By Greg Phipps
The Marblehead Reporter
Introduced as a “jack of many trades” by Library Director Patti Rogers, veteran stone wall builder Kevin Gardner kidded that it only proved he was “just another guy who can’t hold a steady job.”
The comment received a hearty laugh from the gathering of about 60 people Wednesday night, Oct. 17, at the Abbot Public Library. Along with his lifelong passion for stone walls, Gardner is an accomplished art critic, radio host, and writer, as well as theater actor, director and teacher.
“On a night when the Red Sox are playing (in the playoffs), you’re here to listen to a total stranger talk about rocks,” added Gardner with a smile. “You’re a dedicated group.”
All humor aside, Gardner, a New Hampshire native and stone wall builder for 40 years, had the utmost attention of the group, as he spoke about the history of stone walls in New England – the origin, peak period, decline and rebirth. He also talked about the technique of stone wall building and the crucial factors involved in creating a wall that will sustain itself for a long time, centuries in many cases.
During his presentation, Gardner busied himself constructing a miniature stone wall model for the attendees to see. They got a chance view the completed model close up after the presentation concluded.
“Stones, like people, tend to loosen up and spread out as they get older,” said Gardner while discussing the process of cross-hatching, where stones are placed over each other as tightly as possible to produce sustainability.
“Working with New England stones is difficult and challenging. Each stone needs multiple physical dependencies to hold it in place. A well-built wall can last literally for centuries,” pointed out Gardner, who said a six-foot high wall should have a width of about four feet in order to maintain itself.
In discussing the history, Gardner said fences in New England, early on, were basically built with organic materials that weren’t long-lasting. But the wealth of rock material available in the area and the advent of the post-Revolution sheep industry helped change that.
“Sheep were the prime farm animal in New England and they are wanderers, so the focus was on enclosing the landscape to keep them in place,” he explained. “There was a frenzy of stone wall building right after the Revolution. The years 1775 to 1825 were the peak period of construction.”
According Gardner, the sheep industry began to die away in the 19th century, and the emergence of the Industrial Revolution created wage jobs and took young people off farms. Changes in transportation, such as trains and canals, also resulted in New England losing some of its economic and cultural energy, Gardner added.
“Many of the farms went under and disappeared completely. New England didn’t really come out of this (economic) depression until the 1930s and ’40s,” he said.
Stone walls became known as an existing characteristic of the New England landscape instead of a practical necessity. Gardner said an old standard livestock-bearing wall still around today would probably be four to five feet high. Some have been buried beneath the ground, or significantly covered over, due to forest grade rises and accumulation of debris over many years.
“The walls went from being a necessary tool for land separation and spacing to being more of an aesthetic feature in the 19th century,” Gardner said.
The vocation was revived in the 20th century due to the arrival of immigrants from major stone wall building countries such as Ireland and Greece.
“These stone builders were highly skilled and they looked at the occupation as a profession,” Gardner observed. “They worked for the railroads, municipalities, and the wealthy and they began to thrive – enough to keep the craft alive, and many of them became teachers of the (trade).”
During a question and answer session following the presentation, Gardner was asked about learning the profession.
“It’s not a complicated process,” he said. “It’s basically made up of simple techniques that have been around for thousands of years. In fact, you can learn the basic principles in a couple of hours… What takes time is mastering the proper application and technique, but there’s nothing particularly magical about it. It does take years of practice before you can achieve efficiency.”
Gardner was also asked about his books on stone walls, which were displayed at the presentation. He said his 2001 release, “The Granite Kiss,” was written for two kinds of people: “Those who would like to build stone walls and those who wouldn’t.” He added that his recent book “Stone Building: How to Make New England Style Walls and Other Structures the Old Way” (2017) was “exclusively aimed at aspiring builders.”
Used with permission of GateHouse Media New England / The Marblehead Reporter