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Appreciating stone fences

June 6, 2013

[A version of this article previously appeared in the Bloomington Herald-Times on 6/1/2013.]

Stone fences often outlast stone structures made with mortar, because they flex and breathe.

Stone fences often outlast stone structures made with mortar, because they flex and breathe. [Click on any photo to enlarge.]

Anyone who has driven along local back roads has seen drystone fences. They’re obviously old, but virtually all memory of their origins has been lost over time. Vandals entertain themselves by pushing them over, and landscapers rob them of stone for garden projects. But they are far older than most people realize, and are in fact one of the last visible reminders of the prosperous agrarian society that was our nation before the Civil War. Of many stone fences that used to stand in Monroe County, only a few remain: along roads including Victor Pike and Maple Grove Road, and bordering old cemeteries such as Covenanter and Ketcham.

Trees are a stone fence's worst enemy.

This section of fence stands near Church Lane.

Monroe County’s remaining stone fences are of great interest to preservationists because they are older than most other manmade structures existing today in Bloomington and Monroe County. When originally constructed, in the early to mid-1800s, they were pinnacles of the mason’s art. Their style, 4 to 5 feet high, with diagonal coping along the top edge, is found throughout Ireland and Scotland. The traveling masons who built them had emigrated from those lands, and fences of that particular pattern are a clue to their wanderings.

Trees are enemies to stone fences, heaving them with their roots and eventually dropping limbs on top of them.

Trees are enemies to stone fences, heaving them with their roots and eventually falling on them.

“This technique came straight from the ancestral homeland,” commented Jane Wooley, Executive Director of the Dry Stone Conservancy in Lexington, Kentucky. “Europe has a long tradition of dry stone construction. It’s an ancient technique; the Neolithic village of Skara Brae in Scotland is drystone and dates to 2000 BC. All stone masons in the 1800s knew how to lay drystone. This kind of fence didn’t need mortar when done correctly. They sit lightly on the land and don’t need deep foundations. They actually breathe. They expand and contract with the freeze cycle. They’re free-draining, so water flowing down a hillside goes right through them.”

A properly constructed drystone fence can last much longer than mortared stonework. Frost cycles crack mortar, whereas drystone will flex indefinitely.

Victor Pike in the snow. Photo by Cheryl Munson.

Victor Pike in the snow. Photo by Cheryl Munson.

Archaeologist Cheryl Munson loves these fences and is passionate about their preservation. She produced a geologic survey map showing the different limestone formations that run through Monroe County.

“These fences are only found along the Harrodsburg limestone formation,” she pointed out, “because that type of limestone splits into small, thin slabs that can be handled easily. This limestone deposit runs from a little way north of Gosport south through Bedford and onward across the Ohio River into Kentucky.” Local stone fences are restricted to a narrow band running along the north-south center axis of the county, where the Harrodsburg formation flakes apart at the ground surface. In the 1800s, it was too labor-intensive to haul rocks long distances, so fence-makers would carry or quarry stone from creek beds and outcroppings along the route of each fence.

Semi-recent vandalism at Ketcham Cemetery, which otherwise has the finest existing stone fences in the county.

Semi-recent vandalism at Ketcham Cemetery, which otherwise has the finest existing stone fences in the county.

In Lawrence County, a superb stretch of drystone fence runs along Tunnelton Road just south of Route 50.  These fences are common in Kentucky’s Bluegrass Region, where they are often erroneously believed to be the work of local slaves who toiled there. Although slaves indeed quarried the stone, and later picked up the craft as freedmen, the fences of the early 1800s were almost invariably built by skilled Scots-Irish immigrants commissioned by affluent farm owners, and by Irish immigrants who were paid to line the early turnpikes with miles of stone fences so travelers would not inadvertently leave the road.

This ruinous section of a fence along Maple Grove Road recently received attention in the form of a drystone repair workshop. Photo copyright Danielle Bachant-Bell.

This ruinous section of a fence along Maple Grove Road recently received attention in the form of a drystone repair workshop. Photo copyright Danielle Bachant-Bell.

But the stone fence era drew to an end.

“By the late 1800s there were other types of fencing to enclose fields,” Jane noted. “The skill was declining, and it took skill to build these fences. Although some refer to them as ‘dry-stack’ fences, we don’t because it doesn’t reflect the skill-set needed to construct them.”

Over the years road widening destroyed many of the fences. Trees grew up along the remaining walls, heaving and toppling them.

The same section of fence, after repairs. Photo copyright Danielle Bachant-Bell.

The same section of fence, after repairs. Photo copyright Danielle Bachant-Bell.

“It’s a rare fence owner today who maintains them,” said Jane, “because it can be costly. If the stones are still there, they’re easily rebuilt. But once you remove the stones, it’s a lost cause.”

Scottish master mason Neil Rippingale, the Conservancy’s Training Program Manager, travels the nation repairing historic drystone fences and structures, many of them in national parks including the Grand Canyon. Two weeks ago he led a repair workshop and presented a public talk in Bloomington. He said, in his lovely accent, “Why repair them? Because stone fences are part of the cultural history, and it shows respect for the masons who built them.”

“The best thing that people can do to preserve their own stone fences,” Cheryl summed up, “is to eliminate existing trees next to the fences. These fences represent a priceless bit of heritage that are worth maintaining or restoring. I can’t imagine that a good stone fence wouldn’t enhance any property value.”

See http://www.drystone.org/ for more information about historic drystone fences.

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One Comment
  1. John McDaniel permalink

    I had a stone fence on a farm near Harrodsburg, mostly intact. Well away from Ketcham road, presumably to keep cattle out of the tillable Clear Creek bottom ground rather than for show. A elderly neighbor, around when they were still using oxen instead of tractors, commented that the local farmers used to spend winters building those fences. Judging from the public record in that farm’s abstract, none of the previous owners would appear to have had the means to hire it done. Thanks for the article.

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