By Mike Bisceglia
Hampton Union, Tuesday, February 21, 2006
[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]
There is probably nothing more indicative of New England than its stonewalls.
Constructed primarily of granite (after all, this is the "Granite State"), the walls meander along property lines, through woodlands, and around many orchards and cemeteries. So popular were the walls in the late 19th century, that in the New York/New England area, there were thousands upon thousands of miles of stonewalls.
New Hampshire Yankees were a self-reliant lot. Many needed to grow their own crops and raise their ownsheep and livestock. In order to till the land, the large crop of boulders (dropped off courtesy of an Ice Age glacier) had to be moved to the perimeter of the property. It was there, that the hefty chunks ofstone were placed in a somewhat orderly manner.
These walls were functional, not necessarily decorative. Having aesthetically pleasing walls was not an 18th century concept. Walls built nowadays around lovely gardens and trimmed lawns might well be considered Victorian in design. Walls around the many one-acre farms that dotted the area were not tall enough to keep a wayward sheep from bounding into a neighbor's pasture. Thus, individuals erected wood-frame obstacles on the walls, or simply piled brush atop the stones.
As walls became more standardized, builders took pride in building the stonewalls long and straight. Some historians today can tell which walls were built by the same builder.
Since there is considerable marsh land around Hampton, the number of stone walls is far fewer than further inland and in more hilly terrain. Around both the Pine Grove and Ring Swamp cemeteries, there are fine stone walls. Interestingly, the walls around the burial sites were added more than 100 years after the cemeteries were realized.
There are some wonderful examples of stonewalls along Exeter Road. At least two of these walls connect to the foundations of some early structures. It is true testimony to the builders that these wallsremain intact today. Many of the walls are single stone width. These are only a few feet in height.
The double width stonewalls may be a bit higher. Essentially, the double thickness walls are two separate walls with a space between. The space is filled with smaller stones.
Kevin Gardner's book "The Granite Kiss" is a wonderful source for anyone seeking information about thepicturesque stonewalls of New England. For the uninitiated, the kiss is that exquisite moment in the course of building or repairing a wall when one's finger becomes slammed between two unyielding granitestones.
In 1914, Robert Frost wrote the poem, "Mending Wall." In it, two land owners chose a spring day to walk the length of the wall together. They work together, although it may be considered a form of competition, to rebuild the wall to separate an orchard from an animal enclosure.
Twice in the course of the poem, Frost points to the rugged, practical nature of New Englanders with the line, "Good fences make good neighbors."
If this is true, the Hampton area has to have a tremendous number of good neighbors.
There is beauty in a stonewall, no matter its height, depth or length. Stonewalls, like people, are not perfect.
It might be said that their perfection is in their imperfections.
An old proverb states, "Gifts make their way through stonewalls."
Anyone who walks or bikes along Hampton's many miles of stonewalls might disagree. They might just say, "Gifts don't make their way through the walls; they are the walls."
A person wanting to build a stonewall today is confronted with more restrictions than existed more than a century ago. At that time, there was no problem taking sea stones to add a different texture to the wall. Today, the state of New Hampshire frowns on such an activity. Beyond that, one must know how deep to dig to set the wall; how frost might effect drainage and much more.
Special thanks to Elizabeth Akroyd and Percy Annis of the Hampton Historical Society, and Paul Eno of Eno Building Supplies in Hampton.
Mike Bisceglia is a retired teacher. He lives in Hampton.