A past laced with stone fences

Boundaries: Harford's rocky walls are tended `to keep it the way it was.'

October 24, 2004|By Todd Holden | Todd Holden,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Almost any drive -- or even better, walk -- along Harford County roads will bring you to a direct link with the past that isn't found in tour guides or maps -- the magnificent stone walls that farmers created hundreds of years ago, some still standing and well-kept.

Back roads offer much to the leisurely traveler, and Sunday afternoons are surely made for that. Away from the house on a clear day you can venture along roads that verify county lore by such names as Mahan Road, Carsins Run Road, Carrs Mill Road and Whitaker Mill Road. Some were named after millers who plied their trade when agriculture was king.

Near the mills were fields rich with wheat, barley, clover and sorghum. When the crops were cut and baled or bagged, the same wagons that were used to haul the grain to the mills were used again on the bare land to haul stones and rocks that would ruin harvesting equipment if not removed.

It seemed each year, as the snow thawed, there would be a new "crop" of stone for the landowners to pick and haul away, usually to a ravine or ditch. They were used to control erosion along stream banks and hillsides. It was land recycling at its finest, albeit hard work and time-consuming.

Rocks and large stones are fascinating in their own right. Sometimes covered with lichens, moss or vines, they are survivors of the past. This might have been in the minds of those hardy souls who decided to make fences or walls along the dirt roadways so many years ago.

Thus began a tradition among some landowners that stands to this day, with the help of folks who are the current landowners. Sturdy, weathered and meticulously crafted, the stone walls bear witness to the weather and travel over many decades.

Ronnie Knight's father instilled in him a love of the stone walls that line the west side of Carsins Run Road, just north of Route 22 in Carsins Run.

Asked why he continues to repair and replace the stone walls that once fenced cattle he replies, "To keep it the way it was."

When purchased in 1941, there were 98 acres to farm, and the stones were there then and continue to be a source of pride today to Knight and his wife, Jan.

"It's always on his `honey-do' list," Jan Knight said, while her husband was busy fixing a broken drive belt on their lawn mower. "There are stone fences all over the farm, and we try to keep all of them up, with the help of our son-in-law, Jeff."

"Vines and honeysuckle, and saplings, are tough on the placements, and each year we have to cut them back or the root systems would just push the wall of stone over into the road," Ronnie Knight added. "Cars are often victims of the stone, and vice versa."

"But it's the root systems of trees, weeds and vines that do the real damage, and if left unattended the walls would fall prey to environmental evolution."

Where huge locust and persimmon trees have invaded, the stones are repositioned appropriately and the beauty continues. To the Knight family, the stone foundations of barns and the fences surrounding them recall the pride and skill of those who settled here as farmers.

If you've traveled to Scotland and Ireland and seen the expanses of land lined with stone fences that determined land ownership as well as kept in cattle, it makes sense that the many ancestors who came to this country and migrated to Harford County would carry those agricultural traditions with them.

As you drive along the back roads and take for granted a massive wall of stone, the weathered, smooth dark brown and black rocks might go unnoticed.

Along Carrs Mill Road, where the pavement was angled years ago to keep cars from sliding into the stone fencing along the eastbound side, stones are in disarray in many places. Because of trees growing out and automobile collisions, the remnants are in jeopardy. And when roads are widened, the stone walls are gone forever.

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