Tuesday, December 5, 2023


     A long time ago there was a little boy who slept under a much loved quilt. It was his 'blankie'. That little boy was me and the quilt was nothing like the intricate works of art more at home hanging on a museum wall than covering a kid's bed. My quilt was a hand-me-down of random fabric scraps sewed to a sheet in a simple grid of squares with some kind of felt in between.


Beautiful but not mine

     I'm not really sure why I remember that quilt all these many years later. Maybe it was a connection to an all but forgotten ancestor (perhaps a great, great grandmother) so frugal that every bit of worn cloth was put to use. I can imagine her sitting by a kerosene lamp on long winter nights, cutting and stitching, slowly creating something that would be treasured for generations to come. Maybe it was the calming orderliness of the pattern, turning a hodge-podge of colorful cloth pieces into a coherent whole. Maybe it was just the way it made me feel...safe, protected, cozy. Neither the cold nor the boogie man could get me when I snuggled under my quilt.

     Washington County's landscape is sometimes described as a patchwork quilt. Small fields and woodlots (the swatches of fabric) sewn together by stone walls and hedgerows (the stitching). It's a picturesque image best captured in the paintings of Grandma Moses.

Grandma Moses painting
From the web

     It's a landscape that proffers the same emotional comfort as my childhood blankie. Our forefathers carved out the fields, built the stone walls, brought a human scale to what once seemed like a vast, forbidding wilderness. They created a place that still feels protective and nurturing. To many, it just feels 'right'.

     While going thru my Washington County photos recently I was struck by how many of them included things built from bedrock. It as though those who came before us left their signature in stone. Lots of walls, of course, but other structures as well. In this post I want to take a look at this legacy. Let's call it a celebration of stone.


     You've probably heard the origin story of stone walls told something like this: the glaciers came, ripping and tearing at the earth beneath them as they plowed their way south. It was a cold crush until something, a warming climate most likely, stopped their march and began melting them back. Some of the stuff they had sheared off was smeared beneath the ice and the rest was dumped out as solid water turned to liquid. Gradually vegetation reclaimed the land and animals wandered in, including the first humans. 

     But it wasn't until thousands of years later that a new people from Europe arrived, people whose background and culture involved land ownership, clearing, tillage and animal husbandry. Soon their newly opened fields were producing both crops of grain and of stone as the stirred and disturbed soil belched out the debris the glacier had left behind. With a need for fences to mark boundaries and to keep animals out of crops it made sense to move the rocks to the edge of the fields, killing two birds with one stone if you will.

     At least that's the kindergarten version of how our stone walls came to be. For a deeper dive there are several books you might enjoy:

     * Susan Allport's Sermons in Stone is a good primer. Illustrated with line drawing by David Howell, it's a fun read touching on many different aspects of stone walls: their natural and cultural history, various types and uses, stories and characters associated with them.

     * Robert Thorson takes you a little further in Stone by Stone and Exploring Stone Walls. He is a geologist giving his books a scientific tone but an easily accessible one. Read these and you'll see much more than a pile of stones trailing off thru the woods.

     * Finally, there is Kevin Gardner's The Granite Kiss. The author comes from a family of active wall builders and this is something of a 'how-to' focused as much on the aesthetics and soul of the wall as on practical technique.

     Here follows a somewhat random sampling of 'stoney' images. You can see many more wandering the back roads of Washington County. Happy hunting...



     This retaining wall is a familiar sight to those driving on Rt. 29 in East Greenwich. It's a mosaic of marble and limestone blocks creating the distinctive white/gray checkerboard effect. Reminds me of some modern art. One of the marble pieces has the enigmatic lettering seen above. The picturesque District School No. 12 sits above the wall. You can find interesting fossils in the limestone. Best to park on McDougal Road which Y's above the Rt. 29 wall. There is more wall on both branches of the Y and some of it makes for fun bouldering (but don't say I sent you when the cops show up). Also check out the low wall of local field stone surrounding the East Greenwich Cemetery on McDougal Road, comparing it to that of the retaining wall which came from distant quarries. Note that there's a similar though smaller wall a few miles west in front of the Susan Anthony House in Battenville. 

The East Greenwich Cemetery wall

Also along Rt. 29 just outside of Greenwich you'll see these carefully crafted piers
They support a deck overlooking the Battenkill which is on the other side of the road 


     The three photos above are from a wall along Rt. 22 north of Cambridge. Sort of looks like a medieval fortress. They are called copestones when set vertically on top. You also see this on a series of mysterious pillars along Chestnut Hill Road near the lane leading to New Skete in the Town of White Creek. 

     Nearly every house in the hamlet of Eagleville has some kind of stone landscaping. You can see them in a short walk uphill from the covered bridge. Here's just one:

     A little further up in the hills off Steele Road someone's (perhaps overly) ambitious project is listed for sale. It's a local version of Stonehenge.

Web image from real estate ad

     Along Rt. 372 approaching Cambridge you'll see several interesting structures. 

Artfully crafted entrance to a driveway

A stone dam and sluiceway with Frosty the Snowman standing guard

Abutments where the road crosses a small tributary of Cambridge Creek


A slate wall with steps built into it surrounds the old burying ground in Salem
Who would want to climb out of a cemetery?

This collection of small stones at Wiawaka serves as a memorial

     I believe the images above are from Dean Road in the Town of Kingsbury. On one side of the road rocks were simply dumped to get them out of the field while across the street is a more careful constructed wall. Just to the north there is a moraine where the glacier stalled in its melt back. As torrents of water flowed away from the ice front a large swath of rounded rocks of Adirondack origin were left behind. It's why local farmers are known to use foul language at times.
     Many of the Kingsbury walls may have been built by Reverend George S. Brown, a free African-American who lived and worked in the area in the 1800's. You can read more about this interesting guy here.

Quarried limestone formed the building blocks of the original
Champlain Canals many locks and aqueducts

     I've got many more photos of stone walls (probably too many) but while each is in some way unique all the images can start to look the same after awhile. Let's wrap up for now. I've also neglected the many beautiful stone houses found thru out Washington County. Perhaps there needs to be another post in the future. For those who want to dig deeper here and here are some links to interesting stuff. But maybe it's time to get away from screens and go look for stones...    

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