The Art of Stone Walls

Stone walls are iconic markers of New Hampshire’s past, but the art of stacking stone is far from lost.
A wall at Rockledge Farm. Learn more about the farm’s rejuvenation in Kathie Fife’s book “Rockledge Farm: c1870 Barn Restoration Project.”

Ancient walls connect our agrarian past to the present. Now, a new generation of artisans (including the author of this article) is petitioning the future with messages drawn from the soil and written in stone.

The stretch of Routes 202 and 9 between Hopkinton Village and St. Paul’s School in Concord is just under 6 miles long. I live in Hopkinton, so it’s a road I travel several times a week. Earlier this fall, as I passed the turnoff onto Long Pond Road on my way to town, I saw a couple of younger men setting up a job at the house on the corner. They were building a stone wall.

“Another one,” I thought.

There’s plenty of stonework along this stretch, as there is on countless roads all across New Hampshire. The striking thing about the walls on this particular route is how many of them are new. Leaving aside the surviving sections of antique roadside walls that still rise from their crumbling lines here and there, and the stout retainers at Concord’s Dimond Hill Farm, there are at least 19 separate wall projects fronting homes on this road. All but four of them were built during my lifetime.

Hopkinton Road, as the section is known, is hardly a modern thoroughfare — It’s been the main route between my town and Concord since the middle of the 18th century. As such, the proliferation of recent stonework adorning it cannot be attributed to new-construction landscaping; indeed, several of the homes boasting freshly built walls are older than the country itself. Hopkinton Road’s stone walls are as good a demonstration as you’ll find of the renaissance in dry-laid (meaning no mortar is used) wall building that has taken place over the last 40 years or so.

Thanks to that resurgence, I’ve been able to make a large portion of my living as a stone wall builder for all that time and a little bit more.

I began learning the trade in 1974, working for my uncle Derek, a farmer who picked it up from older Yankees years before. There weren’t many people doing dry-laid work back then, so we quickly found a niche as traditional stone wallers and developed a small family business. Four of the walls on Hopkinton Road are ours, plus a fifth that has since been dismantled. “Old” and “new” are relative terms in stonework. Walls age in what might be described as reverse dog years, stretching time out instead of compressing it. A 60-year-old wall (if it’s well-built) is barely approaching its maturity, while a 20-year-old one isn’t much past infancy.

To me, no stone wall constructed after the beginning of the 20th century has a legitimate claim on oldness, but I realize civilians feel differently about this. Most of our work here was done in the ’80s, but it still predates a majority of the other “new” walls along this road, and it has an antiquity about it that the others lack.

Does that make me an old-timer, I wonder?

When starting out back then, we didn’t realize that the demand for new stone walls in New Hampshire was on the verge of a major surge in popularity. In 1971, the publication of Curtis Fields’ “The Forgotten Art of Building a Stone Wall” anticipated this rebirth of traditional approaches to stonework, and the 1976 appearance of John Vivian’s “Building Stone Walls,” which is still among the leading instruction manuals of the craft, signaled its beginning. Other books, including my own, have come along since then, and the library of historical and instructional literature about stone walls is now considerably more extensive. But the driving force behind New England’s stone wall renaissance wasn’t books — it was the boom in residential housing construction and its accompanying demand for landscape services. As houses were built, there was a renewed interest in the preservation and restoration of older stone walls and other structures.

Whether today’s stoneworkers are all-purpose masons, are employed by landscape companies, work as independent dry-laid specialists, or are simply inspired amateurs, it’s likely that many more people are currently learning and practicing the craft than at any time in at least the last century.

The guys at the corner of Long Pond and Hopkinton roads did a nice job. The 60-foot, L-shaped wall (to fit the corner lot) is a typical decorative garden type, about 20 inches tall with a width of about a foot and a half. It’s an orderly and apparently well-fitted piece, using many of the rounded, worn stones that have given New England stonework a reputation for difficulty. Short walls like this one often don’t endure as well as the heavier, rougher work of yore, so time will tell whether these builders were as careful with their interior construction as they tried to be on the outside. Longevity in dry stonework has little to do with appearance and everything to do with how its individual stones are locked together throughout the structure.

Seeing these younger builders at work made me curious about the perspectives of those who, like me, have been at the craft for a while now. The stone wall renaissance has been going on long enough at this point to be multigenerational, and veteran practitioners — call them the New Old-timers if you will — have a diverse set of approaches and experiences to inform their often-strong opinions of the state of the stonemason’s art, as well as trenchant advice for beginners.

photo by ashley rand of through the pines photography
Kevin French

The Artist

At 47, Wolfeboro’s Kevin French is still a little young for the mantle of old-timerhood, but he started in the trade so early on that he might as well be 10 years older than he is. He began at 14 as a mason tender, a reasonably brutal job mostly confined to mixing mortar and lugging heavy things from one place to another (including up scaffolding). Eventually, he gravitated to dry-laid stonework, and at 23 he constructed one of New Hampshire’s most arresting contemporary walls — a 500-foot masterpiece in New Durham known as the Twisting Wall (shown here), which rolls right over in a 360-degree flip halfway along its length. “That wall was my college,” he says.

French considers himself something of a rule breaker. He doesn’t pay much attention to the well-worn “one-over two, two-over-one” commandment, which insists that all joints between individual stones be “broken,” or covered over, by stones above and below in order to spread and integrate weight and pressure across the structure. Instead, he focuses on locking wall stones together by nesting their shapes against one another closely enough to prevent shifting or displacement over time. His twisting wall appears to defy gravity when it begins to bend over, but it stands because its component stones are held in place by side-to-side pressure that prevents them from slipping, even as the wall itself slopes more and more radically into its twist. “There’s an arch in there,” he says. “It’s invisible, but it’s built right in.”

French’s work includes plenty of commercial-type masonry, but his heart is in the one-of-a-kind projects he’s become known for. His 30-foot-tall outdoor fireplace, its chimney modeled in the likeness of an Abenaki Indian, is even more spectacular than the twisting wall. A bit of inspiration — provided by the discovery of an old toy airplane he once attempted to build — led him to begin embedding selected stones in the façades of his fireplaces to form pictures, and his interest in cutting and carving stone for these and other jobs has increased over time. He’s fascinated by shapes, as many builders are. “Every shape, every size,” he says. “You can do a lot of things.”

French’s approach to traditional wall work is, in many ways, intuitive. “I never use a string,” he says, trusting his eyes alone when laying out a new wall’s footprint on the ground. “A weird thing happens to me — things fall into place without planning.” He’s the only builder I’ve spoken with who’s familiar with the obscure but brilliant book “The Old Way of Seeing” by Jonathan Hale, a now-out-of-print work that explains how instinctive appreciation of pattern and proportion gives life to old buildings that new ones cannot match, an insight that applies equally to New England’s vernacular stonework.

French’s advice to beginning builders boils down to three words: read, observe and practice. Books like Vivian’s, Patrick McAfee’s “Irish Stone Walls” and others can show you the basics in a very short time. Watching experienced builders work, “not even asking questions, just watching,” says French, also helped him learn — sometimes what not to do as much as what works. And of course, practice, practice, practice, because “your own error is the best teacher.”

Bob Morel

The Historian

Bob Morel lives in Acworth. He’s a little past 60 now, and out of commission as the result of a stroke last spring, but he began building at age 15, almost as early as Kevin French. After a 10-year spell assisting an older mason, he struck out on his own. His company name, Oldways Building, makes his interest clear, and his fascination with antique construction and building techniques is not confined to stonework. He’s also a skilled restoration carpenter who recently renovated the interior of an 18th-century church in his hometown. When he builds a wall, he says, he’s seeking to “make it look like it’s been there since 1700.”

Morel has mastered the art of making stones appear comfortable. There’s nothing forced or contrived about his individual placements, nothing that jumps out at the eye or interrupts the flow of the whole. Well-built walls can actually tighten up as they age and settle, their separate stones nesting together more and more familiarly — it’s almost as if they’ve placed themselves, turning and testing until they located the perfect spot, like a dog lying down for a nap. Older walls often develop this quality on their own as time passes — it’s one of the things that betrays their age. Morel can build it in from the start.

As a young mason, he did a lot of facing and veneer work. This helps account for his sensitivity to pattern and proportion in the faces of his dry-laid walls, but he’s also a stickler for structural integrity: wide bases, lots of mass and plenty of through-stones — long ones that run far into the wall’s interior, or even all the way to the other side to help hold the structure together. Most of his work is built on a batter, meaning its outside faces lean slightly inward rather than rising straight up. Battering is more of a British habit than a New England one, but Morel’s use of it somehow makes his walls look even older. Many of them bear more than a passing resemblance to the famous walls of Little Compton, Rhode Island, some of which were built as early as the 1640s. The large oval planter he completed for an Acworth customer, built entirely of chunks of weathered quartz shot through with moss-filled cracks and fissures, would be right at home down there.

Morel likes to teach others what he knows. He speaks proudly of his most recent helper, who has reached a stage of competency that allows him to work on projects of his own. “I’m happy to see it,” he says of the younger builders coming into the trade. Still, he thinks that too many of them concentrate on appearance at the expense of sound fundamental building. “A lot of them don’t know what they’re doing,” he warns. “They build too narrow at the base — don’t look all the way through.”

Not surprisingly, Morel’s advice for beginning builders emphasizes the basics: Stagger your courses (the old one-over-two rule again) and step each new course in about 5 percent of the wall’s width (this creates the batter). When laying out a new section, avoid building over large tree roots — their steady expansion will eventually heave the wall upwards. Finally, in a wry bow to the inevitable in stonework, he offers this: “Keep plenty of Band-Aids on hand.”

Kevin FIfe

The Workhorse

Growing up in Canterbury, Kevin Fife wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, but he knew he wanted it to be outdoors. He hunted and hiked with his father, who would point out old stone walls in the woods. He always liked both stone and art. A summer job on the grounds crew at St. Paul’s gave him some early experience with an older mason. He then attended UNH, where he earned a degree in environmental conservation. Eventually he moved to Northfield and went to work for a landscaping company, building what he calls “homeowner walls” — smaller, mostly garden walls. By the mid-’90s, he was out on his own.

Over the last 20 years or so, Fife has established himself as one of New Hampshire’s most prominent (and busiest) stonemasons. He takes on big jobs now — major restoration projects, foundation work under old barns and new walls too. He has taught numerous workshops for organizations that include Canterbury Shaker Village and the NH Preservation Alliance. He’s traveled to Majorca, Spain, for a special international symposium and to Virginia for wall-building competitions. In 1999, he was one of two New Hampshire wall builders selected to represent the state at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, DC. These days, at 53, he’s in his working prime.

Fife considers stonework a form of art. “It’s aesthetic, functional, historical and natural,” he says. It’s hard to imagine a person more temperamentally suited for walling; the rhythms of his speech, and the way he moves around on a job, reflect the same thoughtful deliberation that shows in his work. His walls look rugged in a practical way, not much concerned with showy, self-conscious finesse in their patterns, yet balanced and settled. Many contemporary builders restrict their selection of visible stones to a relatively narrow range, sticking to pieces more or less alike in size and type. Not Fife. He’ll mix supplies of blocky or rectangular rough-cut stones with broken shards, rounded mini-boulders, or anything else he has at hand. This gives his walls a much more traditional appearance than many others, since it’s the same approach taken by the farmer-builders of the 18th and 19th centuries. 

Still, Fife’s work is far from improvisational. “I have a mental picture of what it’s going to look like before I even start,” he says. He spreads out his stone supply on the job site, so that he can see everything he has at all times. This not only allows him to distribute his variety of shapes and sizes more or less evenly across the project, but also shows him the full range of available choices for every spot he has to fill along the way.

As one of the early contributors to the stone wall renaissance, Fife is well aware of the trade’s growth during the time he’s been at it. He knows younger builders who “go slow and place every stone,” as he does, but he’s also seen builders, usually non-specialists, “who just bang it out. These landscapers do walls, but not the traditional way.” One of the little ironies of wall building is that it’s only difficult if you want to do it well. Even New Hampshire’s original population of wall-making farmers, for whom stonework was a continual occupation, had their share of careless or indifferent builders.

For beginners, Fife counsels patience. “It’s not a job you rush — pace yourself,” he says. “Stand back and look — don’t be discouraged if something doesn’t fit.” He emphasizes spatial awareness, the visual ability to match the shapes of individual stones to openings or spaces in the project as it develops, so that you have a destination in mind for each stone before you pick it up.

New Hampshire’s stone wall renaissance may have begun as a response to the growing demand for landscaping during a housing boom, but it sustains itself, at least in part, on a kind of wonder shared by practitioners and observers alike. “People are fascinated by rocks in general,” says French.

We’re all accustomed to visitors at our job sites who want to ask questions, tell us about a favorite wall of theirs, or simply watch us work for a while. There’s something compelling about simple rearrangement of the natural world, something purely human and authentic that, like a magic trick, creates a new thing out of old ones that were present all along. Nothing is added or subtracted, yet the landscape is transformed. “It’s that fascination with the earth,” French adds. 

The long tradition of using our endless supply of stone for all kinds of practical and decorative purposes is visible everywhere you look in New Hampshire, and this creates a sense of continuity keenly felt by today’s wall builders. “It’s a piece of history,” Fife points out. Seeing an old wall tucked away in the woods, it’s almost impossible not to wonder who put it there, when and why they did so, and what the surrounding landscape looked like in their time. Fife, Morel, French and several dozen other New Old-timers know that, by carrying on this ancient craft, they and their work become part of the land itself and of its history. If the young builders in Hopkinton share their passion, creativity and dedication, they will too.

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