Favorite things: the stone walls at Casey Farm

May 12, 2020

This is one in a series of messages from staff about their “favorite things” at Historic New England.

Say hello to Jane Hennedy

Jane Hennedy has been the Southern Rhode Island Site Manager at Historic New England since 2016. Jane will tell us why the stone walls at Casey Farm in Saunderstown, Rhode Island, are her favorite thing.

My favorite thing

Stone walls are a quintessential characteristic of New England landscapes. In Southern Rhode Island, the tall, sturdy dry-laid stone walls strongly define a sense of place. At Casey Farm the three hundred acres are lined with more than ten miles of stone walls.

This is why

You can see walls as dividers, but I love that they spark connections. I appreciate the stone walls for their everyday, in-your-face enduring presence. Each day, through the changing weather, the walls are a gorgeous sight and frame spectacular views. Walls define how we move around the farm, shelter us from the wind, and hold in warmth or coolness. They help protect the farm animals and the crops, and make the gardens happy. The more I’ve learned about them, the more I appreciate them.

Some background

At first, stone walls were just what happened once colonists deforested the land and the glacial stones underneath made their way to the surface—they had to be hauled into piles. Those piles of stones eventually helped to define fields, boundaries, and roadways. Often, in the wintertime, farmhands took time to balance the stones into more enduring structures. In Southern Rhode Island, cows, horses, and sheep were big business, so walls needed to be at least five feet tall to keep herds from climbing over them and to protect the livestock from predators. More than that, these walls were a great way to show off. The fancy walls near the farmhouse are fitted with two sides of carefully balanced stones with smaller fill in between, then topped by huge flat rocks. Only construction skill and gravity keep them standing.

What the records say

Similar to most Southern Rhode Island plantations, we have some documentation that the Casey family used slave labor in the eighteenth century. Though none of the documents link the labor of enslaved people to building stone walls, it is plausible that enslaved African-Americans and Native Americans may have been involved. We hope that further research will shed some light on these questions.

There is documentation in the Casey Family papers linking three different late-eighteenth century tenant farmers and a hired hand with wall construction. One of these people, Cezar Northup, was a free person of color, and several of his family members worked as farmhands.

Farm records tell us that one tenant farmer in the 1780s, Reynolds Knowles, built more than nine hundred feet of five-foot-tall walls around the barnyard and pastures in return for 650 pounds of Narragansett cheese! Some of us wouldn’t mind having that much cheese as we are sheltering at home, but back then this kind of cheese was a valuable commodity that Knowles could trade or sell. You can see below what I believe were these same walls photographed by Harry Weir Casey about one hundred years after Knowles built them. Many of them still stand today.

Some Casey family history

One family member, General Thomas Lincoln Casey (1831-1896), is associated with another stupendous pile of stone—the Washington Monument. As the chief engineer who completed the design for the marble obelisk in the 1870s, he certainly understood stone structures and appreciated history. General Casey, and later his sons, had a lot to do with repairs and building new walls in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

We’re lucky that in 1955, when the family donated the farm, they also donated valuable reference material—family papers and photographs—to the Historic New England Library and Archives. More than 41,500 items from the Casey Family Papers are newly available online, and there is even a crowdsourcing project to transcribe them if (like me) you enjoy deciphering handwriting and putting together puzzle pieces from the past.

Our recent repair project

Even with the best stewardship, animals, weather, and people will inevitably cause damage to stone walls. The ones in the most heavily visited public areas at Casey Farm near the farmhouse and barnyard had suffered to the point where we had to put up caution tape in about twenty places. Through the generosity of donors and private foundations, Historic New England hired Mike Minto of Rhode Island Stone Walls to repair about seventy-five percent of these walls under the direction of our preservation manager, Margaret Back. The work started in October 2019 and was completed just before our sites had to close to the public in March. It is solitary work anyway, and Mike only needed the occasional assistance of a farmer driving a tractor for the largest stones. Mike is a master at his art with a deep understanding of how these walls were built, and it was amazing to see him dismantle the walls and rebuild them largely by hand.

Stone wall repair at Casey Farm

Deep inside the wall dividing the farmhouse lawn from the garden, Mike found bricks that match the c. 1750 bricks in the central chimney of the farmhouse. He also found some wrought iron nails and pottery, giving us a good idea that this part of the wall hadn’t been taken apart for three centuries or so.

An intriguing discovery

Fossil from stone walls at Casey Farm

One of the best finds was this small rock used as infill in the garden wall. The gray shale was imprinted with fossils! A little help from our friends at the Natural History Museum and Planetarium in Roger Williams Park identified the plants as tree ferns, which were common in the tropical forests of 300 million years ago. There’s some great perspective for us! The fossil rock will go on display in the museum gallery for visitors to pick up and marvel at once we can open our doors to the public again.

Get involved

Read more about Casey Farm and the Casey family. And please consider making a donation to Historic New England to support preservation work at the property. Every gift helps.