AP NEWS

Secrets of stone walls revealed in Greenwich talk

March 13, 2019

GREENWICH — They’re everywhere, yet somehow invisible.

The old stone walls of New England largely remain in plain sight, but they also inspire great passion for those who are drawn to take a closer look at them.

Sylvia Reiss is a connoisseur and self-described “collector” of old stone walls, and she’s journeyed all over New England with a camera to study and record the rough-hewn structures that crisscross the landscape, for an estimated distance of 100,000 miles.

Reiss gave a presentation to the Retired Men’s Association in the First Presbyterian Church community room Wednesday morning, offering a primer on how, why and where the stone walls were built.

A former teacher and antiques dealer, Reiss called on members of the audience to look closely at stone walls the next time they have the opportunity, to take in all the textures and details. “If you look at old stone walls, stop, slow down and really see what’s in the wall,” she said. The walls were sometimes assembled with great care that can still be appreciated two centuries later.

The golden age of stone-wall building ran from roughly 1775 and 1825, following the deforestation of the region for agriculture. With the trees gone, millions of rocks rose from the earth , bedeviling farmers who broke their plows tilling the soil.

“They had to be hauled off the field to cultivate that field,” Reiss said, “And the stones kept coming up, one year after another after another. They were referred to as ‘New England potatoes,’ and there were people who believed it was the work of the devil.”

The stone walls were often used to enclose farmland, keeping livestock out, or to line roads, but the main goal was to simply get the stones out of the way of a farmer’s plow. The use of strong backs and legs was the main method applied to build the walls, as well as oxen, sleds and winches, she said.

“They left behind this great legacy — stone walls,” said Reiss, a Darien resident.

Different kind of walls emerged, some more elaborate than others. Among the most common are the “tossed” walls, put together with little care or effort, as the name implies. “Laid” walls are also fairly common, in which the stones were assembled deliberately for sturdiness and longevity. A more elaborate structure was the “double wall,” parallel rows of stone filled with interlocking “thrusters” and small stones. Among the rarest are “lace” walls, which can be seen through.

Reiss talked about the different kind of ornamentation for walls, including copestones, which resemble “dragon’s teeth.” As she spoke admiringly of the texture and craftsmanship of old stone walls, Reiss poked gentle fun at the modern stone walls that adorn many suburban mansions. “Boring company,” she called them.

As agriculture declined in the region after the Civil War, the walls became ruins, glimpses into the past and a reminder of the hard life that farming entailed in a landscape littered with stones.

Reiss said the walls were often deceptively simple, but they offered a study in geology, history and ecology all wrapped up in one stony package. “Stone walls — there’s a lot to see,” she said.

A RMA organizer called the presentation an impressive one. “It certainly opened my eyes,” said Hollister Sturges.