No Stone Unturned:
The History of Stone Walls in Greenwich

The geology of New England has a rich and varied history. Early in the formation of the continents, a huge ice sheet covered much of the land. Around eighteen thousand years ago, the Wisconsin glacier covered all of New England. It was part of an ice sheet that was four thousand miles in diameter and two miles thick at its center. The size and slow movement of the glacier drastically changed New England’s topography. As the glacier inched and scraped across the landscape for thousands of years, it gathered rocks and soil and carried them along. As the ice melted, the debris was deposited as a rough jumble of soil and rocks.

The landscape formed by glacial deposits was rocky and bleak. As the earth warmed and ice melted, 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 rich, fertile top soil. This process took thousands of years. Imagine the final result that early European settlers saw, a new world, heavily forested, rich with opportunity and fertile soil for farming. Soon after arriving, colonists began clearing trees to open up plots for farming. Fencing was used to mark property lines.

As wood was plentiful, early boundary fences were wooden split rail or stump fences. Stump fences were made by moving the stumps of cleared trees to the edge of the field.  The exposed roots and limbs made a natural barrier and the holes were filled with rocks and bush.

In time, settlers struck out further into the uplands. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the clearing of the wilderness had begun in earnest. Colonists literally changed the face of the land by removing trees and clearing farmland.

By the early 1800’s farmers had completely denuded the once lush forests. The lack of trees caused erosion of the topsoil, the protective layer of earth that minimized the effect of thawing. “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 cold penetrated the earth, 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 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.” (Hubbell, 2006) As each spring brought the rocks to the surface, stones became a source to replace wood for the construction of fencing.

As wood became scarcer, the heaving of the “New England potatoes” each spring provided a ready alternative: stone. The early stone walls were thrown walls; as nuisance stone was found in the field, it was thrown or carried to the side and placed in neat piles to ready the field for planting. Early thrown walls are low and of loose construction. Stacked walls could be single or double. A single wall was similar to a 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, the center filled with smaller stones to create a more solid structure. Double walls contained stones of various sizes and were often finished with large, flat capstones that were laid on top of the wall to put pressure on the whole wall and hold the stones in place. Stiles or steps were often built to allow passage over double walls. Lace walls were single stack walls, one stone wide, with smaller stones toward the top, leaving an open space that created a “lace-like” look. Stone walls were used to pen wandering farm animals, to mark property lines, to form root cellars, and to delineate family cemetery plots, well away from farmable land.

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 high, which was a comfortable reach for a 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 should equal the height. The top of the wall was half the width of the base. Altering 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 one-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.”

As the nation expanded westward and transportation improved, 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 reduced the need for the family farm and replaced it with more commercial industry. Ironically, 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.

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

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