“Good fences make good neighbors” – Robert Frost
“Oh give me land, lots of land…under starry skies above…don’t fence me in” – Cole Porter and Robert Fletcher
Most any drive or even better a walk along 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 and today some are still standing, and well kept.
Back roads offer much to the leisurely traveler and Sunday afternoons are sure made for that. Away from the house on a clear day you can venture along some roads that verify county lore by names like Mahan Road, Carsins Run Road, Carr’s Mill Road and Whitaker Mill Road. Notice these roads are often name after millers who plied their trade as a ‘ go-between’ among farmers when agriculture was king in Harford County.
Near the mills were fields rich with wheat, barley, clover and sorghum and when the field 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 cutting equipment if not picked. It seemed each year, as the snow thawed, there was a new ‘crop’ of stone for the land owners to pick and haul away, usually to a ravine or ditch. They stopped 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 and various vines, they are survivors of the past. This must 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 stand to this day, with the help of folks who are the current landowners. Sturdy, weathered and meticulously crafted, the stone bears witness to the weather and travel over many decades. Weathered stone speaks volumes, just as tombstones or survey stones throughout the land.
Ronnie Knight’s father instilled in him a love of the stone walls that line the west side of Carsin’s Run Road, just north of Route 22, in Carsin’s Run.
When asked why he continues to repair and replace the stone that once fenced cattle, he notes, “To keep it the way it was.”
When purchased in 1941, there were 98 acres to farm and tend to, and the stones were there then and continue to be a source of pride today to Ronnie and his wife, Jan.
“It’s always on his ‘honey-do’ list,” Jan notes, while Ronnie is 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,” adds Ronnie. “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 replaced appropriately and the beauty continues.
To the Knight family the stone foundations of barns and 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 vast expanses of land lined with stone fences that determined land ownership as well as kept cattle, it makes sense that the many ancestors who came to this country and migrated from the south to Harford County would carry those agricultural traditions with them.
It was a true labor of love to build these edifices of a life with the land, every day, and every year and for decades, small families lived and cared for the land that offered so much in the way of survival and peace of mind.
As you drive along the back roads and take for granted a massive wall of stone, the weathered, smooth dark brown and black rocks may go unnoticed. It’s when you take a minute to ‘smell the roses’ you also get a look at a page from the past that’s still here.
Along Carr’s Mill Road, where the pavement was ‘super elevated’ years ago, to keep cars from sliding into the stone fencing along the eastbound side, the stones are in disarray in many places. Due to trees growing out and automobile collisions, the remnants are in jeopardy. And when roads are widened the walls are gone forever.
And so to is part of the pristine past we will miss forever…stone, rock, work and love made these monuments possible, and without caretakers like the Knights and many others, they will be lost along with much of the innocence of our land.
Photograph by Todd Holden