Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Hog Reeves and Stone Boats

I finished reading Susan Allport, Sermons in Stone: The Stone Walls of New England and New York (New York: W.W. Norton, 1990), and this is a continuation of my earlier notes to myself about the book.

See chapter 3 on town officials associated with stone walls, including fence viewers and pound keepers. There is a discussion of the Gunter's chain used by fence viewers on pp. 48-49. Another town official, not mentioned in the book, is the field driver, also known as the hog reeve, responsible for rounding up escaped livestock and taking them to the town pound. Apparently it was the custom in some towns to appoint newly married men as hog reeves. Ralph Waldo Emerson was once hog reeve of Concord. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the terms "field driver" and "hog reeve" are Americanisms. Robert Hendrickson, Yankee Talk: A Dictionary of New England Expressions (1996; rpt. Edison: Castle Books, 2002), has an entry for "field driver" but not for "hog reeve." I am indebted to Carl Young for this photograph of the town pound in Orrington, Maine:

Chapter 5 (Erratic Thoughts) discusses those idiots who think that Vikings, Irish monks, Phoenician sailors, or others built some of the stone walls of New England in pre-colonial times.

See p. 103 for some odd vocabulary associated with building stone walls (whoobies, shims, chinkers, chinks, chocks). On the same page is a delightful anecdote, whose source is apparently Haydn Pearson, "Stonewalls," Vermont Life (Spring 1948) 50:
In the late 1800s, when Haydn Pearson was a boy growing up in Vermont, he spent a summer helping an old wall builder build a wall of this type on a sidehill slope of a farmyard. "We had dug the trench deep and wide," Pearson remembered many years later. "Slowly the wall rose. The old man was very particular about each rock and chinking piece. To an impatient lad, the old craftsman was unconscionably slow. The idea of chinking rocks below the soil surface was particularly tiresome and irksome. 'Who's going to know if these are chinked or not' was a boy's question. The old man's astonishment was genuine as he peered over his spectacles. 'Why,' he said, 'I will—and so will you.'"
See p. 142 on 19th century migration from Vermont: "one-half of the native-born Vermonters had left the state by 1850."

On the advantage of a dry wall over a wet (mortared) wall, see the quotation on pp. 159-161: "A dry wall is a living wall. It moves and settles with the frosts. But if the frost gets to a mortared wall, it's going to crack and fall apart." The chapter on building a stone wall in Charles McRaven, Building With Stone (New York: Lippincott & Crowell, 1980; rpt. North Adams: Storey Books, 1989), pp. 57-63, discusses mortared walls only.

See Allport p. 163 on the Ribbonmen, an Irish secret society that destroyed hedges and stone walls of the English landlords. Alen MacWeeney and Richard Conniff, Ireland: Stone Walls & Fabled Landscapes (London: Frances Lincoln Ltd., 1998), appeared after the publication of Allport's book. There apparently are or were an astounding 240,000 miles of stone walls in Ireland, just a little less than the 252,539 miles of stone walls in New England and New York. On p. 175 of Sermons in Stone is an account of the contemporary problem of the theft of stones from dry walls. More colorful vocabulary on p. 177 (thrufters). Rules of thumb for wall building on p. 178, including:Pp. 180-183 deal with the possibility of dating stone walls by the spread of lichens on them.

Stone boats (sleds for hauling rocks) are mentioned on pp. 113 and 130. Synonyms for "stone boat" are "scoot" and "drogher": see John Gould, Maine Lingo (Camden: Down East Magazine, 1975), s.vv. On stone boats and stone wall building in general, see also John Burroughs, "A Walk in the Fields," published in his book Leaf and Tendril. Poems by Robert Frost on stone walls include "Mending Wall," "Of the Stones of the Place," and "A Star in a Stoneboat." A stone wall appears in the painting Autumn by Bruce Crane (1857-1937):

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