Rock On, Westport!

Scott Smith often puts his finger on parts of Westport we too often overlook, or ignore. Today, he writes:

There are many scenic perks to living in the 4-season clime of Westport: the bright blooms of spring, the lush green growth of summer, the colorful hues of autumn. Winter has its charms, too, especially when the landscape is covered by a graceful cloak of snow.

But what I like best about the cold bare of winter is how it brings into sharp relief one of the defining hallmarks of New England: its stone walls.

What beauty! What mystery! Most evocative, of course, are the weathered old walls you come across deep in the woods, etched with lichen and moss. Ghostly traces of another age.

This, and the accompanying photos, were taken at the Newman Poses Preserve in Westport, and in Weston. (All photos/Scott Smith)

Connecticut’s oldest rock walls date from the early 1600s. Many of these legacy walls, especially those around colonial towns and old estates, are made with flat rock, hewn from the area’s abundant quarries.

Most of the old fieldstone walls you see in woodlots were raised in the latter part of the 1700s and early 1800s, after settlers moved upland from the rich coastal flood plains and river valleys to finish clearing the region’s primeval forests for timber, charcoal and homesteads.

At first this new farmland was very productive; the soil was deep and fertile, with few rocks. The surprising reason: After the ice age glaciers retreated some 15,000 years ago — they were a mile high over Westport — a thick layer of plant detritus built up over the centuries to cover much of the tumbled glacial debris the ice sheet left behind.

Seasons of plowing and grazing hastened erosion of the topsoil and uncovered these long-buried rocks. The newly unprotected soil would also freeze more deeply in the winter, and frost heaves moved stones steadily upward—several inches per decade. Stone is a better conductor of heat and cold than the surrounding soil, so the soil under the rock freezes faster than elsewhere. Since water expands about 10 percent when frozen, and the path of least resistance for a rock in soil is up, after many cycles of freeze and thaw, each spring stones rise through the saturated soil to the surface.

(The transformation of the region’s farmland and forest floor was abetted by the arrival of the earthworm, an invasive brought to these shores in the baggage and ballast of European settlers. To the Old World earthworm, this truly was the promised land, and in they rushed, colonizing new ground at 30 feet a year. Amazingly, before then there were no soil-dwelling worms in New England, having been routed far south by the glaciers. Some soil scientists lament how dramatically they’ve munched through the leaf litter and displaced native creepy crawlers, both above and below ground — but that’s another story.)

It’s estimated that there are some 240,000 miles of rock walls in New England, longer than the U.S. coastline. Some stone walls, particularly the thicker, double-width variety, delineated roadways and property boundaries. But many rock walls, especially the “tossed,” single-width kind, simply mark how far it was practical for farmers working with a team of oxen and a wooden sledge to move heavy stones to the edge of a field.

These walls were usually no more than thigh-high—about as high as a strong back can lift or lever a large rock in place. Most were never built to function as stand-alone fences, say, to secure livestock. Indeed, Robert M. Thorson, author of Stone by Stone — the definitive history of the region’s stone walls — suggests it’s more apt to think of them as “linear landfills.”

A few years back the Florence Griswold Museum mounted an exhibition of Impressionist paintings, Art and the New England Farm. In the eye of a 19th century painter, stone walls evoked the ethic of a hardscrabble agrarian lifestyle, one that was already giving way to the hubbub of city life. In an exhibition monograph, John E. Noyes notes that back in the day, many people regarded stone walls “as a scourge and eyesore that disfigured the land and marred the beauty of the landscape.”

I favor the Impressionistic view of stone walls, though as a suburban gardener who toils on a yard that was once an onion field, I can relate to mixed feelings about what old-timers call the region’s most enduring harvest: the Connecticut potato, the catch-all term for the rounded rocks that emerge from the dirt each spring.

Over the years, I’ve found that if there’s a patch of my lawn that’s bare or thinly grassed, chances are that just under the surface is a rock preventing the roots from reaching down into the subsoil. As the heat of summer dries the soil, it also bakes the rocks just under the turf, which in turn cook the roots above them.

Most of the rocks, spud-sized, pluck up through the lawn without a fuss, often leaving their indentation intact, which I then fill with a dollop of compost. The rocks get added to my humble stone wall and the earthworms get a treat of fresh organic material. As soil scientist Dr. M. Jill Clapperton said, “When you are standing on the ground, you are really standing on the rooftop of another world.”

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26 responses to “Rock On, Westport!

  1. Love this blog!

  2. Thank you for this informative background information.

  3. Hugely informative. Thank you.

  4. Wow, fascinating! The ever-present stone walls were something that struck me immediately when my family moved to town in 1963 from Queens; they were so different from anything I had experienced in my surroundings before. Dan, your blog could be labeled The College of Westport Knowledge (in addition to being a College of Musical Knowledge with all of its/yours fascinating musical tidbits).

    I imagine Mary Gai will comment here as well given her love of stone walls.

  5. Every time I dig a hole in New England I gain respect for early settlers. And our shed harbours three potato rakes for good reason.

  6. Terrific, thanks!

  7. There was a long stone wall at the southern end of the site on Hillandale Road of our first home. Parsell’s tree farm and other nursery land were on the other side of the wall. There were pheasant on Parsell’s land, and a pond full of spring peepers. The fields soon became housing sites but the stone wall remained. I never knew the story of the wall. Mr. Parsell might have known some history of it, but he is long gone. Incidentally, I was told that “Couch”, as in Couch Lane, a short street off Morningside Drive South, was Mrs. Parsell’s maiden name.

    • Yes Joyce, Mrs Parsell was a Couch by birth. The Couch family was an early family in Greens Farms. In fact, most of the burials at Burying Hill Beach are supposed to be Couches.

  8. Humpty Dumpty would love your blog.

  9. So fascinating! ❤️

  10. Linda Pomerantz Novis

    I Especially always loved the meandering old stone walls in the woods alongside the
    Merritt Parkway.
    Great article, great photos!

  11. Learned a lot. Explains why there are so many walls that don’t really seem to delineate boundaries. and also the process whereby stones ‘grow’ in the fields.

  12. You’ve rocked my world. I love the stone walls ..thank you so much!! Ha ha Fred,,, you remembered! The walls by the villages of the dammed by the reservoirs in Easton / Redding… and the old metes and bounds…my father being a mason//landscaper by trade…I need to talk to you…omg.

  13. The article on our wonderful local stones and walls has such important and educational lnformation for all of us who live in this wonderful region. You make it so easy to learn about our surroundings. Thank you!

  14. Fascinating Dan, thank you!

  15. This is one of the many reasons I read and support your blog, Dan. Fascinating, and well written to boot. Thank you.

  16. A friend once told me that the original Farmers called thes stones,”The Devil’s bones”. They are so wonderful. Thank you Scott and Dan.

  17. I grew up with an ancient stone wall at the end of our backyard, and one day I decided to remove several stones so that I could make a “seat” in it. My father was justifiably furious and made me repair it right away. A shameful 50-year-old memory!

  18. I will paraphrase Robert Frost (see “Mending Wall”)
    “Something there is that loves a wall,
    That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,…”

    ADW Staples 1956

  19. Thank you, Dan, and all, and Mr. Wunsch, for bringing Robert Frost and his wonderful “good fences make good neighbors” poem to mind:

  20. Oh how I love Westport’s stone walls. I came home from the hospital as an infant to Violet Lane and it’s magnificent stone wall. I have an original painting of that wall that I smile at every day with such fond memories. How I wish I knew more of the history of that wall. I don’t have permission to use their name so I will simply say that the parents of my best friend repaired the stone wall on their property and found a very old wedding ring. It sparked our imaginations about the builders of the wall. So many walls and a multitude of rocks that form them. Such wonderful memories of Westport. Thank you, Scott Smith, Dan, Mary Palmieri Gai and Fred Cantor. I have quite a few more decades of love of Westport’s rocks than probably most who have commented. Unfortunately, I live far away now but love it every time there is a picture posted.

    • Hi Mary, Happy New Year! Nice to see a Violet Lane alum weigh in. That huge wall you reference is all that remains of the Scribner Tannery – a big employer of Westporters back in the 19th century.

  21. While I love the piece, I take a bit of umbrage at the idea that the builders could only lift the stones to “thigh-high”. I think you are significantly underestimating how strong these men were back in the day. My grandfather was strong enough well into his 70s to lift a full grown man up with one arm, a story that has been recounted in these pages. I will share an excerpt from George Penfield Jennings’ book on Greens Farms, “The Mills family produced husky men, many of them stone masons. Most of the stone walls still re- maining in these parts and many of the cellars were laid by them. It was a common practice for a gang of stone masons to walk as far as Greenfield Hill for a day’s work, and back again at night, after handling stone all day. One who has handled heavy stone all day can understand what that means. Samuel Mills with a couple of his sons and his brother David, formed an outstanding wall-building gang; they were just as efficient in cradling grain, threshing with the flail, and butchering hogs in the fall.”

  22. Jacques! So glad to hear from you. You are such a great teller of “Westport stories” and I haven’t seen anything from you in soooo long. Keep those interesting histories coming, please.

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