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Building the (Stone) Wall

A story of industry, skill & resilience

We have lots of conveniences nowadays. If something breaks, many of us can just call someone to fix it. To make it better, with a phone call and a check-book / credit card.

Gone are the days where you had only yourself to rely on

I’m not handy at all. I wish I were.

If you want to see a true craftsman — a throwback to generations gone by — check out the PBS stories on Dick Proenneke — he moved by himself, in a canoe, to a remote area of Alaska in the early 1960's— and stayed there for decades.

His cabin is now a protected land-mark that you can visit

See here, here, and here for some good links.

He built that chimney by hand, with stones from the lake. How cool is that?

He took a camera, and documented his journey — and he built everything himself, without power tools. I repeat — without power tools. A couple of saws, wedges, an axe, a couple of files and wood working tools, a measuring tape, and nails, and he built an amazing compound.

He even built his own hammers.

Simply amazing

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Near my house lives an elderly couple on 25–30 acres in an historically old house (~1750's), with an old barn to boot.

They remind me of Dick Proenneke.

I noticed the couple out working on this wall about 6 or 7 years ago, white hair blowing in breeze on an old yellow tractor with a chain, patiently rebuilding their stone wall. By hand. The lady drove the tractor, the man guided the stones.

This section is probably 8 years old now

This section is probably 5 years old

You could set a level on this and the bubble would be dead center

It’s a huge undertaking — they probably have two hundred yards of wall all told. Maybe three hundred. It’s a ways.

Note the straight edges and uniform shape, even in the corners for the drive

I’ve always been fascinated by this farm in general, and wall in particular.

I stopped one day several years ago to talk to them.

I parked on the opposite side of the street and walked over.

Me: Hi — that’s a gorgeous wall you’re building.

Nothing.

(I think I expected them to be like me — a common error of mine.)

I stood there too. I’m stubborn like that.

They finally looked up as she (the lady usually drove the tractor) shut the tractor off with a small disappointing head shake. She clearly isn’t interested in being a tourist attraction.

Me: Hi — I love the wall!
Silence as they nod. Not too chatty — I guess that’s what happens when you’re WORKING
Me: How long you been working on it?
Her: Couple of hours.

She’s a bit of a smart-ass, and I like it. She knows I meant in general, but she’s not buying what I’m selling, which is wasted time.

When I don’t immediately walk away…

Him: Guess now that we’ve shut it down we should get some lunch.
Me: Oh, where are you going to eat?

They look at me in disgust. Stupid city-slicker. At the house, of course. Dumbass.

They start closing up. I can see by looking at the wall that they’ve worked in 50 foot sections over the years — the newer sections are crisp, whereas the the ones a few years old are settling.

You can see what they were starting with (by section) in this picture.

The wall that’s fallen into disrepair, probably 200 years in the making

Undeterred, I press on.

Me: Why don’t you use cement to hold them together once you’ve reset the stones?

He stops then. Faces me. It’s clear I’m gonna need an explaining. So he sighs — better get it over with.

Him: Why would we do that? Weight works just fine. See here, we dig out in the back and put a tarp behind it to protect the water from washing it out, as it’s on a slope.
Note the black tar paper in the back

I nod, holding my chin, arms crossed as if I know what I’m doing, like Picasso assessing his latest creation.

A photo of Hans (note the comb-over hair-do — I worked hard on that)
Me: Hmm hmm. Yup. Right. I can see that.

He stands there, white hair blowing in the breeze, arms similarly crossed, probably waiting to see if I’ll go away.

I’m so out of my element. Dear God in heaven I can barely tie my shoes, and here he is, building a 200 yard stone wall, by hand, and it’s perfectly level.

Me: How long you guys lived here?
Him: Long time — over 50 years.

I’m clearly not getting the hint.

Me: I’ve always wondered what this farm was, originally.

He starts to warm up a tad — Not much, just a tad. We’re above freezing now, but a far cry from swimming weather.

Him: It was a dairy farm when we bought it — in the 50's.

(note: since I haven’t fully stepped in it, I try one more last time)

Me: Wow, I grew up around dairy farms. In Texas. But I’ve always thought this was such a beautiful piece of property.

He spits into the ground and gets a disgusted look on his face.

Him: Yeah, my son’s a builder and tried for years to get us to sell it.
Note: the property itself is probably worth millions given it’s size (20+ acres) and location (top 5 school district in the state, just south of Philly)— I’m quite sure a whole host of builders would just love to plop 6,000 square feet houses on it like Monopoly. So sad. I hate those monstrosities.
Me: That’d be a damn shame. For sure. Such a piece of history. And you’ve clearly — and I mean clearly — cared for it.

I look at the sign in the yard. The Farm has a date in the mid 1700’s.

Me: I have a 200 year old house myself, just down the road.

I tell him where it is and he nods appreciatively, knowing the location.

Getting warmer — still not swimming weather but no jacket needed.

Him: Keeps you busy, for sure.
What I THOUGHT: Yeah, it keeps my hand-man busy and my checking account empty, that’s for sure.
What I SAID: Absolutely, but I love it.

He nods, wanders over and shakes my hand at that, then wanders off for his Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwich at the house.

I just met a piece of history. Doing something that once seemed so ordinary but now seems extraordinary.
And I’m better for it.

Post-script: When I took these pictures, the couple’s neighbor walked up to see who it was (it’s that kind of neighborhood — people notice when somethings out of place).

I explained what I was doing and my fascination with the wall.

Her: “oh, yeah, they were just out this morning working on that last section. He just turned 80 last week, you know. Amazing.”

Amazing indeed. And with that, I heard the tractor fire up again — it was just after lunch you see.

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Thanks for reading my story. Writers write because this is how we best communicate with others (which is what gives us joy and helps us flourish) — and you reading my post helps encourage me to keep doing that. — Hans