Legacy in Stone
Restoring dry stone fences that crisscross Kentucky
Steadily, methodically, the masons choose stones from the low pile at their feet and place them on the growing wall, adding pieces to a three-dimensional puzzle. Occasionally, there’s the musical ring of a hammer on limestone. It could be a scene from centuries past, except for the radio playing another kind of rock.
This crew of one dozen is moving one of Kentucky’s historic rock fences in Scott County, rescuing it from highway construction near Stamping Ground. They are called “dry stone” fences because they are built without mortar and are amazingly durable—some are more than 200 years old. Countless miles of dry stone walls once lined the state’s roads and divided its fields, but more than 95% of them have been lost.
Today, Kentuckians are reclaiming this proud heritage. “Twenty years ago, this fence would have been buried into the field,” master mason David Kenley tells me as he lays large stones diagonally on its top row. “Now, when properties are sold, the fence is added on to the price.”
Walking the length of the fence, I can follow the steps of construction. At one end, two masons are laying the first large foundation stones in a shallow trench. Down the line, another pair, one on each side, is building the wall’s two faces atop the foundation. The hollow space at its center gets filled with small stones called packing. When the wall reaches half its finished height, they’ll place wider “tie stones” across the whole thickness of the wall, binding the two faces together before continuing.
Farther along, the wall is receiving its cover course—a level layer of stones reaching all the way across. And at the far end, Kenley is putting on the “coping,” the topmost row of diagonal stones that weights down the wall and keeps it from shifting.
The finished section looks completely authentic, though some new stone has been added to the original pieces. Putting a historic wall back together is more difficult than building from scratch, mason Cecil Aguilar tells me. “Working with the old stone is kind of hard—you have to have a good imagination to do this.”
It’s breathtaking to imagine an older Kentucky crisscrossed with these fences. By 1826, the Shaker colony in Mercer County had nearly 40 miles of rock fences on their farms alone. Originally, landowners built them in their pastures for practical reasons—rail fences needed replacing so often that it meant keeping up to one-third of a farm in woods. Later, a handsome dry stone wall bordering one’s plantation became a status symbol, since it took a lot of costly labor to build.
Many people mistakenly believe that Kentucky’s historic fences were built by slaves. In fact, plantation and census records show that most masons were Irish—in 1860 there were 48 masons living in Scott County alone. Slaves worked alongside these immigrants, digging trenches and hauling rock; after emancipation, many African-Americans became stonemasons themselves, founding family businesses that carried on for generations.
Dry stone masonry is an ancient construction method that uses the weight of the stones to hold a structure together. Only minor maintenance is needed, such as replacing loose stones, and some Kentucky rock fences are almost as old as the state. But even the best-built wall can’t stand up to “progress.”
Beginning in the 1890s, barbed wire offered farmers a cheaper way to confine livestock, and the introduction of tractors demanded larger fields. Hundreds of miles of limestone fences were pulled apart, buried, even ground up for gravel or fertilizer. Highway construction and city sprawl took a further toll.
In 1995, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet became concerned about the loss of these historic fences when roads were widened and dangerous bends straightened. But when they tried to hire masons to move a wall near Paris, they couldn’t find enough qualified masons. They contacted Carolyn Murray-Wooley, author of the book Rock Fences of the Bluegrass, to see if she knew anyone who taught the method, and instructor Richard Tufnell was brought in from Scotland.
This was the origin of the Dry Stone Conservancy, a group dedicated to saving Kentucky’s stone heritage. “It was founded to preserve the craft, but also the structures,” says Jane Wooley, restoration project manager for the group. Since 1996, the Conservancy has taught the basics of the technique to everyone from landscape architects to schoolchildren, and established a training and certification program for professional dry stone masons. They’ve also conducted, or consulted on, projects for the National Park Service in 11 states.
Why the resurgence of interest in dry stone? “It’s an emotional thing,” says Wooley. “Rock fences are a signature of Kentucky’s landscape. People see them disappearing—but they’re also seeing them rebuilt.”
Many people trained by the Conservancy have gone on to careers as masons. “I grew up in Kentucky, and I always loved rock work—admired it as well as dabbled in it,” Richard Tinsley tells me, taking a break from work on the Stamping Ground wall. “Finally I decided to learn to do it properly.” After training with the DSC, he quit working with thoroughbred stallions and started in full time with stones. “It’s not such a big change,” he jokes. “They both can bite you!”
In 2001, a number of masons banded together to form a professional organization called the Kentucky Guild of DryStone Masons. They now have more than 30 members in Kentucky and neighboring states, and have worked on a variety of projects. “We want to see all the different possibilities of dry stone being promoted,” says George Oberst, the group’s secretary-treasurer.
The technique is useful for many types of structures—not just fences. Joe Dinwiddie, a mason in Berea, has built retaining walls, entranceways for horse farms, “sitting walls” in gardens, and water drains to prevent flooding. His own backyard shed now stands on a dry stone foundation, and he recently made himself a dry stone barbecue grill. “The air flows through the spaces between the stones—it makes a great fire.”
Restoring historic walls has improved modern dry stone techniques. “We can see why some of these old walls failed,” says Dinwiddie. This helps masons avoid similar mistakes. “And it’s almost like a form of archeology—we can see how people worked. We find all kinds of things inside the walls.”
Correctly built, a dry stone wall will last for centuries. “The walls actually get stronger over time—they settle inward, and down,” Dinwiddie explains. Gravity and friction bind the wall even more tightly together, helping it withstand the changing seasons without breaking. This new generation of masons is leaving future Kentuckians a legacy in stone.
DRY STONE RESOURCES
Dry Stone Conservancy
1065 Dove Run Road, Suite 6,
Lexington, KY 40502
For more information about historic rock fences and preservation projects; DSC also offers public training workshops.
Kentucky Guild of DryStone Masons
To locate a professional dry stone mason.
Building and Repairing Dry Stone Fences and Retaining Walls
Available from the Dry Stone Conservancy; do-it-yourselfers can learn basic techniques from this book.
Rock Fences of the Bluegrass
By Carolyn Murray-Wooley and Karl Raitz,
University Press of Kentucky, 1992; a fascinating history with lovely photos.
TRY YOUR HAND AT STONE
Professional mason Joe Dinwiddie recommends starting with a small project like a “sitting wall”—a wall with flat stone on top for a bench. His tips for beginners:
And don’t worry if you’re neither 20 years old nor a bodybuilder. “As long as you’re smarter than the rock,” Dinwiddie says, “you can make it work!”
- Read up on the basics.
- Get some good stone hammers.
- Always wear safety glasses.
- Work carefully and fill in empty spaces with smaller stones. Use as much surface contact as possible in your wall.
- Pay attention to body mechanics. Lift with your legs, keep your back straight, and never twist your body while holding a heavy weight.
- Get help with large stones. Use tools like pry bars and rollers, and have a second person help you lift.