Stone walls in Berkshires: From necessity to beauty

Sunday November 25, 2012

EGREMONT -- Paul Montgomery has a knack -- and a bit of an obsession -- for building classic New England stone walls.

Since March, the 61-year-old homeowner has strenuously and meticulously placed thousands of rocks -- several weighing an estimated 600 to 700 pounds -- along the edge of his front yard on Townhouse Hill Road.

Montgomery says the nearly complete, 4-foot-high, 312-foot-long wall -- composed primarily of shale, sandstone and granite -- was built for two reasons: aesthetics and fun.

"I wanted to give [the property] some character," Montgomery said. "People notice it a little more, stopping by and saying how nice the wall is to look at."

The new wall comes almost 30 years after Montgomery, a Great Barrington police officer, rebuilt an existing 332-foot stone barrier on the south side of his front yard. Given his experience, Montgomery had no qualms about spending countless hours of free time on his latest creation.

"It's so time-consuming, but enjoyable," Montgomery said. "You can talk to the rocks and they won't talk back."

The most time-consuming part, he pointed out, is gathering the stones. The majority of them were unearthed from nearby farm land after working their way up from underneath the soil. Montgomery says the remaining rocks and boulders are courtesy of South County homeowners more than willing to rid themselves of their rock piles.

"Someone in Sandisfield has offered me stones," Montgomery said. "I haven't picked them up yet, but I'm going to."

While Montgomery's stone walls are about enhancing his homestead, land owners who settled in the Berkshires more than 250 years ago built them out of necessity.

According to local historians and an expert on classic New England stone walls, the barriers -- built without mortar to cement the rocks together -- were used primarily as pasture boundaries. Stone walls also formed the foundations for some homes and barns to create terraces and even dammed a river for commercial purposes.

"They were all about function, not what they looked like," said Robert Thorson, a geology professor at the University of Connecticut.

Thorson has spent more than a decade researching New England stone walls, the vast majority of which he says are pre-Civil War. The Alaskan transplant has written several books on the topic and began the Stone Wall Initiative, a movement to preserve a piece of regional history.

"Twenty years ago, I would see trucks being loaded with stone from old walls, moved and sold to be rebuilt elsewhere," he said. "It was the selling of our heritage, the carting away of archaeology."

Today, owners of historic properties are better stewards of the land and its existing structures, according to Thorson.

"People are paying more attention to stone walls as we're riding a wave of historic preservation," he said.

The Bidwell House Museum in Monterey epitomizes local historic preservation.

The home of the Rev. Adonijah Bidwell -- built in 1750 on a 6-foot-high stone wall foundation -- is nestled on a hillside of a 192-acre site along Art School Road.

Bidwell, one of Monterey's first settlers, and his heirs farmed the land for 103 years. They built four miles of stone walls that encased pastures for livestock, fruit trees and other agricultural uses, according to museum officials.

Rob Hoogs, president of the museum's board of directors, cited how the stone walls -- typically thigh-high ones -- are a product of recycling. The rocks of all shapes and sizes were removed from valuable land being used for crops, orchards or grazing farm animals.

"The walls were basically a way to re-use and get rid of stones that had piled up," Hoogs said. "They weren't built for beauty."

Since the museum's board assumed control of the Bidwell estate in 1990, the nonprofit volunteer organization has worked to maintain the 262-year-old house. The foundation has since been reinforced with mortar, with the outside stone walls left as originally constructed.

"Some of the walls have been rebuilt, but mostly we try to keep them from falling down," Hoogs said.

John Masiero considers stone walls as history and art combined. The 65-year-old, lifelong resident of West Stockbridge lives on 28 acres that once were part of the vast Hiram Cobb family farm in the 1850s.

Bordered by the Williams River, Masiero's property along Shaw Road near his childhood home includes the remnants of an estimated 150-year-old stone wall that once stretched across the river. The rock and earthen dam allowed the owners of a saw mill to harness the water to power the mill.

"What's left is a beautiful curve of rocks," he said. "It's kind of a work of art."

Masiero's more pristine stone-wall structure is that of a barn foundation that has withstood time and the elements. The barn has long since been razed, but Masiero said he believes the more than 100-year-old foundation should remain as a reminder of his hometown's heritage.

"A number of people have stopped and offered to buy the foundation," Masiero said. "[But] I can't see tearing down a work of art just to build a wall for another home."

To reach Dick Lindsay:,
or (413) 496-6233.


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