Rocks of Ages

Kentucky passes bill
to protect state’s stone fences

UK professor among those writing,
lecturing about preserving them

By Helen E. McKinney
Contributing Writer

(April 2007) – When Karl Raitz co-authored “Rock Fences Across the Bluegrass,” he had no idea what type of reception the book would generate. Fifteen years later, visitors to Kentucky and residents alike are fascinated with these emblems of a by-gone era.
So much so that Kentucky’s General Assembly recently passed the “Kentucky Rock Fence Preservation Bill,” known as House Bill 108. The bill provides for the reconstruction and repair of the Commonwealth’s historic rock fences and mortared rock fences.

2007 April Kentucky Edition Cover

2007 April Kentucky
Edition Cover

Raitz, Professor and Chair of the Geography Department at the University of Kentucky, said the idea for a book on this topic began with a request from the state preservation office. A methodology had been created for nominating homes, barns and historic districts for inclusion in the National Register for Historic Places, but no mention was given to rock fences.
He was awarded a small grant to develop such a methodology. Along with his research assistants, he gathered enough information for a book, which he penned with Carolyn Murray-Wooley. The book has been extremely popular, and Raitz still receives many requests to lecture on the topic.
Rock fences used to dominate the Kentucky landscape but have been disappearing over the last few decades as progress takes over, reaching a critical point in 1995. Road improvements, widening, neglect and development are all factors that have contributed to the decline in rock fences, said Jane Wooley, Restoration Manager for the Dry Stone Conservancy.
Based in Lexington, Ky., the conservancy strives to revive and promote the ancient craft of dry stone masonry, in addition to preserving existing dry stone structures. The conservancy is responsible for initiating House Bill 108. It will partner with the Kentucky Heritage Council, the entity that will administer grant funding.
The bill was designed to encourage fence owners to restore their fences and get a tax credit in the future, said Wooley. Although funding may not be available until 2008, plans are slowly being put into place to simplify the application process.
“Every bit of history we are able to preserve is important for the future,” said Wooley. These fences are an “important and visible reminder of our history and stewardship of the land.”
Each wall has its own unique agricultural and cultural heritage. There are many myths surrounding the construction of these fences such as that most were built by slaves, said Raitz.
Most of the stone masonry can actually be attributed to Irish, Scottish and English immigrants, he said. It is highly possible that these groups of people trained a number of African American masons, since there was an increase in the number of African American masons after the Civil War, said Raitz.
He has long been fascinated with the technology behind these fences after moving to Kentucky from Minnesota 37 years ago.

Stone Fence Resources
Dry Stone Conservancy Publications:

Rock Fences of the Bluegrass

• “Rock Fences of the Bluegrass,” by Carolyn Murray-Wooley and Karl Raitz; University Press of Kentucky, 1992.
• “The Dry Stone Age: the Dry Stone Conservancy Promotes an Ancient Craft,” by Carolyn Murray-Wooley and Richard Tufnell. Cultural Resource Management, 1997. Vol. 20, No. 12, pages 17-19.
• “The Logic of Stone,” by Jane M. Wooley. Landscape Architecture, July 2000, pages 36-41, 84-85.
• “Dry Stone Conservancy Promotes and Teaches an Ancient Craft,” by Jane M. Wooley and Carolyn Murray-Wooley. Newsletter: Alliance for Historic Landscape Preservation, Fall 1997. Page 5.
• Videos and manuals are also available at the Dry Stone Conservancy website: www.drystone.org. The conservancy is associated with the Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain: www.dswa.org.uk.

“Not everybody can build them,” he said. “It took skill and a certain amount of talent to look at 100 rocks and decide which ones fit best where.”
A good portion of the fences in question are dry laid (non mortared). There are many benefits to these dry stone structures: masons need a minimum of tools, the structures are easily repaired if damaged, they resist fire, water and insects, and the construction does not deplete natural resources.
Gravity and frictional resistance hold the stone in place, said Wooley, since they are stacked one by one. Fences are reconstructed with the base of the fence wider than the top portion, resembling a pyramid design. Each new rock is put in place to fit snugly with the previously laid rock. Pebble-sized rocks may be placed in between larger ones for stability.
Most people think these rock structures are “what makes Kentucky, Kentucky,” said Rachel Kennedy, Site Identification Program Manager for the Kentucky Heritage Council. “We want to help people preserve these historic rock fences and provide an alternative to demolishing or selling the rocks.”
The rock fences are “a part of the iconic Kentucky rural landscape,” said Kennedy. What many may not know is that these structures pop up in more urbanized areas as well.
Many people may not be aware that there are various examples of mortared structures in central and eastern Kentucky that were built by Italian immigrants between 1900 and 1940 or 1950, Kennedy said.
In the eastern Kentucky town of Whitesburg, there was an influx of Italians in the early 20th century at the beginning of the coal and timber extraction business, said Kennedy. There were also Russian immigrants in this area, who aided in building rock railroad culverts, retaining walls, churches and schools.
“These are amazing structures,” said Kennedy. While they may be newer than most of the rock fences across the state, they are still worth preserving.
Many of the descendants of these early Italian and Russian immigrants do not recognize that their ancestors were instrumental in building these rock structures. Because they don’t realize this significance, “their history is lost to a certain extent,” said Kennedy.
The Kentucky Heritage Council is responsible for preparing and maintaining a survey of these sites. The council will identify sites and assist with any major problems that may arise in reconstruction. This survey will provide a good idea of what’s out there, said Kennedy.

Jefferson Community and Technical College Campus Rock Fence

Photo by Darrel Taylor

The stone fence that surrounds the
Jefferson Community and Technical
College campus in Shelbyville, Ky., was
recently preserved. The Dry Stone
Conservancy based in Lexington, held
a series of workshops there,
beginning in 2003.

One rock fence structure that has been preserved is the 2,000 linear feet of fence stretching in front of the Jefferson Community and Technical College on Hwy. 60 in Shelbyville. The conservancy held a series of workshops there beginning in 2003.
James Hedges is the maintenance supervisor at the college and participated in one of the workshops that trained 211 people. He guessed the fence to be around 150 years old, but it is hard to date because it has been rebuilt more than once.
Hedges said the workshops consisted of class instruction, and then participants tried their hand at reconstructing the actual fence.
“It was a really productive class,” said Hedges. “I would like to see more of them. These fences are important to history and the state of Kentucky.”
Hedges praised the craftsmanship of the structure, saying that similar structures are everywhere across the county. Many lie on private property “and need to be located and reconstructed because they have eroded over the years.”
While it was expensive to repair, the end result was worth it to many. The fence also stretches in front of the Shelby County High School property, and was less than one foot in some spots, said Joanna Morris, who works in the office of Grants and Contracts for JCTC.
Federal Transportation Enhancement Funds in the amount of $40,000 were used, along with Shelby County Fiscal Court and Shelby County Board of Education each chipping in $5,000. When the college took possession of the land, many people in the community were concerned over the fate of the fence, said Morris, who also took part in the workshop.
“The best way to approach this project was as a partnership with the Dry Stone Conservancy,” Morris said. Since the college’s goal is to train people, such a project was a natural fit. She said she hopes the college and the Conservancy will be able to partner again in the future.
One of the main ways the conservancy promotes fence restoration is by providing necessary skills and workshops in the spring and fall. They also offer a dry stone mason certification program. If participants pass, they are placed on a referral list given out by the conservancy.
“Most fence owners care deeply about their fences,” said Wooley. “They are important icons of the bluegrass.”

• For more information, contact the Dry Stone Conservancy at (859) 266-4807 or the Kentucky Heritage Council at (502) 564-7005.

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