Artistry in Stone

From walls around farmland to features in contemporary landscape design, what man has made of stone spans centuries and defines cultures.

They mark our place in history, structures of rock as daunting as the great pyramids of Egypt, as hauntingly beautiful as the Inuit inukshuk of the Canadian arctic, and as humbly elegant as the stone walls defining the pastures and lining the roads of Martha’s Vineyard.

Historically, stone walls on the Island are farmer’s walls, which are held together simply by the weight of the rocks, without using mortar. These farmer’s walls include the “lace walls” that are distinguished by many holes between the rocks, created when the walls were built, not because stones have since come loose and fallen out; they are common on Martha’s Vineyard and almost nonexistent elsewhere in New England. Many of the newer walls here tend to be more elaborate in structure and intricate in design; Island stonemasons might have cut or chiseled rocks to shape, and often mortar has been used to hold them in place – these walls tend to have a finished, smooth surface.

For Vineyard masons, there are inherent challenges to both creating new walls with contemporary designs and replicating old walls built by farmers to delineate pasture boundaries – as was the custom throughout New England when farming was a thriving culture during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

The old stone walls on Martha’s Vineyard are somewhat unusual, in part because there are simply more of them than in the rest of New England, says Dr. Robert Thorson, professor of geology at the University of Connecticut and author of Stone by Stone: The Magnificent History in New England’s Stone Walls (Walker and Company, 2002). Islands are great for grazing, “because you don’t need that outer fence,” Robert explains. Farmers concentrated grazing activity and thus erected more walls throughout the interior of the Island.

The walls here are also unusual because of the rocks. Martha’s Vineyard is a terminal moraine – the Latin translates to bank of stone – created when the last ice age heaved to a stop. We have predominantly granite rocks because, Robert says, when an island is formed, “all the softer slab that is normally in the glacier bottom is destroyed. Only the hardest, chunkiest, blockiest rocks survived.” Indeed many of the rocks and boulders in our old stone walls are more ancient than the farmland itself as they were formed with the moraine twenty to twenty-five thousand years ago.

Mud and clay caked / in cold crevices of / their scraped hands –

two bending men placing / a stone in the hollow / of two stones

Perhaps no one could more eloquently describe the challenge, toil, and artistry of erecting a stone wall than Chilmark poet John Maloney. As the lines above from his poem “Lace Stone Walls” might suggest, he’s also a stonemason, building walls here for thirty years.

John says winters are challenging for masons. He remembers a particularly cold one: “We were doing a job on Middle Road, and the first day everyone [driving by] waved; the next day it was so much colder, no one waved or even looked. They must have been embarrassed.”

Now, he says, “We have a rule: We don’t go out until it’s [at least] 18 degrees.” Even with anti-hydro products that keep the mortar from freezing, it has to be at least 32 degrees to work with cement. So they tend to do more repairs when the thermometer drops, or they build dry farmer’s walls and lace walls. And those kinds of walls, he says, which don’t have the smooth face you get with mortar, are the walls he prefers anyway, for their natural beauty.

“I like stone walls that look linear, using the rock the way it would lay on the ground, so it looks natural and not forced into the spot,” he explains. The real mastery of the mason in that case, he says, is “you don’t impose something on the stone; you just let the stones stand out.”

John Clift, of Landscope Landscape Construction in Edgartown, says there is always work to be done – repairing or replicating old walls, as well as building new ones. John says new walls tend to be part of the overall landscaping of a property, which often includes other stonework such as laying patios, installing fountains, or building fireplaces. There’s a continuity to each project, which can be as complex, elaborate, and stunning as the stone wall and aqueduct system at Willow Farm in West Tisbury that was designed by Stephen Stimson Associates, landscape architects in Falmouth. Landscope built the bluestone walls around the black, stainless steel water runnels.

When there are existing walls on a property, John says, the goal with replicating is not to overshadow the rustic look of the old stonework; and a job well done can be really satisfying. He gives the example of a project in Menemsha, from a few years back, “where there were some existing native fieldstone lace walls. We worked to match them with the entry gates we put up, these granite posts. And then we extended new walls from the existing walls to the gate.”

John says the crew, lead by head mason Jacson Cardoso, recently got affirmation on that job. “The house has been sold, and the new clients got our name from the previous homeowner. They called us up to do new work,” he says. “When we went up there, unbeknown to them, they thought all the walls had been existing....So that’s how well we matched them.”

Twenty-eight-year-old Eben Armer is one of the younger Island masons, but he’s been running his own masonry company for seven years – Contact Stone in West Tisbury. Eben agrees there’s no lack of work for masons here. Building stone walls makes up about a third of his business – many are up-Island where more of the older walls exist, and there’s a lot of work repairing and replicating them.

But Eben and his crew also have plenty of work putting up new walls with contemporary designs that call upon the mason’s creativity. For example, he says, it’s not uncommon to do the stonework on a foundation, then build accent walls on the property to match. And, he says, “We do a lot of smaller walls: retaining a driveway or a planting bed, or to terrace out a hill, or create atmosphere in somebody’s yard – basically to accent the landscape.”

Like John Maloney, Eben says winter presents its own hurdles: “We have to rig up temporary structures, heat with propane heaters, shovel snow away, cover the stones with tarps so you can see them the next day and they’re not frozen to the ground – definitely more time-consuming, not as productive as fall and spring.”

With the high demand for stonework, Eben says it’s harder to find native granite stones, because they’ve been used up in the repair of old walls and in new walls that try to duplicate the old look. “We replicate stone walls that are highly weathered and have that old patina, but usually we’re using stone coming from Western Mass. farm country.” But sometimes, he says, a crew digging a foundation will discover native stone, which can be worked into a new wall.

Eben thinks homeowners tend toward stone rather than wood or other fencing not only because it’s beautiful, but because it’s so evocative of the history here: “It’s just part of the Island character.”

Professor Thorson agrees: “Every wall on Martha’s Vineyard, these historical walls, every one should be left where they are. They’re such a vital part of history.”