Litchfield County Sketches
By Newell Meeker Calhoun
Litchfield County University Club
Stone Walls and Shad Fences
THE wire fence is that of the modern farmer, and is extravagant because he must go to town and buy it, and cruel if he uses, as he too often does, the barbed wire. One could stroll in the ante-bellum days through the pastures and down by the brooksides unmolested and unafraid. The fences were either stone walls or rail affairs of various patterns. No signs, so common nowadays, stared one in the face, “Hunting and Fishing Forbidden Here.” The farmer, if you met him, inquired after your catch of fish, and told you where there was a splendid hole, down under the roots of the old tree, or just below the mill dam. The farmer’s dog wagged his tail, as much as to say, “Good luck to you, boy.” Now all is different. You wade down a brook through tangled alders and wild grapevines, and come suddenly upon barbed wires stretched across it. You look up and see the almost universal sign, warning you that you are trespassing. Or, if the warning is not there, you are surprised by the farmer while lying flat upon your stomach trying to throw into a nearby pool.
He comes angrily upon you, his dog snarling before him, and begins to curse and to swear, or at least to call you more names than has any English lord. You supposed that the brook was free, did not know that the owner objected, and end by laying a piece of money in his hand, at which he is pacified, and goes back to put out more barbed wire fence and teach his dog to drive off all intruders. Some foreigners who have bought up the old farms are especially cantankerous about other people poaching on their preserves. They learned their lesson in the Old Country, where, I suppose, they understood the gentle art of poaching. The grandfathers of other days would no more have taken money for the fishing privilege of their brooks than they would have broken the Ten Commandments. A few of their sons are still living, and make the life of the trout fisherman endurable. Such farmers welcome you to their brooks and their homes, put your horse in the stable, invite you to have a “bite” with them, ask for the news of the town, and act like social human beings, citizens of a free country, where all are brothers.
There is nothing poetical in the wire fence; it is prosaic and commonplace to a degree. Neither is there anything substantial about it. It is here this year, moved the next, and lying on the ground because of a rotten post the year after. It is inartistic, since you cannot have any color scheme connected with it, and no hedgerow grows naturally near it.
There was a fence which one might often see in our county in the old days, but whether used now I do not know. The boy was set to build one about a turnip patch on an August day. His father, having an errand in town, gave him as his stint (we used to call it “stent”) the building of the fence, telling him that when the work was done he could go a-fishing. The turnip patch was in the angle of the field, and the new fence was the base of the triangle. There was to be about a dozen rods of this fence, and the material was all on the ground. The boy accepted the challenge, looked at the job and fell to work, as was his wont, with all his might. The fence was to be that of the shiftless man, called “shad.” Why, the boy did not know then, and does not until this day. Possibly it was because the rails when set in place resembled the bones in the dorsal fin of a shad. A beginning was made by piling up two or three stones, as large as the builder could well handle. Then, a rail having been laid in place, one end on the stones and the other on the ground, two stakes were driven in place and the next rail laid, one end on the ground and the other in the stake, and so on until the job was finished. It meandered across the field at the will of the builder, and when done was pretty sure to arrest the attention of the passer by and the progress of sheep and cattle.
Such a fence was not as picturesque as the “Virginia rail,” a most common fence in the days when timber was cheap and plenty. This is still to be seen, but for the most part the rails are covered with lichens and bear other marks of age. It zig-zagged across the field, the corners of the rails. being crossed, and when well built those same corners were fortified with stakes and caps. The boy with the big auger helped to make those same caps on a rainy day, along with some barposts. This kind of fence fairly made a bid for berrybushes and golden rod to hide in its friendly corners, out of the way of the plough and the mowing machine, and the bitter-sweet and Jacob’s ladder to climb its rail ends and stakes. What a place for meditation and whittling the top rail was for the boy, while the cows wandered along leisurely toward the let-down pasture bars nearby! The COWS had time enough, and so did the boy.
Very likely a woodchuck has burrowed in a nearby corner of the fence, taking advantage of the security offered by the friendly hedgerow. Not seeing the boy, who for the time being has stopped his whistle, he pokes his wise nose out of the -hole, comes out and sits down upon the observation mound at its mouth, and with his two front feet hanging by his side stands for a moment at attention. Not discovering the enemy near, he concludes it is safe to accept the invitation of a nearby clover field to come to supper. The boy came upon him once unawares, and he had to hide in an old stone wall, where he in turn whistled angrily at the boy, who worried him with a long stick. Old stone walls are strong fortresses for the woodchucks when they are disturbed by humans. But that. fortress was not always impregnable when attacked by a shrewd man and a wise old dog. The farmer removed a few stones, and Rover did the rest.
Stone walls are the fences of the industrious, enterprising farmer. His material is all furnished by Nature on the ground, and has the immense advantage of being indestructible. More than that, it is material which was in the way of the scythe and the plough, and later of the mowing machine. To remove the stones from the field and build them into a strong, durable and artistic stone wall, “lie labor, hoc opus est.”
This farmer, however, loves to work, and is never happier than when he has some stony field to clear and fence. The enemy is worthy of his courage and muscle. He is a pioneer clearing the soil, a benefactor of the world making another acre or two of arable land, a creator both of a new field and a new fence. A generation ago stone walls were fashionable. It was worth going through the county just to see their long straight lines stretching across the fields. It is to be noted that a college professor from New York City is again introducing this well-nigh lost art into the State and county. These walls of the old days were sometimes made of very large stones piled up one on another, a single thickness of them, tapering off at the top with smaller stones. Of such a fence the farmer was wont to say somewhat sneeringly, “You could throw a cat through it.” Other walls were built wide enough to drive cart and oxen on the top of them, and would make a good fortification for another Gettysburg. When the mowing machines came in they were a wonderful incentive to wall building. One improvement forces another, as the bicycles and automobiles testify with regard to public highways. It was at first thought that mowing machines could not be used in stony fields. That fallacy has been pretty well exploded, for they are using them now in any field where you can drive a cart.
Stone walls and fences have to do with character. Suppose the boy had never built any other kind of fence but the shad variety of other days, which, by the way, was finished by two o’clock and followed by a fishing excursion. It was easily built and easily destroyed, and the builder need not be a skilled workman.
There were no special obstacles to be overcome and no great difficulties to be encountered. It need not be built with plumb line and sighting stakes. Anybody could build a shad fence at any time. Not so the stone wall, for difficulties lay in the making from first to last. The stones, set firmly in the soil, were hard to lift and harder to break. They had a way of smashing one’s fingers. The boy disliked them because they were always getting in the way of his big toes. He thought they grew on the meadows, so often was he set to pick them up. Then there must be preparation made for the good stone wall by digging to below the frost line and laying the large footing stones in place. All the stones, little and big, must be laid true to the line aud on a secure bed. One rod a day was a good stint for two men and a boy, with the help of a strong yoke of oxen. Such work develops hardihood, accuracy, moral muscle. He who has built stone wall is quite ready to undertake any of the great tasks of life. In New Preston, Horace Bushnell built stone wall on a college vacation to forget the toothache. It was Horace Greeley, was it not, who said the stones of New England had been the potent cause of the character of its men? These men, like Horace Bushnell, became pioneers in the great West, or, as he did, pioneers in the world’s thought land, blazing a way for others to follow. Nothing can daunt such men, for they have built stone wall.
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