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.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, I recognize that fence! :)

    Excellent article as usual, thank you!