What Lies Behind the Stone Walls of New England?


“The finest workers in stone are not copper or steel tools, but the gentle touches of air and water working at their leisure with a liberal allowance of time.” (Henry David Thoreau)

There is something so primal about a rock. Maybe that is why little boys’ pockets are always packed full of them.

Stone is, after all, the oldest building material on earth. Symbolic of strength and stability, rocks speak of energy and of the determination of those who build with them. Timeless pieces of mother earth’s sculpture, they retain their beauty even as they crumble. And, as any New Englander can tell you, the entire northeast is strewn with large chunks of striated rock. It’s the perfect material to build stone walls.

Why Stone?

The soil in the northeast region of the United States is laden with boulders and pieces of granite. And it’s one of the common bonds shared by the six New England states: Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Vermont, and Rhode Island. Spectacular autumn foliage and  200,000 miles of history winding along the back roads. Crafted from the only readily available building materials, the stone walls of New England symbolize the strength and determination of our forefathers. And, they engender a sense of awe and amazement. History comes to life as these primitive sculptures silently reveal the story of the region. Pieces of nature that weave throughout the fabric of history. They are signs of the times long past, but evidence that will remain for years to come.

History of New England’s Stone Walls

From about the mid-1600s, early settlers began to realize that the abundance of rock made farming problematic. With the most rudimentary of tools, and, if they were lucky, a yoke of oxen, farmers laboriously cleared the stones off the land to allow for planting. As the rocks were unearthed, they were carried to the boundaries of the property and dumped into piles. As the fields were cleared, farming could move forward.

The Post-Revolutionary War era is often called the “golden age of stone wall building.” The citizens of the newly minted United States of America began the arduous process of transforming the heaps and piles of rock into the classic double-wall fences we see today. Even the stone building foundations and pens for livestock continue to survive. In his book, “Stone by Stone: The Magnificent History of New England’s Stone Walls,” geology professor Robert M. Thorson estimates that it took about 40 million man-days of labor to create the stone walls across the region.

While most of the stones in the walls are in fact granite, the colors vary based on the locale. And, interestingly enough, most walls in New England only stand as high as a man could comfortably lift stones, or about thigh high.

Students of colonial history have classified the walls as being dumped, tossed or laid. Dumped walls happened almost by default. They are literally just a row of stones piled up on each other. Laid walls were more artistic, orderly, and well-planned. These designs often had a top layer of rock standing on end, (vs. laying flat) and are known as copestone walls.

Stone Wall Revival

With the Industrial Revolution came the gradual abandonment of the small farms. Reforestation began and eventually the stone creations were left unattended and forgotten, falling victim to decay. It was not until the early 20th century that we began to curate and preserve old farm tools and implements. During this Colonial revival, the citizenry began to refurbish crumbling stone walls of the past.

Surviving the harsh elements, the legendary stone walls of New England have stood for generations, although they are often off the beaten path, buried under encroaching vegetation. They stand today, deeply rooted in the history of our country, the magnificent artifacts of a lost civilization, and like the writings of Thoreau, they will endure.

Recommended Tours

TAP has plenty of great travel opportunities for you in New England! We’d love to help you explore and perhaps see some of these stone walls for yourself!

100th Birthday of JFK on Cape Cod – SOLD OUT, but the itinerary offers some great ideas for future travel plans for your custom pre-formed group! I come to the Cape when I have a tough decision to make.” — JFK.  Join us as we explore the place that he spent his happiest times with family and friends.

Boston & Cape Cod – Driving Through the Pages of American History. Boston is the city where America’s roots were formed, and driving through it is like reading the pages of an American history book. The scene of several key events of the American Revolution: the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, the Battle of Bunker Hill, and the Siege of Boston.  The sandy shores of Cape Cod extend some 70 miles into the sea. And the Cape is home to both natural beauty and quaint colonial villages.

Coast Through Maine – Visit Portland, Boothbay, Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, Kennebunkport, Ogunquit… and more! Along the back roads and coasts of this beautiful state see Longfellow’s boyhood home. Experience Len Libby’s ice cream, hunt puffin birds on a cruise from Boothbay, and visit the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. Don’t forget a carriage ride in Acadia National Park, breach the summit of Cadillac Mountain, or to “feel” the crashing waves of Thunder Hole.

2017 Baseball Hall of Fame Induction & Baseball Road Trip – Start off in New York City with a welcome dinner reception and a game at Yankee Stadium, then travel to Cooperstown for the annual Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Weekend. Wrap up your experience with a visit to Boston and Fenway Park.  Cap the trip off with a visit to Boston and historic Fenway Park as the Red Sox host the Cleveland Indians in a rematch of last years Divisional Series.

New England Fall Foliage – Leaf chasers, tea parties, and European heritage make New England an essential experience. We’ll combine history with some exceptional countryside. Traversing several different northeastern states, the New England fall colors tour includes Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut.  From the charming beach towns of Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard to the hillsides of Vermont and New Hampshire, we’ll see it all. You’ll leave with an understanding of why this area is known as one of the best places to live in the whole of the USA.

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