Historic Stone Walls in Greenwich

"No Stone Unturned"
The History of Stone Walls in Greenwich



The geologic makeup of New England is composed of a rich and varied history. Early in the formation of present geographic continents, a huge ice sheet covered much of the land. Around eighteen thousand years ago, the Wisconsin glacier, covered all of New England, and was part of an ice sheet that extended, four thousand miles in diameter and two miles thick at its center. (Thorson, 2002) But this was not the first glacier to expand and retreat; the formation of massive sheets of ice, occurred in cooling movements called glaciations and the sheer size and expanding slow movement of these huge glaciers drastically changed the topography of New England. For example, the weight of tons of ice formed a depression and over time, created the Long Island Sound. Movement of the glaciers was painstakingly slow, and as they inched and scraped across the landscape over thousands of years, they gathered debris in the form of rocks and soil, and carried them along in their movement. As the ice melted, the debris were deposited in places where they didn’t belong, creating a rough jumble of soil and rocks called a moraine. These glacial deposits created a landscape that was rocky and bleak.


History of Farming & Land Use 1700-1850 Period

As the ice melted and the warming trend continued, vegetation began to form, first grasses, then shrubs and trees. Over centuries, the life and death cycle of vegetation helped to cover the rocky surfaces with a rich and fertile top soil. This process was thousands of years in formation, but imagine seeing the final result as the early European settlers did, a new world, heavily forested, richHistoric+Stone+Wall+Quote+copy.jpg with opportunity and fertile soil for farming. Soon after arriving, colonists began the arduous task of clearing trees to open up plots of land for farming. The earliest settlements were communal towns of neighbors living in close proximity for both safety and practicality. Land was divided into neat, straight lines and fencing was used to separate, divide and mark property boundary lines.

The land was ideal for farming and, as wood was plentiful, early boundary fences were wooden split rail.  The tree clearing process introduced the stump fence, a good example of Yankee ingenuity.  Stump fences were made by moving the stumps of cleared trees to the edge of the field.  The exposed rooots and limbs made a natural barrier and the holes were filled with rocks and bush. (Barrett, 2010)

As time progressed, the attitude of the settlers became less about a communal way of life and instead focused more on personal independence. This new mind-set led settlers to strike out further into the uplands and “by the middle of the eighteenth century, the clearing of the wilderness had begun in earnest.” (Hubbell, 2006) Colonists literally changed the face of the land by removing trees and clearing farmland.




Results of Heavy Land Use

By the early 1800’s farmers had completely denuded the once lush forests. The lack of trees caused the topsoil to erode and removed the protective layer of earth that minimized the effect of the thaw cycle. “This, combined with the absence of the protective root layer, caused the long buried, glacially deposited rocks to work their way towards the surface. As the cold reached down from above, it froze 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 closed to the surface. It didn’t take long for a once rock-free field to produce a new bumper crop of “New England Potatoes.” (Hubbell, 2006) As each spring brought the rocks to the surface; stones became a source to replace wood for the construction of fencing.


Types of Stone Walls

As wood became increasingly scarce, the heaving of the “New England potatoes” each spring provided a ready alternative; stone. The early stone walls were thrown walls, which simply meant, as the nuisance stone was found in the field, it was thrown or carried to the side and placed in neat piles as the field was readied for planting. These early, thrown walls are much lower and of a looser construction. Stacked walls were formed as single or double walls. The single wall construction was similar the thrown wall. While the construction was more orderly, most single walls were simply stones balanced on top of one another. The broader or double stone wall was essentially two single walls built side by side and center filled with smaller stones to create a more solid structure. Double walls contained stones of varied size and were often finished with large, flat capstones, which were laid on top of the wall to place pressure on the whole of the wall and hold the stones in place. These walls were often constructed with stiles or steps to allow passage over. Lace walls were single stack walls, one stone wide. They were loosely formed with the stones becoming smaller toward the top, leaving an open space between stones and creating a “lace-like” look. Early animal pounds were made of stone and were used by the community to pen errant farm animals who had wondered away from home. Stone walls were also used in other practical ways, to mark and separate boundaries between property lines, to form root cellars, and to clearly delineate family cemetery plots, well away from farmable land. (Barrett, 2010)


How Walls Were Constructed

Walls were built by hand, often with help of teams of oxen or horses who could drag heavy sleds filled with stones. Though some were taller, the typical stone wall was about three foot in height which equaled a comfortable reach for astone+wall+quote.jpg man lifting each stone into place by hand. Devices called gin poles, a pulley system in which the stone was hoisted using a sharp tong-like tool were used to lift and maneuver heavier stones. The conventional formula for stone wall building was the width of the base equal to the height. The top of the wall was half the width of the base (Barrett, 2010) Differing the formula slightly in his biography, nineteenth-century farmer, Asa Sheldon gave his instructions on how to construct a sound stone wall, “If you want to build your wall five feet high, and have it stand centuries, as I am sure you do, then make the base half the thickness of the height and batter it on front at least one and on-half inch to the foot. Mind and never put so small stones on top that a dog running over them will knock them off. If the soil be clay, take out a few inches wider than the wall and fill in back with good gravel stones, otherwise the clay will run in among the stones, freeze, and heave them, and thus injure the wall.” (Thorson, 2002)


Wealth Comes to Greenwich- 1850 Onward

As the pace of industrialization continued, so did improvements in methods of transportation. Many New Englanders moved west in search of better opportunities and young people exchanged the quiet farm life for the jobs and bustle of the city. This mitigated the need for the family farm and replaced it with a more commercial industry. In a somewhat ironic exchange, wealthy individuals looking for a respite from hectic life in the city began buying up land and replaced hardscrabble farming with the lifestyle of the elegant gentleman farmer. With the larger, more elegant estates, came an entirely new type of stone wall. Existing stone walls were buried for drainage or were dismantled and reused for larger farm walls or sold for home construction.


Estate and Cemetery Stone Walls

As wealth increased, stone walls became more ornamental.  Walls were built higher to shield the property from passersby and the construction was certainly more elaborate.  Chinked walls became popular, essentially a well-laid, smooth-faces wall that the waller made even smoother by filling the gaps with smaller chinks. (Hubbell, 2006)  Many estate walls were made of quaried stone, changing the look of the "stacked stone wall" to a more formal appearance.

Today, as you pass through different parts of Greenwich, look around you for the remnants of past residents and the stone walls they labored to create.

Geological History Page

Barrett, Daniel (2010, February). (J. Mullins, Interviewer)
Hubbell, William (2006). Good Fences- A Pictorial History of New England's Stone Walls. Camden: Down East Bookds.
Thorson, Robert, M. (2002). Stone By Stone. New York: Walker.

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