Saturday, January 29, 2011

Stone Mason or Turnpiker?

Stone masonry has a long history in America. As a natural resource, stone was quickly utilized to mark boundaries, keep in livestock, and line roadways. It was also a natural extension of skill as immigrants from Ireland increased in number. The Bluegrass region of Kentucky is a well known international example of stone masonry. With a landscape infused with natural limestone, Kentucky pioneers were quick to realize a practical use for the stones serving as obstacles for their plows.

When stone masonry is referenced as a trade of the 19th century, it is often referring to the unique skill of building dry stone or mortarless rock walls/fences. This talent or skill was a direct inheritance from our Irish/Scottish/British ancestors. Dry stone masonry requires a more highly detailed and precise skill that results in a lasting and durable structure with no cement or mortar to aid in stability. For those of you with "stone mason" listed as the occupation of your ancestor in the census, there are high odds that this was the kind of stone mason they were describing. Prior to and just after the surge in railroad construction, this was the highest demand for labor associated with transportation.

Plantation style fence with thicker cut stones,
especially at the base.
However, stone fence construction had structural phases that you should be aware of. In the the first phase of dry stone fence construction, from the 18th to the mid-19th centuries, a true, solid, interlocking construction was used. This type of construction is referred to as a Plantation fence. The Plantation fence was used more among farmers on their own property to display boundary lines and corral livestock. The difference can be seen more after describing the next phase, but the solid nature of construction, that involved rock spanning the entire width of the wall, meant longer structural durability. Not all of the rock spanned the width, but after the tie rocks across, the shorter rocks were at least long enough to overlap the others to provide an interlocking type of construction. 
Overhead view of a Turnpike fence.
Notice the void of sinkage in the center.

The next phase of the construction was begun in the early 19th century with the birth of the turnpike roads. These company maintained roads were lined with dry stone fences to prevent bypass of the turnpike collection houses or toll houses(often also built out of stone), prevent livestock from wondering into the roads, and as visual dressing or proof of the maintenance that justified the fees to travellers. This type of construction was not as stable and involved an outer lining of solid stone, with the inner void filled by spall or filler in the form of tiny pieces of stone. Many of the remaining stone fences seen in Kentucky are along roadways and are often turnpike fences. This is also the time period that allowed a stone mason's occupation to be reported differently on the census. In fact, it could be conjectured that this alternate term, "turnpiker", was also a way to differentiate between a true stone mason, and a laborer who was on the turnpike building teams. These teams were headed by true stone masons, but in order to speed up production, many workers were needed as assistants and haulers. In fact, this is where the use of slaves came into frequency. Growing up, I always heard the stone fences referred to as "slave walls" because it was believed that the slaves built them. This is partially true. Slaves were a huge part of the production process. However, most were used in the quarrying and hauling of the stone. Some were allowed to assist closely and learned the trade for use after slavery, but by then the demand for construction had dropped considerably.

20th century stone fence built with mortar
and accented by a castle capstone motif.
 The post Civil War era of stone masonry marked another transition. Not only were the former slaves, who assisted in previous fence building, now allowed to take on the trade as stone masons, but with a dwindling generation that no longer had as many skilled stone masons, mortar was employed to stabilize construction. Larger stones were often used with this method to speed up production and experiment with artistic elements. This type of construction was highly favored during the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries when aesthetics became even more important as the horse industry adopted a more lavish lifestyle.

As the snow begins to melt and the temperatures rise a bit, this is the best time of year to examine these agrarian works of art. It has been noted that even though the stone fences in the Bluegrass region are numerous, only 5% of the original number still stand. However, there are a few misconceptions about these fences that are also worth noting.
Cross section of Plantation style fence.
On previous Cox family land in Pendleton County.
Most people outside of Kentucky are only aware of the stone fences in the Central Kentucky region. While the majority of preserved fences are in the areas that include Fayette, Bourbon, Woodford Scott and Franklin counties, there many more examples spread throughout the surrounding regions. My 4th great grandfather, Samuel Cox, of Pendleton County Kentucky (1 county south of the Ohio River) was listed as a stone mason in the early half of the 19th century. Records indicate he took on an apprentice, John Dean in 1829 for four years as a "stoneman". In the 1830 census, Samuel is also listed as having two free black males in his household. This would be consistent with not only farming labor, but also hauling/quarrying help when building stone fences. Samuel was a large landowner in his own right, and I would guess that his income was not purely based on stone masonry. There is evidence that he did pass this skill on to his sons, even though they chose to focus more on farming and left the stone mason trade altogether rather quickly. The evidence I speak of is the remnants of thick stone walls surrounding various parcels of Cox property - some built after Samuel died in 1857.

Creek bed in Pendleton County.
 Another interesting thing to point out when exploring the remaining fences is the importance of where they found the stone for construction. In the northern areas, such as Pendleton County, the rock is not only heavily on the surface due to the rolling nature of the topography, but the streams are compacted sources of rock. In the central Bluegrass region, the rock was often quarried from the gentle hills that dotted the landscape. One of the most interesting features of a former turnpike is the small quarries that can be found at intervals along the road. These can easily be identified by crescent shaped places that have been dug out of small hills. In many cases, the place has been left untouched except for cattle who often gather there for a cooler space that often contains water in the basin area. 

Limestone permeating the fields of Pendleton County.

Limestone layering just under the surface in Scott County.
For further reading I strongly recommend Rock Fences of the Bluegrass by Carolyn Murray-Wooley and Karl Ratz (1992). This is the most detailed history of the stone fence industry in Kentucky from its earliest beginnings. Another fantastic feature about this title is the appendix in the back that includes 34 pages of registered stone masons in Kentucky. Their are two lists, one listing Black stone masons, and one listing White. Each name is followed by their year of birth, location of birth, residence county and date working. A copy of this book can be purchased through the Dry Stone Conservancy web site, along with other related titles. This web site is also a great place to continue your research as the organization not only seeks to preserve and repair remaining stone fences, but also promote the perpetuation of this skill among modern artisans.

A fascinating subject that sheds more light on the occupation of our ancestors!
CD 1/29/11


Beth said...

Fantastic read, thank you!


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