The land shaped the farms
There are a number of very distinctive soil types in
Connecticut. That of the Connecticut River Valley, which
attracted the settlers first, is one of the easiest to
describe. It’s a sandy, loamy sort of clay- and silt-rich soil
that was ideal for agriculture – especially when it was down
near the flood plane itself, because there it would get an
annual dose of nutrients from flooding of the Connecticut River.
Above the flood plain you had a whole series of really nice,
stone-free, flat, reasonably well-drained levels that are all
shore lines and deposits from an ancient glacial lake that for
thousands of years during the end of the Ice Age occupied the
entire Connecticut River valley within Connecticut above
If you really wanted to divide the soils of Connecticut into
convenient categories, you could start with the worst ones,
which would be the sugar maple country, the bush pasture, the
ledge country. This is too rough for cultivation or really
mowing, or even good pasture.
The second type of soil at the opposite extreme would be the
really rich, luxurious soils down in the lowlands. These are
called interval soils. They’re composed of places where the
rivers flood annually, or where glacial lakes left a nice
deposit of loam.
A third category of soils, which is not that widespread but
which was highly prized in an era before fertilizers, were what
we call the marshy, mucky soils. People would sometimes go into
swamps just to take the muck out of them because it was such
good enrichment for the soils to grow crops.
One of the other most distinctive soil types are these upland
soils that you see here in drumlins. A drumlin is a rounded hill
that formed when the stony, silty, clay rich paste being carried
along the base a glacier was literally smeared across the bottom
of the landscape where it developed into these really lovely
rounded and streamlined shapes.
So a drumlin is one conspicuous landform in Connecticut. These
drumlins lent themselves very well for pasture because they were
very good at holding water. It wouldn’t run off the way it would
it ledgy terrain or soak in quickly. In very sandy terrains, the
rainwater would simply infiltrate straight through the sand down
to the water table and the grass would parch fairly early. But
in drumlin terrain, the rainfall would get absorbed into the
silt and clay and last and last and last. So the hills would
stay green, right up to their summits, through much of the
A drumlin is an ideal soil not so much for agricultural tillage
but for pasture. They just grew grass luxuriously. So when you
would have lowland terraces parched, when you would have lowland
soils boggy, these soils would tend to be easy to walk on, easy
to pasture, easy to mow, easy to cut, because of the smooth
shape and the absence of truly jagged ledge.
What sets the state apart from others, in terms of its
agricultural soils, is the overall quality. And this is higher
than one would be led to believe. They love to curse the stones
that are everywhere and argue that we’re farming stony soils,
but they’ve been very rich throughout history, especially those
in the river bottoms.
The second thing that sets Connecticut apart is that the
distinct nature of the soils, their being very different in very
local areas. At the scale of a town, you could have four or five
types of soil that would show up in town after town after town.
Settling on the soil
The first soils that were cleared and settled were the coastal
lowland soils. These were generally soils in the river bottoms
and in the estuaries where there was quite a bit of sand and
gravel washed down by glacier melt water rivers. And those were
useful because they were flat and stone free. The best ones were
any place too wet to have forest grow. You could clear the land
simply by draining the wetlands. Those were the first ones
settled. The time of this settlement was a time of hostilities
in the interior so before the French and Indian Wars people
tended to stay concentrated in lowland cities.
In the half century before the Revolution there was a gradual
inward migration to occupy progressively smaller streams and
interval lands. Then all of a sudden they began to develop these
upland towns. Storrs is settled that way, as is Franklin, as is
Scotland. Many towns are settled on the high ground because the
soils were so rich up there and the water held water so well.
In country like this you’d begin by clearing a little bit for
the house and the barnyard, and then keep working your way out
as time allowed. So, the initial grazing and pasturing was done
in the woods, and, in fact, the animals helped remove the
underbrush because the roughage that was there, making the tree
Trees were cut over a period of time usually by girdling or else
just by sawing. The stumps were a problem, and they let the
stumps sit for a number of years. So it was a pretty ragged,
rough-looking place for the first half a generation, or perhaps
even for a whole generation of the life of a farm.
Building stone walls
As the stumps rotted away, stump fences were replaced by stone
walls. You would get more and more stone appearing on the soil
surface, which was brought over to make more and more stone
walls along fence lines. Gradually, the landscape took on a
bucolic, pastoral look, not totally unlike what we’re seeing
At any level of detail you like, you can look at the size of a
wall to tell you something about the stoniness of the ground, or
the intentions of the builder. You can look at the shape of the
wall to see if it was there as a prideful fence, or whether it
was there as merely a waste heap for stone.
Another thing you can see is whether the stone in the wall is
locally derived or whether it’s come in from far away. The vast
majority of walls in southern New England are built with
material right there on the spot, recovered from the fields. But
some of the walls were actually imported and moved around here
because they liked stone to look a certain way.
The most enigmatic stone walls today are those in the woods
where the trees have grown up to the point where you don’t even
have the undercover of grape leaves and underbrush. You have
just wall, underneath tall forest. Those inform you how much
time has elapsed, even if it’s only 150 or 200 years, which is
enough time to grow the forest back, make the land soft again
and cover it with forest mulch.
Who built the walls is a question. You can get a different
answer depending on who you ask. It’s part of folk wisdom. I’ve
had people tell me that slaves built almost all the walls; I’ve
heard people tell me that Indians built almost all the walls.
Some believe most were built by labor crews and work gangs and
And there’s really no way, with hard numbers to document it
because so little was written. But if you look at the walls,
their layout, their form, their character within towns, at the
scales of farmsteads, all the way to the scale of states, I
think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of walls were
built by the farmers’ sons and daughters who lived on the farms
and helped clear them.
‘Something there is that does not love a wall’
What we can take from the stone walls today is this: You
shouldn’t take archaeology and turn it into architecture just
because you have the money to do so. I think the loss of an old
stone wall, no matter how sad it looks, is much sadder than that
wall ever was.
Now in terms of housing developments, what I see is this: One of
the things that I find most fascinating is that housing
developments tend to be curved. Today, we like curved
cul-de-sacs and properties that aren’t rigid and laid out
square. And yet the predecessors who cleared the forest and
built the walls before the housing developments preferred their
space rectilinear, or in an x-like or checkerboard pattern.
So, after the square and rectangular fields were overgrown with
forests, people came back in to clear the landscape and turn it
into suburban developments and superimposed the curved geometry
of our modern preference onto the checkerboard geometry of the
preference of our predecessors. It makes for a really
interesting, and sometimes jarring and conflicting pattern.
I think the saddest part of the modern housing development is
that everybody still wants to reach back and touch the past.
They want a piece of stone work on their own property, whatever
their house looks like. Often what happens is that they
basically strip-mine old stone walls and then bring that
material to their property and rebuild it. In the process,
they’re substituting archaeology for architecture. And I just
don’t think that’s appropriate in most cases.
The walls, sometimes a last physical remnant of the agricultural
past, are definitely speaking to us. I think what they’re saying
is three things in three different circumstances.
The first thing is that life was hard as a subsistence farmer.
When you see fairly unkempt and not really well assembled stone
walls in the landscape, you’re seeing the effort it took to
create a farm out of nothing. And I think that’s really
important that we know that.
The second thing is not about pioneering struggle, it’s about
American pride. There was a sense that developed after the
American Revolution and after the War of 1812, in the era of the
New Republic, in which people said, “This is America, this is
great, let’s show the Brits” – who’d complained about our walls
for centuries – “how well we can do.” There was an effort to
really improve the walls and make them look better. Walls
weren’t s o much build as rebuilt in many places. And
that’s the second thing that a pattern of stone walls will say
There’s a third category of wall: This is gilded age, this is
early 20th century. You’ve got an industrial economy. People
make money in cities and yet have country homes. Walls were
built not to recreate that past image of agricultural America;
they were built to create estate boundaries. There are a lot of
these in the wealthier districts of southern New England.
Summing up, what you see are three basic categories of walls:
those built by farmers that reflect agricultural origins of our
country; those built by pride, which are post Revolution; and
those built by the Gilded Age wealthy who were looking for
things to do with their money.