Walking the backroads, hillsides and forests of Vermont, it is inevitable that you will have an encounter with a stone wall! I’ve heard estimates claiming there are over 200,000 miles of stone walls in New England. Many of these stone fences were built in the 1800’s during a time when “sheep fever” was taking hold in the northeast. With tariffs being levied on woolen goods from England at that time, people began raising sheep so we could produce our own wool.
Much of Vermont’s forests were cut down during the 1800’s for agricultural endeavors including clearing land for grazing sheep. An abundance of stone led to the use of this material as fencing for containment of the sheep and other agricultural animals. Between 1824 and 1840, Vermont’s sheep population grew from 4,000 head to over 1.5 million. That’s incredible! By the 1850’s, however, things began to change. The tariff’s were lifted driving down the price of wool and competition was growing from the western states. It was a boom industry here for only several decades. But, in its wake, we are left with miles and miles of beautiful, old stone walls! In later years, the stone walls were often used as boundary markers when land was subdivided. One of our property lines is defined by an ancient stone wall.
If you are interested in additional information on the history of the sheep industry of yesteryear, the Vermont Historical Society has an online pamphlet that might interest you. It really is a fascinating story about how early Vermont settlers literally deforested the land and it’s subsequent “comeback” to the Green Mountain state of today. I also stumbled upon this charming article – Sheep Farming – Then + Now – in a modern day blog site that might interest anyone who fancies learning more about the 14th State.
Another really good reference book is the natural history story “Reading the Forested Landscape”, by Tom Wessels. This book sits on my nightstand – and I often just pick it up and read small snippets at a time – about the fascinating art of “reading the landscape.”