Role of Stone Walls in New England Agriculture


Take a step back from the hectic world for a moment and focus on what lies in front of you. It is a beautiful New England forest, and within that forest lies a stone wall, and wedged between those stones lie a legacy. A legacy of a farmer's hopes and dreams, and a laborer’s sweat and turmoil, all carefully placed in a geometric structure. Stone walls are the key to America’s agriculture past; they embody what once was. New England was at one point a region of agriculture, a self-sufficient force importing and exporting various goods. In colonial and antebellum times, stone walls played a significant role in procuring New England agriculture, as well as additional purposes.

Stone walls became somewhat insignificant with the end of New England agriculture. Yet a stone wall's beauty can still be seen today throughout much of New England. In regard to New England's terrain one early settler commented on how it was "not one of those fertile places in hot climates, nor was it like Virginia where nature brought forth abundance without great labour of man." [1] Colonists strived to put their mark on agriculture and replicate that of the mother country England.

Stone walls played a key role in agriculture. To see their importance it is helpful to first analyze the type of farming prevalent. New England farming consisted of scattered subsistence farms, where farmers produced only enough for themselves, and various specialized commercial farms. Major crops included corn, potatoes, turnips, parsnips, and beans.

New England's farmers worked together importing and exporting goods to surrounding farms in need. If soil was appropriate for growth, the crop would be abundant. For instance, Massachusetts climate was not adaptable for the production of wheat and rye, unlike the Connecticut River valley, which became known as the ”Bread Basket of New England.” Cattle fattening was very widespread throughout New England but centered in specific towns. Howard Russell explains that Cambridge was said to be the leading cattle town of the colony; meat was butchered and heavily exported from there. Locally, Salem had a good port for cattle and poultry, and towns of the surrounding area, such as Ipswich and Newbury utilized this means of export. Winthrop gave back to Salem by trading various dairy products in return for meat slaughtering. [2]

Good fencing became an essential tool of farming. It was necessary to separate different crops, and protect open land from damage. Fencing was also used as boundary lines throughout colonial times, separating land owners' land. As seen in this 18th-century map of Beverly, a stone wall would have been used to separate different lands. Fencing was not only needed to protect crops from livestock but to protect livestock from cross-breeding as well.

Fencing was not only necessary but soon became mandatory. New laws and regulations throughout the towns ordered fences to be in good repair. Fencing was continually a subject of legislation throughout the colonies. A fence viewer was appointed at town meetings, as seen in this colonial Beverly town meeting document. Open land was susceptible to damage by any wandering livestock, and proper fencing ensured that this vital land would be protected. A fence was considered in good repair if it met the specific height regulations of the town. These regulations varied according to which type of livestock being enclosed or bounded from. All of the measurements, however, were based on the Gunter chain. The gunter chain was a chain conisiting of 100links each link being 7.92 inches long.

Fencing also came in the form of the town pound. These varied in shape but were big enough to hold various stray cattle and livestock. Wandering livestock posed a serious threat to unprotected land. Any stray cattle or livestock were brought to the local town pound for holding. Upon retrieving his property, the owner would be required to pay a fine to the pound keeper. Each town delegated a pound keeper which can be seen in this town meeting record from Beverly. A town pound was a very important part of up keeping agriculture. Susan Alport noted that the town's prosperity was a direct correlation with their town pound. Most town pounds are no longer intact; a good visual example still standing is this one in Gilmanton, NH.

Types of fences varied from town to town. Many used wood because it was easily put up and down. There were various types of wood fences used such as the zig-zag fence and the worm fence, as illustrated in Susan Allport's Sermons in Stone. With increased demand for firewood and construction material, farmers later turned to stone for their fences. Stone walls came to be seen as just the right choice. Russel explains how "nothing could match the stone wall for permanence." [3] The use of stone for fencing also cleared land and made cultivation easier.

New England farming would take a turn for the worse with technological advancements in industry, agriculture, and transportation. New England farms were nearly all small commmercial farms. Howard Russell describes how "Essex County was typical of most of the region in not producing much more than was consumed with in its own shores ". [4] The South had New England beat with many commercial farms sending exports throughout the country. New England farms could not compete with Southern labor. New England states were not slave states and the amount of indentured servants was minimal.

Not only did they lack the help of slaves and laborers, but the interest of young men as well. There was much indifference toward farming with a growing number of industrial jobs. Young men either wanted to go to the city for a well paying factory job or move west and start a new life. The lure of plenty of arable, cheap land and the growth of the railroad industry caused many young potential farmers to pick up and go. Cities were growing at an unprecedented rate. A new age of urbanization and industrialization was at hand. Immigrants flooded the area looking for jobs in the cities. Bidwell Percy calls the people of this new era "non-agricultural population". [5]

The agricultural revolution introduced new machinery that New England farms were not equipped for. Wooden ploughs were replaced by cast iron, and new heavy machinery was quickly being utilized.. Allport explains how the enclosure of the farms by stone walls was not fit for the new machinery, and that stone walls came to be seen as just a tax and a boundary line. [6]

The agricultural revolution made a stone wall's purpose less significant in other ways. Today, many stone walls are seen bordering New England's cemeteries. They are also incorporated largely in landscaping, just for beauty. Stone walls have been used for many agricultural purposes: as dividers of crops, divisions of land by owners, and enclosement of livestock. They are still visible today bordering cemeteries and as markers of property. Stone walls are remnants of the past, reminders of a time when agriculture reigned, before industrialization, before the railroads, when a simple yet glorious stone wall was the staple of American agriculture. These walls are true artifacts. Hopefully New England's stone walls can be preserved for generations to come so that all can enjoy the rich history held within each individual stone.

[1] Colonist Thomas Graves wrote this in Letters from New England: The Massachusetts Bay Colony. Excerpted in Farmers & Fisherman.
[2] Excerpt from Howard Russell's A Long, Deep Furrow p.9.
[3] Allport, Susan. Sermons in Stone. 187.
[4] From Howard Russell's A Long Deep Furrow p.7.
[5] Bidwell Percy explains in The Agricultural Revolution in New England p.695
[6] Allport 22.