Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Whatever Happened to Maynard's Stone Walls?

Wall behind 60 Nason Street, built to provide a firm base for the railroad tracks
circa 1850. Site of current ARRT construction.  Click on photo to enlarge.
New England’s famed stonework is a reminder of a period 150-250 years ago when dry-laid stone was part of every household: fences, walls, foundations, root cellars and more.  But anyone who has passed through Maynard and neighboring towns will notice Maynard’s relative dearth of stone fences and stone walls. Where did the stones go?  

It helps to know that during the Colonial era stone was the last choice of materials for fencing fields. Farming through the 1600’s consisted of laborious clearing of small fields for vegetables, corn and livestock feed. These plots were bordered by cut brush and branches. The fields were stump-filled and worked by hand.

In time, the stumps of trees left in fields were rotten enough to pull out of the soil and were laid along the border. As stones emerged through the eroding soil they were added to the fences. Stump fences were functional, but not handsome; hence the old-time insult “Ugly as a stump fence.”  When the stumps rotted away, post and rail fences were built over the growing rows of stones. The goal, always, was to keep horses, cattle, sheep and pigs out of the fields.

By the end of the Revolutionary War most of eastern Massachusetts was almost denuded of trees. What wood was left was used for building materials, heat and cooking fires. Stone fencing tall and strong enough to contain cattle took a day’s work from two men equipped with an oxcart to gather stone and build just 10 to 20 feet of stone fence. Most of what we see crisscrossing New England was originally post and rail over a low stone fence, and laid down between 1775 and 1850. Barbed wire, the easy solution, was not perfected until 1874.

Compared to the surrounding towns of Stow, Acton, Concord, and Sudbury, Maynard has very few remaining stone fences. As farms were divided into lots for houses and stone-bordered roads widened, many of the stones were hauled away to build the foundations of new houses. For example, the houses on Maple Street were built in the 1870’s with fieldstone foundations capped by brick above ground. But some remnants of stone fences can be found in Maynard. The hiking trail from Summer Street to the top of Summer Hill crosses a stone fence about half-way up, confirming that the top of Summer Hill was once a near-treeless cow pasture.  

Extensive stone fences can also be seen along the south side of ‘Track Road’ (the old railroad right-of-way and future Assabet River Rail Trail) as one walks from Maynard into Stow.  The woods south of one of these fences is all pine trees approximately 70 years old, suggesting that this pasture was abandoned when the land was seized by the U.S. Army during WW II.

Copestone-topped wall near church on Walnut Street
Stone walls are rarer than stone fences. Stone walls are what we see around churchyards, cemeteries and facing the road in front of the well-off homesteads.  In Maynard there are examples of these as mill races, river walls, and walls keeping private yards from washing away onto the sidewalks or streets. A very large retaining wall holds up the railroad right-of-way behind the apartment building at Nason and Summer Streets. A hope here is that it will remain undisturbed as the rail trail is built. Flat-topped ‘capstones’ line the tops of low stone retaining walls throughout town. In contrast, ‘copestones’ were set on edge on tops of walls to discourage wall sitters. Look for copestones near Maynard’s older churches.

Dry stonework, meaning constructed without binding mortar, is always at risk of theft of stone - a big problem throughout New England. Thieves have been known to back up a truck to a homeowner's border wall, or even a cemetery (!) and take the best stones off the top.
Stone on town property is not up for grabs, either. Tumble-down stone walls crisscrossing woodland are part of our collective heritage, a reminder of farmland gone wild again, and should never be moved or removed.

Poet Robert Frost famously wrote "Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,...” He meant winter freezes. Bad enough, but repairable. Once a wall is gone, it's gone.

The above is a slightly revised repeat of my first column, published November 2009. Below, a column fragment, never published.

 Density of Stone, Steel, Silver and Gold

This stone wall at the junction of Maple and Brook Streets is eight feet long,
four feet high and tapers from three feet thick at the base to two feet at the top.
Volume = 80 cubic feet. Mostly granite. Estimated weight = 10,000 pounds.  
Stone is heavy. Every stone mason who has ever blackened a fingernail knows this to be true. Granite weighs 168 pounds per cubic foot. Filling a wheel- barrow with gravel will far exceed the safe load capacity of the wheelbarrow. Tons and tons of stone are needed for a not particularly tall or long stone wall.

Steel is heavier. Steel weighs approximately 490 pounds per cubic foot. Pieces of rail on old and abandoned railroads across New England are 13 yards long a bit under 100 pounds per yard. Going price for scrap steel is roughly 15 cents per pound. New rails are marked near the ends with pounds per yard, manufacturer’s brand, and year and month made.

Silver, surprisingly, is not much less dense than lead. The two metals come in at 655 and 709 pounds per cubic foot, respectively.  In movies where silver is being cast into bullets (perhaps to shoot a werewolf?) the silvery molten metal is actually lead, which becomes liquid at 621 degrees Fahrenheit. Real silver melts at 1763 degrees and would be glowing red. Twenty-four carat gold is 1206 pounds per cubic foot. Standard-sized gold bars are 1.5 x 3.25 x 10 inches and weigh 27.4 pounds (400 ounces). In the movie The Italian Job the Mini Coopers escaping with the gold would each have been loaded with gold weighing more than the car itself!

In baseball terms, a regulation baseball is 12.8 cubic inches – give or take a bit – and weighs 0.3 pounds. Granite carved to the same dimensions would be 1.3 pounds; steel 3.7 pounds; lead 5.3 pounds and gold 9.0 pounds. At a late September 2016 price of $42.46 per gram, that solid gold baseball would be worth about $175,000.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

OARS Annual River Cleanup 2016

OARS: Poster listing sponsors.
Click on photos to enlarge.
The OARS 30th Annual River Cleanup took place on September 17, 2016. Teams of an estimated 200+ volunteers were assigned locations along the Assabet, Sudbury and Concord rivers. In Maynard, nearly 30 high school students were part of the effort, their presence organized by Maynard High School science teacher Rochelle Lerner.

At the post-event pizza celebration, dirtied and tired workers were joined by U.S. Congressional Representative Niki Tsongas and State Representative Kate Hogan, who had both been making a morning's effort to visit several of the day's river events. Tsongas and Hogan spoke to how efforts of organizations such as OARS (Organization for the Assabet, Sudbury and Concord Rivers) have made such a difference to our state's waterways. They also thanked the students for this year's service and charged them with the need to give something back to their community and country wherever their lives take them.

This appeared to be a watershed year (pun intended), as Maynard had more volunteers than trash to be removed from the river. Past years had yielded as many as 100 car and truck tires, plus bicycles, shopping carts, and tons of iron pipe, scrap metal, broken pottery, old carpets and miscellaneous junk. This year, only two tires, one bicycle, and an estimated total of less than one ton of glass, metal, plastic, broken furniture, etc. Not much in the way of newer stuff such as aluminum cans or plastic bottles. Clearly, less and less is being thrown into the river each year. Hurrah!   

Elmo (from Sesame Street), here posed kicking a soccer ball, was
salvaged from the river, as was hundreds of pounds of miscellaneous trash.
Each year the finds from the river include intact glass bottles with a bit of history. A Coca-Cola bottle, volume 6.5 ounces, with "LOWELL" inscribed on the bottom, was dated to the mid-1950s. In 2013 the find was an amber glass pint bottle embossed with the words CALDWELL'S RUM and the image of a three-masted sailing ship alongside a dock. The company had been started by Alexander Caldwell in 1790. Markings on the bottom signified that the bottle had been made for Caldwell's Rum in 1953 by the Anchor Hocking Glass Company. The oldest find to date is a one cup size bottle embossed with TURNER CENTRE SYSTEM, representing a dairy bottling and home delivery company active 100 years ago. 

Trash collected by the students.
 This year's find was a plain glass bottle with NEW ENGLAND VINEGAR WORKS embossed on the bottom, no other markings. Turns out NEVW began its life in 1865 in Somerville as the Standard Vinegar Company. Arthur Rowse bought the company in 1900, changed the name to New England Vinegar Works in 1907, then moved it to Littleton in 1930 to be closer to Massachusetts' apple orchards. Some time around then or a bit before, he created the name Veryfine, after bringing in pasteurization equipment and going into the apple juice business.

Veryfine and its popular bottled water brand Fruit2O remained a family owned business until 2004, when it was sold to Kraft. As part of the deal, the Rowse family insisted that Kraft keep any of the 400 employees who wanted to stay. Approximately fifteen million dollar from the sale was used to pay bonuses to employees; those who had been there more than 20 years got a bonus equal to a full year's pay. Kraft sold Veryfine to Sunny Delight in 2007. Sunny Delight closed the Littleton facility at the end of 2015 while continuing to make the Veryfine and Fruit2O brands at other sites. The Veryfine label has a banner that reads "Since 1865." Let's just call that a stretch.

As to the means by which thousands upon thousands of glass bottles ended up in the stretch of the Assabet as it wended it way through Maynard, think bridges and backyards, and the opinion that anything disposed into the river went "away." This is not a new problem. From the 1913 Annual Report of the State Board of Health "The Assabet River has at various times been seriously polluted in different parts of its course, the most serious condition in recent years below Maynard where the river receives sewage and manufacturing waste from a very large woolen mill and a considerable quantity of sewage also from the town... the river continues to be objectionable in appearance and odor, especially below Maynard."

To learn more about our rivers, go to:

U.S. Congress Representative Niki Tsongas (right) and State Representative Kate Hogan (dark suit, 
left of center) pose with Maynard High School students. Kneeling is Alison Field-Juma, Executive Director 
of OARS (left) and Lisa Vernegaard, Executive Director of Sudbury Valley Trustees (right). Science teacher 
Rochelle Lerner is in green shirt, to left.