On Friday September 23rd, Kevin Gardner, a master dry stone wall builder talked to the Dublin School community about the stone walls and the ecological and cultural history of New England. For more than thirty years Mr. Gardner has been a stone wall builder in a family business widely known for traditional New England stonework, particularly for historic restoration of antique structures. In 2001, Mr. Gardner published The Granite Kiss: Traditions and Techniques of Building New England Stone Walls. Since 1985, Mr. Gardner has also been a performance critic, feature writer, and producer for NH Public Radio and is also a longtime professional actor, director, and theater teacher.
The thespian and master builder were on equal display as he exhibited wit and skill in an informative discussion while he built a miniature stone wall. He framed his discussion around the years 1871 and 1971.
In 1871, the federal government did a survey of the miles of stone walls in New England and NY and documented 250,000 miles of stone walls. Mr. Gardner pointed out that that exceeded the amount of railroad track in the country and the number of miles from the Earth to the Moon. He argued that this was a clear undercount in that dry stone laid technology was also used, but not counted, in culverts, dam, bridges, road embankments, and house and barn foundation construction throughout the region. Most of the walls in Northern New England were built during a relatively short period between 1810 and 1840.
1871 was also the high point for New England’s iconic stone walls. As New England depopulated after the Civil War and turned away from traditional farming methods, stone walls ceased to be properly maintained and gravity and small earthquakes combined to reduce the height and structural integrity of the walls. Since dry laid walls utilize no adhesive, depending on gravity and overlapping construction to maintain integrity instead, they require a certain amount of maintenance. Originally, squared walls were built to heights of four to six feet with dimensional stability achieved by building in a ratio of 3/4:1 - a six foot high wall was built with a depth of four feet. As the walls aged, they shrank and assumed the more tumbled down appearance that we are familiar with today.
He said that in 1971 a book was published by Yankee Magazine - The Forgotten Art of Building a Stone Wall. The author, Curtis Fields, attempted to create a manual on the proper way to build walls. But there was a problem - almost everything in the book was completely wrong. Ironically though, while wrong on substance, the author reflected a concern and appreciation for the old walls that was soon felt throughout the region. 1971 can properly be considered as the beginning of a renaissance in the construction of dry laid stone walls. As population and wealth began to flow back into New England, demand for repair and restoration of the beautiful old walls that partly define the region accelerated. However, since the walls that people saw were not the original high square walls but the deteriorated form, customers wanted walls that looked right to them - walls that mimicked the tumbled down look of unmaintained 150 year old walls. It took time for the master craftsmen, like Mr. Gardner, to learn how to build walls that look like they are “falling down” but that are structurally sound at the same time.
Mr. Gardner finished by saying that there are more master wall builders working professionally today than at any time since the 1840s and that the iconic walls of New England are being rebuilt and reinterpreted for a new generation to enjoy.