ELEMENTS – September 2007
Photography Sara Gray
Maine’s ever-present element
Like a red barn at the edge of a field or a modest white church beside a tidy village green, stone walls are one of the stalwart symbols of New England life. According to the Stone Wall Initiative—a project connected with the University of Connecticut that studies the cultural, natural, and aesthetic impact of stone walls in New England—the oldest documented English-built stone walls in the region were erected at the Popham Colony settlement at the mouth of Maine’s Kennebec River. While a few slapdash stone walls were built on the grounds of the short-lived Popham Colony, many historians agree that the halcyon days of stone-wall construction in New England were between 1750 and 1850, as newly arrived settlers demarcated property lines after painstakingly clearing forests to make way for homes and agriculture. In 1940, Oliver Bowles, an engineer for the United States government, estimated that there were more than 250,000 miles of stone walls in New England—and one can only guess how many of those quarter-million miles were, and are still, located in Maine.
Today, the state’s stone-wall tradition is as strong as ever. Walter Lamont Jr. of Searsmont has been building walls for more than a decade and a half as part of the larger earth-moving jobs he performs at new construction sites. With a reputation for having a gentle touch at the controls of heavy machinery, which he uses to move large rocks, Lamont estimates that he has built hundreds of stone walls over the years.
When it comes to retaining walls along the edges of Maine lakes, Lamont believes not only that stone is more aesthetically pleasing but that it withstands the ravages of long winters far better than cement. “Rocks will move and shift slightly with high water and ice,” he says, “whereas cement walls often crack.”
Lamont says that he prefers to use stone that he finds on-site. “I can bring in any stone a homeowner wants,” Lamont says, “but if you have them on-site anyway, it’s nice to use what’s there.” And that usually isn’t a problem. With so many rocks deposited across the fields and forests of Maine, the early English settlers who were forced to dig them out of their fields called them “New England potatoes.”
While Maine’s old stone walls are still being repaired and maintained, it seems new walls are popping up around the state at a breakneck pace these days. Whether they are built with mortar or the traditional dry-laid technique, today’s stone walls come in an unlimited variety of shapes and sizes—from massive, square-sided walls built of quarried stone that can give an elegant Colonial the appearance an austere fortress to the gracefully weaving fieldstone walls that capture the character of Maine’s haphazardly stacked “farmer’s walls.”
Craig Aronson of Aronson Stonework in Litchfield often reclaims rocks from old farmer’s walls. While Aronson also enjoys working with stone he finds on-site, he relishes salvaging rock from ancient deserted house foundations and from crumbling forgotten walls deep in the woods. “Old foundation stone is just perfectly weathered,” Aronson says, “and it’s a more natural fit for this environment than something shipped up from Pennsylvania.”
Building between six and ten walls per year for the past 20 years, Aronson is forever on the prowl for more Maine stone. “I get what I can get when I can get it,” he says with a laugh when describing his rocking-hunting road trips. Aronson often stores his finds at this home in Litchfield and allows prospective clients to peruse his veritable museum of rocks to choose exactly what they like. “People appreciate the rocks,” he says. “They are what make each wall unique.”
Just as no two rocks are alike, each stone wall has its own character, and all of his stone-wall projects hold a cache of memories for Aronson. “I built that one alone in the fall after 9–11,” he says of the sweeping stone wall at Sweetser’s Apple Barrel and Orchards in Cumberland Center. “I sat in my truck at lunch and listened to the news reports,” he remembers. “And I ate a lot of apples, that barn was just loaded to the rafters with apples.” In between bites of McIntosh’s and Cortland’s, Aronson built the Sweetser wall with a mix of stone: “I brought a little in,” he says, “but mostly it was from an old foundation right there on the farm property.”
Whether the rocks are plucked from the site or shipped in, David Eaton of Maine Stone and Landscape in Rockport says that the best-looking designs are located on sites that simply beckon for a stone wall. “I always say there has to be a reason to have a wall,” says Eaton, who’s been plying the trade for 25 years. “You don’t want a wall that just looks out of place.” Eaton says the style of a client’s house must also play an important part in what type of stone wall should be built—a farmer’s wall may be a perfect fit for a rustic home, but quarried stone or slabs of granite are likely more appropriate for a modern design.
While the relationship between home and wall is important, says Eaton, the unique qualities of a site will practically dictate a wall’s design. Several years ago, Eaton tackled a landscaping job that required him to build a stone wall at the bottom of an incline full of dense clay soils that were bursting with groundwater. He wanted a wall that looked informal in design, but yet he knew that a traditional dry-laid wall would have quickly tumbled over given the level of groundwater runoff on the site. Eaton’s solution was to set massive slabs of fieldstone on their edges and sink them six to eight inches into the ground to create a sort of retaining wall. He used similar pieces of fieldstone for the stairs that climbed the slope and under-filled them with loads of crushed stone to handle the runoff.
While there are countless stone-wall styles and designs, there is even more variety in the stones themselves. In his book Good Fences, photographer and author William Hubbell writes that the stone walls erected in central New England between 1810 and 1840 have more collective mass than the great pyramids of Egypt—an assertion that seems unfathomable, yet appropriate to this ubiquitous element of the Maine landscape, which represents the tenacious desire of New Englander pioneers to shape the land around them.