the way. These stone walls are basically “linear landfills,” says Robert Thorson, a geologist and stone wall expert.  Removing interior walls in the middle of fields that interrupt haying and take up space might make sense.  But even crumbling stone walls offer habitat to a variety of life forms, from moss to wildflowers to salamanders to small mammals.  Others still serve an important function, such as stabilizing soil, catching rain and preventing run-off, or framing a pasture to keep livestock in.
  • Some Victorian-era “dry stone walls” are a work of art and a thing of quiet beauty.  Even without the use of mortar, these walls are stable due to the meticulous selection of just the right stone to fit each space. They were carefully constructed of interlocking rocks, with flat ones on the bottom to bear the load, smaller stones that serve as chocks, larger tie stones that span and bond the wall to give it strength, and finally large cap stones that prevent the wall from breaking apart.
  • Although stone walls can be torn down in a matter of hours, building them was a hazardous, back-breaking, time-consuming chore. Many are thigh-high because that was as high as they could be comfortably lifted by hand. According to McRaven, a beginner  may only be able to lay six square feet of stone wall a day.  Even a good mason can only lay about 20 square feet a day with a helper. 
  • Wholesalers could get their stones from quarries. But they are likely to prefer the easy pickings from existing walls that already look authentically rural – because they are. The old walls in the Quiet Corner are not imported. They are made from native stones, wrenched from the earth by hand.  They belong and blend into our scenery.
  • Stone walls are a monumental cultural icon. They are a historic record and a visible reminder of a bygone era. As Ruth Cutler, of the UCONN Extension Service in Brooklyn said, “Stone walls are part of the history of our landscape and land use.”  They represent part of our identity and heritage.  Some stone walls date back to the 17th century post-colonial era. They are, according to the Stone Wall Initiative, “the closest thing New England has to classical ruins.”

If you are interested in volunteering to conduct a photo-inventory of historic stone walls, contact your local Conservation or Planning Commission or Historical Society.  Information on how to conduct an inventory and on stone wall tourism and construction is available in Robert Thorson’s Exploring Stone Walls: A Field Guide to New England's Stone Walls.


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Originally published in the Villager newspapers on May 11, 2007.
Bet Zimmerman is a member of the Woodstock Conservation Commission and is a Certified Environmental Professional.


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