Posted by Mitch Townsend on March 18th, 2007 (All posts by Mitch Townsend)
Those picturesque New England stone walls were not put there for their looks. They weren’t even the first choice of material. Fences were originally wood, using the zigzag design that calls for a lot of wood for the length. Wood became scarce and too valuable for fencing after the forests were cleared, so stone walls became the default.
Clearing the forests, paradoxically, had the unintended effect of making rocks more abundant. Soil in a forest freezes gradually in the fall and thaws slowly in the spring. When the soil was exposed to the sun, it would freeze and thaw suddenly and repeatedly. The result is like what happens when you shake a half-full can of mixed nuts: the Brazil nuts come to the top, and the salt and broken bits fall to the bottom. The glacial soil of New England was full of rocks, and there would be new ones pushed to the surface every spring. The walls were a place to put this abundant crop.
Eventually, most people who wanted to farm went west. Farms were abandoned, and the forests grew back. It is not uncommon to find small towns in Vermont and New Hampshire where the population peaked around the time of the Civil War, when the railroads solved the problem of getting crops from the fertile, stone-free farmland of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Many who stayed moved on to other pursuits, and other failures. Continued…