Ask a New Englander to describe their rural landscape and “stonewalls” would likely top the list, perhaps second only to trees. Glaciation produced a crop of stones and industrious New Englanders rearranged them into an estimated 250,000 miles of walls. Although it’s been over 200 years since the height of stonewall building peaked in the early 1800s, an estimated 100,000 miles of stonewalls still stand as an understated testament to a complex land use history.
Not all stonewalls are created equal. The region’s stonewalls are as varied as the people of New England in their build and intention. Stonewalls range from the hastily tossed farm wall to grand “finished” estate walls. Any landscape-loving Yankee worth his salt can “read” a wall to accurately determine a parcel’s land use history. The following field guide presents five typical stonewalls in section with a brief description of defining features and how the wall’s form provides clues to a landscape’s history.
Tossed Wall (Fig. 1)
The Tossed Wall is architectural evidence of agriculture. As fields were cleared for tilling, these stonewalls were literally tossed into existence —one stone at a time — at the edge of an agricultural field. The form of a tossed wall is loose and often far wider than tall. The builder’s goal was to dump the stone; stacking it up was unnecessary.
Disposal Wall (Fig. 5)
Similar to the Tossed Wall, the Disposal Wall is also a byproduct of agriculture. In some cases the Disposal Wall was initially a Tossed Wall that had been rebuilt in an effort to tidy up the farm. The Disposal Wall is built from two single stack walls, where the resultant void is filed with smaller fieldstones. This type of disposal wall is evidence of a successful agriculture.
Pasture Wall (Fig. 4)
The Pasture Wall, also known as a farm wall, was built to contain livestock and is the most common type of stonewall in New England. This wall is characterized by large stones and typically lacks the smaller stones of an agriculture related wall. The wood rails that once made up most of the wall’s height and ensured that livestock stayed put, have long since rotted.
Gentleman’s Farm Wall (Fig. 6)
The Gentleman’s Farm Wall or Estate Wall is neither the direct result of agriculture nor husbandry, but is a statement of values and achievement. This wall communicates pride, order and wealth by means of craftsmanship. The wall’s tight one-over-two construction, consistent batter and capstone, were of significant expense and beyond the reach of most thrifty New England farmers.
Whiskey Wall (Fig. 7)
The Whiskey Wall is arguably the most misunderstood and misclassified stonewall typology. There is serious debate as to the exact origin of the name. Some historians claim it is called a Whiskey Wall because it was built under the influence of whiskey. As one can easily imagine, “walling under the influence” lends to poor construction practice and eventually leads to the wall’s failure. Others claim it is called a Whiskey Wall because it was destroyed by drunk hunters, likely trying to flush out an animal from the wall. Both options seem plausible, but only the empty whiskey bottle truly knows.