I recently had occasion to drive down I-40 from the Plateau into Nashville. A book I’d read had me thinking about the land around Nashville as it would have been in the 1800’s so I guess I was a little more aware of the farms and scenery than normal. Couple that with my Daddy in the passenger seat evaluating every farm we passed and mourning the cleared land that “they’ve let grow up” in scrub woods and you can see why I would notice a low rock wall running into the woods among saplings no more than ten years old.
Excepting some natural coves, every inch of farmland on the Plateau and surrounding areas had to be wrestled from nature with a broad axe, horse-drawn plow and abundant sweat. The land produces rock more abundantly than any other crop and if you want to win the battle you’re gonna’ have to do something with those rocks – nothing grows very well alongside them.
You may remember a story I shared here way back in 2015 about a homestead in the Sequatchie Valley and I included a picture of one of their rock walls. My Uncle Hollis Henry told us that those walls were built as they carried rocks out of the fields and I imagine that stray wall along the interstate originated the same way. A wall like that would have a dual purpose of getting the rocks out of the way and fencing off the crop land from roaming cattle. It was more permanent than the split rail fences and who wants to split rails if you’re already picking up rocks.
Whew, does this line of thought not give you enormous respect for the people who first settled our Tennessee home? Honestly, I might sit down among those rocks and just give up. Yet day after day they returned to the field and must have walked hundreds of miles back and forth to their growing wall.
This is certainly not something unique to Tennessee. It was undoubtedly a practice the immigrants brought with them from their homes in Scotland and Ireland. The walls there are ancient.
Central Kentucky has the most of America’s stone walls. The Irish built miles of beautiful rock fences there but sadly only about 10% of the original walls remain. And as those walls need repairs, special masons are often sought to do the work. That dry stone technique wasn’t necessarily employed on these Middle Tennessee farms and I don’t know whether that was because the farmers here didn’t take the time for the formal construction or maybe they didn’t really possess that skill, being farmers rather than stone masons. Learning how many of those formal rock fences have been destroyed in Kentucky makes me wonder if there were more of them in Tennessee.
I also can’t help but wonder why there aren’t even more rock walls surviving here. We certainly have had plenty of rocks, although I suspect the sandstone of the Plateau didn’t lend itself so readily to this work. Once again, I find myself with more questions than answers. I suppose if I keep asking I’ll keep finding a few answers along the way. When I do, I’ll be sure to share them.