Where did all Vermont’s stone walls come from?
The story of Vermont’s stone walls is about much more than just people making something — it's about the most enduring parts of this landscape, and how humans have interacted with them.
Brave Little State is Vermont Public’s listener-driven journalism show. In each episode, we answer a question about Vermont that’s been asked — and voted on — by you, our audience. Because we want our journalism to be more inclusive, more transparent and more fun.
In this episode, reporter Anna Van Dine answers a question about stone walls from listeners Jack Widness and Malcolm Moore.
“For what purpose did our Vermont forebears do all of that hard work of building stone walls in such different and unusual locations?”
Note: Our show is made for the ear! We recommend pressing play on the audio posted here. For accessibility, we also provide a written version of the episode below.
What’s up with these walls?
You’ve probably noticed the old stone walls all over Vermont. Malcolm Moore has.
“Some of them are really high and thick, and some of them are wide or really narrow,” he said.
“They go around fields or through fields, along roads, they go over hilltops and cross swamps. They go over bedrock and along agricultural fields. They're everywhere.”
Malcolm is a Windham county resident and retired land surveyor. He’s also one of our question-askers. Question-askers plural because he didn’t submit this question alone.
“It was actually both our questions,” said Jack Widness, a retired academic pediatrician who also lives in Windham County.
Two question-askers is unusual. I didn’t even realize there were two inquisitive minds at work until we all got on a call together.
“You know, you can't send an email from two people. So I had to do it. But Malcolm really was an equal on this,” Jack said.
A few years ago, Jack and Malcolm were part of a crew clearing trails on Hogback Mountain in Marlboro. And you’ll never guess what they found.
“There are these stone walls that were all over the place, you know, going up at steep angles, very close to the tops of the mountain. What in the world was in the mind of these people?”
The two of them started talking about it, and realized that while they knew a fair amount about stone walls, neither of them had the answers they were looking for.
“So anyhow, that's where we got together, sort of scratched our heads, and we thought about Brave Little State.”
They posed this question: For what purpose did our Vermont forbears do all the hard work of building stone walls in such different and unusual locations?
So much for simple answers
Malcolm has encountered a lot of stone walls over the years. And he’s always wondered about them.
“If you ask somebody, they immediately dismiss it with some easy answer, like, ‘Oh, they're there to mark your boundaries,’ or something like that. And I go, ‘No, I don't think so. Not that simple.’”
Malcolm has also heard simple answers about things like livestock fencing and crop fields. And his real hangup is that it seems like a lot of work to build stone walls for those things — too much work to make sense.
When we announced this winning question, a lot of you were like, "Come on, it’s totally because of sheep." But is it really? Or is there more to the story?
Maybe Malcolm has thought about this a bit more than the average person, but none of the simple answers has satisfied his nagging curiosity.
“I suspect there's some validity to all of those explanations. But to me, it remains just a question, a fascinating question. Why were they built?”
What Malcolm and Jack are looking for is not a simple answer about stone walls, but a story about stone walls. And they also want to know about the stories in stone walls.
“One of my interests in stone walls, other than on steep hills and whatnot, is what they tell us historically, about the way people lived,” Jack said. “After, you know, 10 or 15 years, culture changes.”
Jack and Malcolm submitted their question after spending some time in the woods, so that’s where I went to find an answer.
A walk back in time
On a snowy day in the middle of March, I found myself at the edge of the Hinesburg Town Forest. I was there with Jane Dorney, a geographer whose work focuses on the evolution of the Vermont landscape. She’s also a bit of a stone wall expert. Or as she’ll say with a laugh: “I studied stone walls in depth, yes.”
Also with me was Alicia Daniel, who runs the Vermont Master Naturalist program.
“We look at landscapes like you’re slicing through them like the layers of a cake,” said Alicia. “We start with the geology, and talk about the glacial history, and where Jane and I intersect is around the European settlement history layer, which is pretty far up the cake!”
We’ll come back to that cake later. First, we had to snowshoe through the 18 inches of snow that was sprinkled on top of it like a thick layer of powdered sugar.
We tramped down an abandoned road in the town forest, with a 200-year-old stone wall running along one side.
Alicia and Jane are the kinds of people who have deep connections to the natural landscape, its people, its past, and its present. They’re seasoned teachers, practical dressers, patient explainers and careful observers.
“To really understand stone walls,” said Jane, “it helps to understand the context in which they were made. They were made by farmers, farm families, and so they’re always associated with other 19th century farm features. So when I’m looking at stone walls it’s always a pattern, and if you know what to look for you can usually tease it out.”
Jane paused to point out three big maple trees, with low branches and trunks so large it would take two people to wrap their arms around them.
“If you look around, the size of the trunk is significantly larger than anything else, anywhere nearby. And we are standing on the road, these guys are in a line, there’s stone walls nearby...”
“And because of the lower branches we know they were open-grown,” Alicia added.
“So when they were growing,” said Jane, “it was open here, not all woods like it is now. So let’s see what goes with [them].”
Jane knows exactly what goes with them — she’s studied this place extensively. We took a turn off the road and into the trees, and stopped again, this time in front of a big rectangular hole.
“This is a cellar hole for the farmhouse. The big maple trees are planted in the front yard, in the open, and the stone walls are part of the field system of the farm. So there's a pattern, and the pieces are here, if you know how to look at them, and sort of connect them in your head,” said Jane. She said it can feel like going back in time.
So that’s what we’re going to do now.
The layers of the cake
The story of Vermont’s stone walls is about much more than just people making something — it's about the most enduring parts of this landscape, and how humans have interacted with them. In other words, the story of stone walls is not so much a story of the people who built them. It’s a small chapter in the story of the stones themselves.
So we’re going to start pretty far back.
That cake Alicia mentioned comes in useful here. Each stage of history is a new layer.
The bottom layer of the cake is geologic. The bedrock of Vermont is mostly made of schists, limestones, slates, shales, and sandstones. They formed over the course of hundreds of millions of years.
The next layer is glacial.
“There have been several advances of ice over the Vermont landscape. But let’s just talk about the last one," Alicia said. "Ice built up in Canada and it got so heavy and big the piles and piles of snow, and the ice beneath it, began to flow across the landscape."
More from Brave Little State: How has the geology of Vermont affected its character?
So, if Jane, Alicia and I stood in this exact same spot in what is now Hinesburg about 20,000 years ago, we would also be standing in the cold. Not on 18 inches of snow, but on top of a layer of ice, more than a mile thick.
As the ice flowed across the landscape, it plucked and dragged and moved stones around.
Then, about 18,000 years ago, that ice slowly started to melt.
“As it began to melt back it wasn’t clawing things back, it didn’t claw rocks from Connecticut up into Vermont," Alicia said. "It was dropping things."
By about 13,000 years ago, the glacier was gone. Which brings us to the next layer of the cake:
“The whole 13,000 or so year history of Abenaki presence on this landscape — through today.”
Alicia said humans moved into the area as the glacier receded – and have been here for hundreds of generations. About 1,000 years ago, they were spending a lot of time in the river valleys, and traveled extensively by boat. They moved seasonally. There was some agriculture and fishing along the rivers, and some hunting in the woods.
Indigenous peoples in the Northeast and beyond did, by the way, build things with stone – but not the walls we’re talking about here.
For the most part, the stones left behind by the glacier sat pretty much untouched for more than 10,000 years. Soil covered them, trees grew over them.
If we stood in this same spot in Hinesburg 1,000 years ago, it would be a very different forest.
“I imagine we would — here and most places in Vermont — be surrounded by really large trees,” said Alicia. “The floor would be spongy, there would be a lot of duff, and the soil would not have been compacted and eroded.”
What changed all that was the next and final layer of the cake: European colonization.
Europeans first showed up here in the 17th century. They displaced and decimated the people who had been living in the region for thousands of years, profoundly altering their ways of life.
Colonists brought domesticated animals, farming practices, and the concept of property, and permanently altered the landscape.
In the 18th century, surveyors came through and divided up the land.
Some early settlers chose lots in higher elevations. Even though some of the hills were steep, they thought the soil there was best for farming, and the growing season was longer than in the river valleys.
Jane said that’s why question-askers Malcolm and Jack found stone walls while clearing trails up on Hogback Mountain: “It wasn't random. You're gonna put all the energy into a random spot and just see if it worked? No, absolutely not!”
When the settlers found their lot, they usually cut a small clearing near the middle. If we stood in this same place in Hinesburg just over 200 years ago, we’d be in that clearing. There would be a little log cabin, and maybe a lean-to for the animals.
As soon as they could, the settlers would have dug that cellar hole and built a house. When they looked out the front window here in Hinesburg, they would have seen those three maple trees.
“You could also keep an eye on anybody coming down the road, and the neighbors. This was also the road the kids would have walked to school on, the one-room schoolhouse was just down the road,” Jane said.
More from Brave Little State: The rise and fall of Vermont's one-room schoolhouses
There would have been a barn nearby, and the crop fields. And the stone walls went around those crop fields.
Now, finally, we get to the stone walls.
Building the walls
At first, the colonists cut trees and built fences out of wood and stumps — but when farmers farmers went to plow their fields, they discovered those stones that the glaciers had left behind thousands of years before. Hence: the walls.
As a side note: You won’t find stone walls in the Champlain Valley, because a lake formed there as the glacier receded, and any stones left behind were covered by clay. But everywhere else, farmers found lots of stones in their way.
“Then to run your plow through there, you would have to move those stones,” said Jane. “They had stoneboats, they called them. They were sort of wooden sleds, I guess. So they’d go through the field and pick up the stones that they could see, and put them on the sleds — the stoneboats — and then take them to the edge of the field. I mean, some of the heaviest work was actually getting the stones out of the field.”
Want to learn more about walls and fences? Check out this 19th-century how-to guide.
And it had to be done every year. Each spring, the frost heaves would bring up a new crop of stones, and they’d take them out of the field.
“If there was a wooden fence there, they would stack – just throw the stones along the wooden fence …. until you could accumulate enough that you could make a good section of wall.”
These were wall-building people. If you’ve ever seen the stone walls in places like England and Ireland, you know what I’m talking about. So they took these stones, and turned them from an inconvenience into something useful: a wall that would last a long time, didn’t take much work to maintain, and kept livestock out of the crops.
“Most people think the stone walls — they think of them as fences and think of them like fences now where you're fencing animals in," Jane said. "But most — not every single one, but most — of the stone walls were built to fence animals out."
The farmers usually started their walls near the house and the barn and worked their way out to the fields, where they grew wheat and oats and rye and barley and potatoes and corn, and maybe an apple tree or two. They had more cows by then, and horses and chickens and pigs.
In the 1830s and '40s, the landscape was dotted with about 1.7 million sheep during the Merino sheep boom. (Which is quite a significant story, more on that in a future episode, maybe.) But I do want to talk about sheep for a moment.
Like I mentioned earlier, when we announced this winning question about stone walls, a lot of you responded to say they were built because of sheep. I consulted with a number of reputable sources on this, and while it’s true that sheep contributed to the walls, there are somewhat conflicting accounts as to how.
Some said that because of how much land was clear-cut for sheep pasture, there was a shortage of wood and farmers turned to stone fencing more quickly. Others said the combination of deforestation and a ton of sheep grazing on the landscape caused erosion that dislodged more stones.
Jane said her research into primary documents showed that the extra income from wool helped farmers expand their infrastructure — that means building more barns, hiring help, and: building more sections of wall.
Around the 1850s, the sheep industry boom became a bust, and before long, farmers switched to dairy.
If Jane, Alicia and I were standing in this same spot in Hinesburg in 1869, we would be standing in a big clearing, on a farm belonging to the Fraser family.
“So this would have been near the maximum of clearing for the whole state of Vermont, that era. They'd have maybe 20 acres of grain and such.”
By this time, the landscape had been radically transformed. Between the sheep farming and logging, Vermont had become about 70% deforested by the late 19th century. For comparison, it’s the opposite now — the modern landscape is just 30% clear.
More from Brave Little State: Does Vermont have any patches of old growth forest?
“So you would have been looking at those fields, those grains, waving in the summertime," said Jane. "Maybe your 10, 12 cows out beyond the crop fields, and then your woodlot would be farther out. Very, very agricultural compared to — look, this forest we're standing in right now!”
Over the past century and a half, agricultural practices changed. Technology advanced. People moved into the valleys, or out west. Trees grew back.
We made our way back through the woods, leaving the cellar hole, the maple trees, and the past behind. Jane and Alicia took a seat on a snowbank, and we looked over at the stone wall.
Even though the farmhouse has disappeared and the fields have turned back into forest, the wall remains, completely out of context.
“And so there's a sort of like, ‘Why is this here?’” said Jane. “It catches people's attention because of that. And as we've been doing today, you know, when you then just look at that one feature, and then try to understand the context it came out of, it does take you back to a different time when things worked very differently. Very differently.”
On walls and nostalgia
Maybe you have a stone wall in your life. The one I always think of is a wall down the road from where I grew up. Every summer, there are these roses that appear all along it. And when I see them, these unlikely blushes of pink, I think about someone planting them long ago — someone who remembered that in the midst of hard work and practicality, we still need something beautiful.
When you come across an old stone wall, you’re confronted with the fact that someone must have put it there. Even if it’s on a steep hillside, or in the middle of the woods.
“So many places you walk in the wild, and you're excited to be somewhere where nobody else may have walked. But here, it's the excitement — oh, you know, here are these walls! This is where something happened ... Somebody put a tremendous amount of effort into this,” said Susan Allport, author of the book Sermons in Stone: the Stone Walls of New England and New York.
While reporting this episode, I talked to a number of people like Susan who’ve done extensive research on stone walls in New England.
I say New England because the story of stone walls is not just a Vermont story. Glaciers didn’t just cover this one state, they covered the whole region, and dropped stones all over the place. So in addition to Vermont, you can find stone walls in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine and New York.
We’ve just heard the Vermont story, but it’s bigger than that.
“It seems to be just the Yankee farmer and his plow and the stones, but it wasn’t that at all. It was much more interesting,” said Susan.
“The whole history of it is much more interesting. That whole idea that the colonists came, and because the Native Americans didn't have fencing, [Europeans] then turn fencing into this unqualified good. ‘OK, well we do fence, so therefore, we're better. We enclose it, and therefore, you know, it's ours.’ So it was complicated from the moment that pigs and settlers stepped off those ships, and came into this land where fencing hadn't been required and didn't exist.”
In some ways, stone walls serve as monuments to fundamentally different ideas about how human beings can relate to the landscape and each other.
Like Susan said, it wasn’t just the Yankee hill farmer turning up stones and bringing them to the edge of the field. It would have involved everyone on the farm. In some places, particularly on bigger farms in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, that included the forced labor of Native Americans, enslaved people and indentured servants. At the same time, there were those who made a living as skilled wallbuilders – an example of this is Reverend George Brown, one of the first Black pastors to spend time in Vermont.
More from Brave Little State: Remembering Vermont's 19th century Black communities
And even though the people who built them are no longer here, the stone walls remain.
“And now here they are, that we can do whatever we want, we can romanticize them, or we can look at the full complexity of them,” said Susan.
"We obsess on the part that's still around, and we don't even see the part that's long gone," says Robert “Thor” Thorson, a professor of earth sciences at the University of Connecticut and author of Stone by Stone: the Magnificent History in New England’s Stone Walls. He says the story of these walls is not only regional and complex, but it comes in two parts.
“The first half is mostly about human ecology,” he said.
Which is something we’ve gone over: the way European settlers interacted with the stones on the landscape, and stacked them into walls.
“And the second half is about human architecture, reverence, interaction, nostalgia, if you like.”
Thor said that over time, walls have taken on a significance that has a lot more to do with culture than with nature.
The people who built stone walls knew they would last . But they had no idea how much, or how quickly, things would change. That their fields would turn back into forests, that their old farms would become ruins.
More from Brave Little State: A tribute to Vermont's old, falling-down barns
Now, what was once a convenient way to store stone and keep livestock out of crop fields has become a relic of an unreachable past. A stone wall today is a window into the bedrock beneath our feet, and a reminder of the inevitability of time.
Thor said for him, stone walls inspire a sense of reverence. Not for the people who built them, but for nature itself.
“There's a sense of nature claiming, you know, or reclaiming the works of human beings spread all over the surface that allows us to see [ourselves] with more humility,” he said.
“Nostalgia is a thing that we do for ourselves. It has little or nothing to do with the people who created the original work that is causing us to be nostalgic,” said Kevin Gardner. The New Hampshire resident is, among other things, a master stone wall builder, and author of The Granite Kiss: Traditions and Techniques of Building New England Stone Walls.
“I think I can tell you with some certainty that the building of stone walls was hardly a nostalgic practice for those who actually did it,” he said.
According to Kevin, wall-building involves a lot of time spent standing and staring, trying to figure out which stones to put where to make the wall as tight and firm as possible. But no matter how well you build a wall, it’s constantly in a state of falling down, deteriorating too slowly for the eye to observe.
“Walls, I like to joke, are like people. They tend to loosen up and spread out as they get older," he said. "If you were, for instance, to take a 150-year time lapse movie of the single surface of an old stone wall, you'd be amazed at the little tiny motions.”
Some people take care of the walls on their property, and replace the stones that have tumbled or slid out of place.
They’re fighting against erosion, the expansion of tree roots, and the activity of small animals. There’s also the occasional small earthquake, or flood, or big storm. And every year there are frost-heaves.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
So even two can pass abreast.
This is part of Robert Frost’s poem "Mending Wall". Frost wrote a lot of poems that include stone walls, but this is probably the most famous. It tells the story of two men, walking along the wall that marks the border between their farms. They’re repairing it, replacing stones that have been dislodged.
We keep the wall between us as we walk.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side.
The narrator questions what they’re doing, the traditions they are unthinkingly upholding. In his own way, Frost poses a very similar question to the one Jack and Malcolm asked: Why do we have this wall?
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.
The poem famously ends with the neighbor’s simple rebuttal: “Good fences make good neighbors.”
But the question still lingers – a question anyone might ask if they came across a line of stone in the woods, on a hillside, or along a road: What’s the point of a wall?
Want more Brave Little State? Subscribe to our podcast for free, so you never miss an episode:
Sermons in Stone: The Stone Walls of New England and New York by Susan Allport
Stone by Stone: The Magnificent History in New England's Stone Walls by Robert Thorson
Granite Kiss: Traditions And Techniques Of Building New England Stone Walls by Kevin Gardner
Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England by Tom Wessels
Thanks to Jack Widness and Malcolm Moore for the great question.
Anna Van Dine reported this episode. Angela Evancie produced it and did the mix and sound design. Editing and additional production from the rest of the team: Myra Flynn, Josh Crane and Mae Nagusky.
Ty Gibbons composed our theme music; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.
Special thanks to Tom Wessels, and to Rebekah Irwin at the Middlebury College archives.
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