Stonewalls crisscross our New Hampshire property, which at one time was a sheep farm.
The story begins with merino sheep, prized for fine wool, developed in Portugal and kept within its borders by the nobility there.
When Napoleon conquered Portugal in 1809, that restriction was lifted and the American ambassador imported 4,000 of the animals to his Vermont farm in 1810.
After the War of 1812, the United States imposed heavy tariffs on British goods—including textiles—and “sheep fever” took hold in New England. The area’s sheep population grew rapidly: in 1840 it reached a peak of 1.7 million in Vermont alone, and similar explosions happened elsewhere. Hundreds of thousands of acres were cleared for sheep pasture as farmers took advantage of this burgeoning market for domestic textiles. By 1840, about 75 percent of our region’s land was in agriculture, mostly pasture.
All of these fields had to be enclosed to keep the sheep from overrunning nearby cropland. At first, New England farmers used stumps and brush from cleared land to make fences. Later, these were replaced with zigzag split-rail fencing. Eventually, though, as timber became scarce, farmers used the next material at hand: stone.
Stone fences, as they were called, soon crisscrossed the landscape, keeping sheep in the pastures and out of crops.
No official inventories were ever taken, but an 1872 U.S. Department of Agriculture report on fences suggested that in 1875 some 240,000 miles of stonewalls crisscrossed New England. Vermont writer Castle Freeman Jr. wrote more than a century later, “… if a stone wall a fraction as long as the walls of Vermont alone had been built by the order of some old king or emperor, it would be one of the wonders of the world.”
To find out more about the New England landscape, you might want to listen to Tom Wessels oral history, included in our collection (found at: https://storypreservation.wordpress.com/2013/11/12/tom-wessels-the-forested-landscape/ ) or read his book Reading the Forested Landscape, de rigueur in classrooms across America.
Info for this post was taken from numerous sources.