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Iconic walls vanishing, stone by historic stone

New England's storied boundaries fall victim to theft, and to legal sales of the weathered, lichen-covered rocks, used as home decor.

September 09, 2007|Stephanie Reitz | Associated Press

STORRS, CONN. — By and large, New England's iconic stone walls have withstood generations of wandering wildlife, howling blizzards and even the occasional hurricane.

Now the rustic walls face new dangers -- blatant thefts, and the legal practice of dismantling walls to use the stones for patios, walkways and other landscaping projects.

From Connecticut's tony suburbs to Maine's rural back country, the threat to New England's low stone walls has forged alliances among historians, government officials, geologists and conservationists. They aim to curb the thefts with stepped-up enforcement and tighter regulations, while encouraging owners to preserve the walls rather than succumb to the lure of selling the stone for easy money.

"The walls are no less an antique than a piece of Chippendale furniture, but you wouldn't take a Chippendale apart for the wood," said Robert Thorson, a geology professor at the University of Connecticut and author of "Stone by Stone: The Magnificent History in New England's Stone Walls."

A rise in thefts and sales led the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation to name the walls among the state's most endangered historic properties in 2002. This year, it nominated the walls to the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list.

Several experts say that no known inventory exists of New England's stone walls, many of which are in remote glades or barely visible under decades of vegetation.

The walls have their roots in the hardscrabble days of early New England settlement.

Wall-building reached its peak between the Revolutionary War period and the post-Civil War era, when New England's interior was booming with new farms and factory jobs had not yet lured people into the cities.

In some cases, the walls were literally thrown together by farmers as they cleared fields. More often, however, the walls were built as borders for roads, pastures, cemeteries and property lines.

In the typical rustic stone wall, the stones are medium-sized, reflecting Yankee pragmatism: Anything larger would have required more than one person to lift, and anything smaller wasn't worth the effort, Thorson said.

Like old tobacco barns, covered bridges and grist mills, the walls became an easily identifiable New England icon over the years -- much as Florida's Everglades, South Dakota's Badlands and California's sequoias.

"Areas have their signature land forms and in New England, it's the stone wall," Thorson said.

From a historical standpoint, the least pristine walls are often the most significant. Those with weathered, lichen-encrusted stones are especially prized because they are the most authentic.

Police say they have recorded numerous complaints of stone thefts throughout New England and parts of New York and, in a few cases, rustlers caught in the act have faced criminal charges.

A New York City businessman served prison time after admitting in court that he stole stones from walls, cemeteries and church sidewalks in 2001 and 2002 so he could build a patio and line his trout pond.

Yet for every thief caught, countless get away. The thefts often are not spotted right away, and putting a dollar value on the stones is a guess at best.

In Connecticut, no firm figures are available on how many thefts have been reported because incidents are combined with thousands of other larcenies reported annually, State Police Lt. J. Paul Vance said.

"It's really hard to quantify whether those kinds of thefts are prevalent or limited, or what dollar value you could even put on it," he said.

Connecticut state Rep. Roberta B. Willis faced that dilemma a few years ago when someone took her old wall, stone by stone, from her remote property in Salisbury.

"At first, you don't notice it. Then you look at it one day and think, 'Wasn't the wall higher than that?'" she said. "It's not even a stone wall anymore. It's like a border now."

Willis helped push through a law in 2006 that toughens punishments for stealing stone walls.

Aside from thefts, experts say, many walls are disappearing in a perfectly legal way as owners accept bids -- often thousands of dollars -- from companies that relocate the walls or use the stone in landscaping projects.

Some governments are fighting back with ordinances requiring property owners to get a permit and provide explanations before removing historic walls.

The town of Smithfield, R.I., offers a tax exemption of as much as $5,000 on the value of property where stone walls predating 1900 are preserved.

Several other communities also have considered or enacted similar measures, hoping an appeal to landowners' sense of history will be more effective than heavy-handed rules.

After all, Yankees are nothing if not independent-minded."To tell a New Englander that they can't move their own stone around is just stupid. But to show them they're preserving artifacts of a lost civilization, that's what matters," Thorson said.

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