N.E.'s stout stone walls no match for thieves
Groups race to save an icon
STORRS, Conn. -- By and large, New England's iconic stone walls have withstood generations of wandering wildlife, howling blizzards, and even the occasional hurricane.
Now the rustic walls face new dangers -- a growing number of blatant stone-by-stone thefts, and the legal practice of dismantling the walls to use the stone for patios, walkways, and other landscaping projects.
From Connecticut's tony suburbs to Maine's rural back country, the threat to New England's low-slung stone walls has forged new alliances between historians, government officials, geologists, and conservationists.
Their goal is to curb the thefts with stepped-up enforcement and tighter regulations, while encouraging landowners to preserve the walls rather than succumbing to the lure of selling the stone for easy money.
"The walls are no less an antique than a piece of Chippendale furniture, but you wouldn't take a Chippendale apart for the wood," said Robert Thorson, a geology professor at the University of Connecticut and author of "Stone by Stone: The Magnificent History in New England's Stone Walls."
Increased thefts and sales prompted the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation to name the walls among the state's most endangered historic properties in 2002. This year, it nominated the walls for the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list.
Several specialists say that no known inventory exists of New England's stone walls, many of which are deep in remote glades or barely visible under decades of vegetation.
An engineer's 1939 estimate based on federal agriculture records concluded that, at their peak just after the Civil War, there were about 240,000 miles of stone walls in New England -- a stretch longer than the US coastline.
The walls have their roots in the hardscrabble days of early New England settlement.
Wall-building reached its peak between the Revolutionary War period and the post-Civil War era, when New England's interior was booming with new farms and industrial jobs had not yet lured people into the cities.
In some cases, the walls were literally thrown together by farmers as they cleared fields. More often, however, the walls were specifically built as borders for roads, pastures, cemeteries, and property lines.
In the typical rustic stone wall, the stones are medium-sized and reflect Yankee pragmatism: Anything larger would have required more than one person to lift, and anything smaller wasn't worth the effort, Thorson said.
Like old tobacco barns, covered bridges, and grist mills, the walls became an easily identifiable New England icon over the years -- much as Florida has its Everglades, South Dakota has its Badlands, and California has its sequoias.
"Areas have their signature land forms and in New England, it's the stone wall," Thorson said. "They shout out, 'I'm here -- I'm here and nowhere else.' "
From a historical standpoint, the least pristine stone walls are often the most significant. Those with weathered, lichen-encrusted stones are especially prized because they are the most authentic and most alluring to thieves.
Police say they have recorded numerous complaints of stone thefts throughout New England and parts of New York and, in a few cases, stone rustlers caught in the act have faced criminal charges.
A New York City businessman served prison time after admitting in court that he stole stones from walls, cemeteries, and church sidewalks in 2001 and 2002 so he could build a patio and line his trout pond.
Yet for every thief caught, countless others get away undetected. The thefts often are not spotted right away, and putting a dollar value on the stolen stones is a guessing game at best.
In Connecticut, no firm figures are available on how many thefts have been reported because those incidents are combined with thousands of other larcenies reported annually, State Police Lieutenant J. Paul Vance said.
"It's really hard to quantify whether those kinds of thefts are prevalent or limited, or what dollar value you could even put on it," he said.
Connecticut state Representative Roberta Willis faced that dilemma a few years ago when someone took her old wall, stone by stone, from her remote property in Salisbury.
"At first, you don't notice it. Then you look at it one day and think, 'Wasn't the wall higher than that?' " she said. "It's not even a stone wall anymore. It's like a border now."
Willis helped push through a law in 2006 that toughens punishments for stealing stone walls.
Aside from thefts, specialists say, many stone walls are disappearing in a perfectly legal way as owners accept bids -- often thousands of dollars -- from companies that rebuild the walls elsewhere or use the stone in landscaping projects.
Some governments are fighting back with ordinances requiring property owners to get a permit and provide strong explanations before removing historic stone walls.
The town of Smithfield, R.I., offers a tax exemption up to $5,000 on the value of property where stone walls predating 1900 are preserved.
Several other New England communities also have considered or enacted similar measures, hoping an appeal to landowners' sense of history will be more effective than heavy-handed rules.
After all, Yankees are nothing if not independent-minded.
"Whatever solution is going to happen has to occur locally, and has to honor the opinions of all the stakeholders," Thorson said. "To tell a New Englander that they can't move their own stone around is just stupid. But to show them they're preserving artifacts of a lost civilization, that's what matters."