by Michael Bell

Order out of chaos.

A stone wall at Powder Mill Ledges Wildlife Refuge, Smithfield.

You don't have to go far in Rhode Island to see the remains of an agricultural past. Stone walls, in all stages of repair and disrepair, seem to line every small rural road. You might find yourself asking, "What are all of these walls doing way out here in the middle of nowhere?"

But, of course, one hundred, two hundred, maybe even three hundred years ago, that place wasn't desolate and overgrown. It was likely part of farm land that had been painstakingly cleared by hand with the assistance of animal power. Stones that could be moved were hauled to the perimeter where they were eventually transformed into a "rubble wall." Larger rock outcroppings remained, forcing the neat, straight rows of corn to temporarily break apart and coalesce on the other side, their undulations a visible reminder that we never totally control nature.

Thinking about these walls might bring to mind Robert Frost's poetic observation that "good fences make good neighbors." Is this an allusion to the character of New England: independent, isolated, almost aloof? Perhaps. But fences have another significance that was historically more immediate. You can see this meaning more clearly by transposing Frost's neighbors and fences: good neighbors make good fences.

The early settlers placed high value on good fences. While the hundreds of miles of rubble walls that still snake through the Rhode Island landscape bear silent witness, more direct testimony exists. Between the years 1647 and 1668, for example, fences are mentioned on sixty-two of the 478 pages of the Warwick town records. Historical documents like this describe mustering the community to repair fences held in common, as well as imposing fines on those who neglected their private fences. Keeping cattle from the corn and marking property boundaries were ongoing concerns. Stone walls achieved both of these purposes while also providing a use for the numerous stones cleared from the fields.

So the hand of nature combined with the needs of people to create a tradition of building in stone, one that still thrives among the Narragansett Indians of South County. Before King Philip's War, in 1675, the native peoples of Rhode Island were paid by colonists to build and repair fieldstone walls. Following the Great Swamp massacre in Charlestown, many of the remaining Narragansett captives were sold or retained as slaves (a practice that continued in various guises despite a colony law prohibiting Indian slavery). As slaves or indentured servants, the Narragansetts continued to develop the craft of stone masonry. By the middle of the nineteenth century, they had earned a reputation as excellent stone masons, constructing not only walls, but also fireplaces and chimneys.

Many current Narragansett masons can trace their craft back through several generations. Like most folk practitioners, they have learned through an informal apprenticeship, usually with a father, uncle or other relative. The first four years are spent as a "gofer," fetching tools, mixing mortar, and moving as much as two tons of stone a day. During his last three years of apprenticeship, the young mason learns to work alongside of the master. He may be trusted to lay stones, but often the master still chooses which stones go where, especially in the key areas of a piece of work such as the corners of a facade. It may take years to develop an experienced eye, to learn just where a particular stone should be placed and how to trim it for a precise fit.

In some ways, the development of an individual mason parallels the history of the Narragansett Indian stone masonry tradition. In its earlier stages, building in stone served as a way to earn a living in what had become a white man's world. For many Indians, masonry was a useful skill that became a viable occupation. In its later stages, the craft began to flower into an art, combining function, form and beauty.

When Russell Spears, who built in stone for well over fifty years, summed up the history of his own development as a mason, he spoke for many others: "A lot of people do stonework that's just building with blocks. When I started, quite a ways back, I just had no thought of trying to make things look pretty. It was just, like, a wall. We'd take the stones and put them anywhere. There was no idea behind it. It was just building a stone wall. Now we have ideas behind it. Certain stones go certain places." The next time you see a stone wall, think about the good neighbor who made it, and perhaps the ideas behind it, too.

Michael Bell, formerly Rhode Island's official state folklorist, is the author of Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires. This article originally appeared in the May 1993 issue of Guide to the Ocean State. It appears here with permission of the author.

More folklore from Michael Bell...

This article last edited April 21, 2004

© 1999–2021 (with the exception of elements provided by contributors, as noted).