Stone Walls for Many Purposes

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How are stone walls used around Portsmouth?

Cows at Glen Farm circa 1970

1. We are most familiar with the freestanding stone wall used for boundary marking and protecting crops or animals. They can be simple placed rocks (like a farmer’s wall) or more carefully constructed double sided walls.

2. Retaining walls hold back earth.  These have to be carefully constructed and need to have consideration for drainage of water.

Stone Bridges in the Glen

3. Bridging walls can be found down in the Glen.  They are built over small streams.

4.  Impoundment walls can be also found in the Glen.  They are designed to hold back water.  There were water powered mills at the Glen and there is a stonewall mill run area to direct the stream to the Sakonnet River.  The remains of a mill dam and the stone foundations of a mill are there as well and these are all “impoundment” type stone walls.

Remains of Dam in the Glen

5.  Foundation walls.  Most wooden buildings had stone foundations.

Every Wall is a Collection of Rocks

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The rocks in any stone wall are unique. They vary in size, shape, color, texture, weathering, minerals and type. They even differ in the geology of how they were formed.  

What are some types of rocks we find in Portsmouth walls?  Robert Thorson

Puddingstone at Second Beach

in Exploring Stone Walls tells us that the geology of Portsmouth is classified as  “Narragansett Basin.”  Our rocks are younger and softer than the stones in the West Bay or over on the Tiverton side of the Sakonnet.  Puddingstone, Slate, Coal and Quartzite are common.  The majority are sedimentary rocks are rocks formed from sediment. They are deposited over time, and often show layers. Conglomerate sedimentary rocks form when rounded rock pieces are cemented together.  Puddingstone is a perfect example of a conglomerate and there is more puddingstone on Aquidneck Island than other places.  The best example I can give is the rock outcropping at Surfer’s End of Second Beach. Granite is in our walls as well.  It is an igneous rock.   It forms from the slow crystallization of magma below Earth’s surface. It has grains large enough to be visible with the unaided eye.  It is one of the most common rocks and is used for countertops in our kitchens.  

Our walls look different from the walls in the communities off the island.  The fieldstone that make up our walls are flatter than those in the communities off the island.  That makes them easier to work with when a wall is put together.  Our slate, for example, is layered and can be split into slabs.  Slab type stones make the best walls.  


Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

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Do you know exactly where your property lines are?  Do you have your garden fenced high enough to keep the rabbits out?  From the beginning, Portsmouth settlers were concerned about property boundaries and managing crops and livestock. Good fencing was called for and the town council mandated it. The book Early Records of the Town of Portsmouth is filled with concerns about fences.   References to requiring a hedge or fence begin in 1640 with all in town obligated to help create a hedge and gate with “Mr. Samford overseer.”  As land grants were given out there was a 1643 mandate that the responsibility “equally be born half by one party and half the other party – fenced in with a general fence and fences to be maintained by the proportion agreed.”  People were appointed by the town to “view the fence run,” and others were appointed as judges to determine property line disputes.

Virginia type fence

What type of fences did they have? It took a long while to clear enough stones to build a wall.  Hedges and wooden railed “Viriginia Fences” were put up before the stone walls were erected.   At first hedges are mentioned.  The first mention of stones for a stone wall comes in 1651 when Mr. Earl gives Mr. Tripp “leave to take the loose stone on the said Earl’s land of the nearest to Tripps house to make about eight rod of such wall…”

The most comprehensive rules on fences come in 1671.  Because there was damage done to cattle which caused arguments between neighbors, ” It is ordered for the time to come that he or they within the bounds of this town of Portsmouth that will make sufficient fences shall recover satisfaction of the owners …of the cattle that doth him damage.”  There was an order to have:

“…a fence called a virginia fence. It is ordered that it shall be four foot and a  half – staked with stakes half a foot above the fence plumb up and that not any of the rails be above four inches from his fellow…… And for stone wall they shall be four foot and six inches high, .. for hedge or hedge and ditch only the sufficiency of any of them.”

Four men would be viewers  to “see and view the fences when we shall have occasion to look for satisfaction for damage.”  

Although the first fences in Portsmouth were hedges and post and rail wood, stone walls became more permanent.  In his book Stone by Stone, Robert Thorson comments that eventually Rhode Island had the highest percentage of fences (78%) being made of stone.  Boundary fences would be shorter while fences to protect crops from damage or to pen in livestock were higher.

What kind of fence do you have?

The Farmer’s Wall

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Farmer’s Wall

Portsmouth stone walls remind us of our farm heritage. Clearing the land for crops was no easy task. It wasn’t just a one time chore.  Trees had to be cut down and stumps removed.  As the soil was plowed, rocks had to be dug out and cleared away from the planting area.  Rock removal was not just a one time process.  The winter’s freeze brought up a bumper crop of rocks every year. So what was the farmer to do with the rocks?  Removing them was heavy manual labor.  They had to find them, lift them, load them onto a cart, carrying them to the edge of the field and then off-loading them.

What did the farmer do with these discarded rocks?  They made them useful.  Instead of stacking them in mounds, they used them to form the boundary of a pasture or planting field.  This type of wall goes by several names.  “Tossed,” “thrown,” “pasture,”  “stacked” or “farmer’s” wall describe the type of wall.  Robert Thorson, in Exploring Stone Walls p.67, writes:  “In a stacked wall, the stones are placed one above the other with no concern for the fit of the stones beyond nesting them together, as if they were logs in a stack of firewood.”

The “farmer’s wall” pictured in this blog is in my backyard.  It reminds me of the farmers who cleared this land for farming.  As I look at the old maps I can name the families who farmed the land that is my yard.  I think about the Bordens, the McCorries, the Fales, and the Pierces.  As I try to preserve the wall I feel connected to them all.

Portsmouth Stone Walls: Building Stone on Stone


Stone walls are history we can touch. They remind us of our farming history and show us the ancient property boundaries.  We are blessed with so many stone walls in our town that we often don’t notice them.  Worse, we often don’t treat the walls with the respect they deserve as part of our heritage.  The Aquidneck Island Stone Wall Initiative, a collaboration of the Preservation Society of Newport County and Preserve Rhode Island, is attempting to raise awareness of the need to preserve and rebuild our historic walls.  They have restored a wall by Simmons Farms and are now working on a wall owned by Norman Bird Sanctuary at the corner of Paradise and Third Beach Road.  On the way to the beach today, I stopped and took some photos of the process of rebuilding a wall.

The Aquidneck Island Stone Wall Initiative has posted online a wonderful resource on island stone walls and barns.  The HISTORIC RESOURCE REPORT BY JENNIFER ROBINSON provides the text for the the steps in stone wall building below.

“First, the stone is sorted by size and type, and the largest stones are placed side-by-side in two rows (each stone positioned in an oblong direction) for the foundation.

Two sides of Wall

Strings and a frame are set in the ground to guide the slope of the wall faces and the level of the courses.

Next, the courses are laid, with each row of stone being laid simultaneously on each face; stones are positioned so that all joints, or spaces, are covered (i.e. a “one stone on two, two stones on one”).

Hearting, or small filling stones, are utilized throughout for stability, and are added in the middle of the two wall faces as each course is being built.

Adding through stones

As the wall increases in size (and above 23 inches), it becomes advisable to add regularly-placed throughstones; these long stones, which run across both wall faces, provide additional stability.

Finally, slab-like copestones are added across the top of the finished wall to provide a “binding” effect to

Capstones go on last

the structure.”

Read Ms Robinson whole resource booklet online: https://www.aquidneckstonewalls.org/resources

Portsmouth Women: Artist Sarah Eddy and her Subject Fannie Scott

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A wonderful portrait by Sarah J. Eddy has found a home back in Portsmouth. Newporter John Peixinho won the portrait at an auction and generously donated it to the Portsmouth Historical Society. Sarah painted the portraits of famous Americans such as Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, but she also painted (or photographed) the images of local Portsmouth people.

Fannie Scott by Sarah Eddy

We had a mystery to solve. Who was this lovely lady in the portrait and what relationship did she have with Sarah Eddy? There were some clues. Carved in the frame was “Portsmouth” and “1920.” The name of the subject was hard to read. Curator’s committee member Marjorie Webster thought the first name might be “Fannie” and the last name may have included the letters “ott.” Marge was almost sure it was “Fannie Scott,” a black woman in our community that would have been about seventy at the date of the portrait. That name sounded familiar. In researching the black community in Portsmouth, I had come across a “Fannie Scott.”

Who was Fannie? Her 1926 obituary in the Newport Daily News provided a wealth of clues. Around 1870 Joseph Macomber brought a group of sixteen former slaves from Virginia to Portsmouth. Fannie Edna Brent came as a young woman. Her sister, Matilda Ayler came with her husband and children as well. They became a well known farming family in the “Cozy Corners” area of Portsmouth around Turnpike Avenue and East Main Road. Fannie lived with the Ayler household and eventually married another of Macomber’s group, Robert Scott. Robert was twenty years older than Fannie.

Newspaper accounts show Fannie as active in the Friends Church. She was part of the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society in 1913 and helped cater a special dinner for service members in 1917. When her husband died in 1914, she went to live with family members at the Ayler home. Her obituary, however, shows that she spent her last days at the Home for Aged Colored People in Providence. Portsmouth Friends minister Elizabeth Trout, conducted the funeral services there and then she was buried next to her husband at the Portsmouth Friends Cemetery.

How did Sarah Eddy come to paint a portrait of Fannie? We can only guess. Sarah had a long term relationship with the Home for Aged Colored People in Providence. Every year for almost 40 years she hosted an outing at her home on Bristol Ferry Road. The elder citizens were served chowder, doughnuts, ice cream and tea. There was a short program with some speeches and singing. There were always other guests along with the members of the Home. I imagine that as a member of Portsmouth’s black community Fannie may have been one of the guests even before she came as a resident of the Home. Fannie’s grand-niece Alice Ayler Morris often sang at events at Sarah’s home.

Sarah Eddy always gave her photographs, paintings and sculptures away as gifts. She never sold any of them. She gave them as prizes, as donations for charity auctions and as gifts to the families in our community. We will treasure the gift of the portrait of Fannie Brent Scott.