Stone walls and foundations

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Stone walls honey-combing the woodlands,  foundations, and cellar holes, are found throughout the Maine woods.  Here I’ve transcribed from my journal some of a tour of his land, given by our friend, Paul

Again we see the old stone walls and realize that this overgrown little-used way was once a buckboard thoroughfare. I’ve named this essay “The Overgrown Way” for this metaphorical quality.

Just off-path we step in among bushes above the deep- sunk cellar hole. Deep and square—massive green foundation stones the largest I’ve found in any such cellar hole. Paul points out the large stump of birch he cut inside this hole. Good, healthy, white wood. Rings tell that it was 100 years old at cutting. The homestead was built, indwelt, decayed and dispersed in the hundred years prior to that: a product of Wellington Byrd’s labor on land granted him after the War of Independence. (Another term and event rich in metaphor.) This great tree made its home and nurture in the cellar hole and lived on for another hundred until the time of Paul’s saw.

We stand talking about the prowess of a gone-by century; gone-by like the withering of a complex, elegant, flower. The massive stones were laid one on top of the other without aid of hydraulics. Men used draft teams, mighty oxen, and block-and-tackle to achieve such feats. In pointing out that decayed houses were once stripped and burned for their nails, Paul expresses admiration for their resourcefulness and economy. It brings to mind the connected dwellings abounding in New England 100 years after the revolution.

Thomas Hubka, author of Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn, writes that they were the product of that crux in time of 19th-century Maine when the State was on the cutting edge of agriculture. Nothing was wasted, including buildings.

Houses and sheds were bought and moved; they were added to other houses to form ells and extend dwellings out to their barns. We see one, which is pictured in the book, every time we go into the village. Its second story was once a house on some other ground. Then it was moved and raised, the ground floor erected under it as part of an elaborate extension. Houses grew by accretion of prized components. The connected dwelling, with the odd orientation of its various components, reminds me of the angles posed by those groupings of Maine’s Civil Divisions.

It was a time when Maine crops were in high demand. In 1880, when the average farm was 103 acres, and farming wasn’t so specialized, there were 64,000 farms statewide. Farming was largely self-sufficient, and Maine’s leading source of income. About one third of the State was devoted to agriculture. Specialization did not take off until remote Aroostook County sheared off the forest in its eastern portion, and “got into” potatoes. That specialization prospered only because steel rails came to connect The County with the sea ports of southern Maine.

Still talking of these things, Allen, Paul and I walk back along the overgrown road. We walk back through the new old orchard, past the stumpy blackened field, the great garden: unworked now.

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Photos by R.  This one, taken on a local ski mountain the other day, appears to be of an old foundation of a barn.

4 responses

  1. It was through you that I first learned about that accretive way of building houses in New England. Now I remember it every time I see a rambling farmhouse with lots of additions!

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    • thanks! so glad you think of it! suppose i’ve elsewhere drawn from the passage before — in lj c-c? it came from the journal/memoir entitled /experience in the western mountains/. (still unpublished.) nothing like taking apart books and journals to accrete a new structure. 🙂 best!

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    • yes! so surprising to see the vast interconnections of these walls and realize all that effort…and how their labor would undergird or foundation all that came after. we see these walls and remember how what we are/have is so supported.

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