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What I Know Of Farming

Stone On A Farm

This earth, geologists say, was once an immense expanse of heated vapor,
which, gradually cooling at its surface, as it whirled and sped through
space, contracted and formed a crust, which we know as Rock or Stone.
This crust has since been broken through, and tilted up into ranges of
mountains and hills, by the action of internal fires, by the
transmutation of solid bodies into more expansive gases; and the
fragments torn away from the sharper edges of upheaved masses of
granite, quartz, or sandstone, having been frozen into iceberg,
floating, or soon to be so, have been carried all over the surface of
our planet, and dropped upon the greater part, as those icebergs were
ultimately resolved, by a milder temperature, into flowing water. When
the seas were afterward reduced nearly or quite to their present limits,
and the icebergs restricted to the frigid zones and their vicinity,
streams had to make their way down the sides of the mountains and hills
to the subjacent valleys and plains, sweeping along not merely sand and
gravel, but bowlders also, of every size and form, and sometimes great
rocks as well, by the force of their impetuous currents. And, as a very
large, if not the larger portion of our earth's surface bears testimony
to the existence and powerful action through ages, of larger and smaller
water-courses, a wide and general diffusion of stones, not in place, but
more or less triturated, smoothed, and rounded, by the action of water,
was among the inevitable results.

These stones are sometimes a facility, but oftener an impediment, to
efficiency in agriculture. When heated by fervid sunshine throughout the
day, they retain a portion of that heat through a part of the succeeding
night, thereby raising the temperature of the soil, and increasing the
deposit of dew on the plants there growing. When generally broken so
finely as to offer no impediment to cultivation, they not merely absorb
heat by day, to be given off by night, but, by rendering the soil open
and porous, secure a much more extensive diffusion of air through it
than would otherwise be possible. Thus do slaty soils achieve and
maintain a warmth unique in their respective latitudes, so as to ripen
grapes further North, and at higher elevations, than would otherwise be

The great Prairies of the West, with a considerable portion of the
valleys and plains of the Atlantic slope, expose no rock at their
surfaces, and little beneath them, until the soil has been traversed,
and the vicinity of the underlying rock in place fairly attained. To
farmers inured to the perpetual stone-picking of New-England, and other
hilly regions, this is a most welcome change; but when the pioneer comes
to look about him for stone to wall his cellar and his well, to underpin
his barn, and form the foundations of his dwelling, he realizes that the
bowlders he had exulted in leaving behind him were not wholly and
absolutely a nuisance; glad as he was to be rid of them forever, he
would like now to call some of them back again.

Yet, the Eastern farmer of to-day has fewer uses for stone than his
grandfather had. He does not want his farm cut up into two or three-acre
patches, by broad-based, unsightly walls, which frost is apt to heave
year after year into greater deformity and less efficiency; nor does he
care longer to use them in draining, since he must excavate and replace
thrice as much earth in making a stone as in making a tile drain; while
the former affords shelter and impunity to rats, mice, and other
mischievous, predatory animals, whose burrowing therein tends constantly
to stimulate its natural tendency to become choked with sand and earth.
Of the stone drains, constructed through parts of my farm by foremen
whose wills proved stronger than my own, but two remain in partial
operation, and I shall rejoice when these shall have filled themselves
up and been counted out evermore. Happily, they were sunk so low that
the subsoil plow will never disturb them.

Still, my confidence that nothing was made in vain is scarcely shaken by
the prevalence and abundance of stone on our Eastern farms. We may not
have present use for them all; but our grandsons will be wiser than we,
and have uses for them which we hardly suspect. I reinsist that land
which is very stony was mainly created with an eye to timber-growing,
and that millions of acres of such ought forthwith to be planted with
Hickory, White Oak, Locust, Chestnut, White Pine, and other valuable
forest-trees. Every acre of thoroughly dry land, lying near a railroad,

in the Eastern or Middle States, may be made to pay a good interest on
from $50 up to $100, provided there be soil enough above its rocks to
afford a decent foothold for trees; and how little will answer this
purpose none can imagine who have not seen the experiment tried. Sow
thickly, that you may begin to cut out poles six to ten feet long within
three or four years, and keep cutting out (but never cutting off)
thenceforward, until time shall be no more, and your rocky crests, steep
hillsides and ravines, will take rank with the most productive portions
of your farm.

In the edges of these woods, you may deposit the surplus stones of the
adjacent cultivated fields, in full assurance that moth and rust will
not corrupt nor thieves break through and steal, but that you and your
sons and grandsons will find them there whenever they shall be needed,
as well as those you found there when you came into possession of the

I am further confident that we shall build more and more with rough,
unshapen stone, as we grow older and wiser. In our harsh, capricious
climate, walls of stone-concrete afford the cheapest and best protection
alike against heat and frost, for our animals certainly, and, I think,
also for ourselves. Let the farmer begin his barn by making of stone,
laid in thin mortar, a substantial basement story; let into a hillside,
for his manure and his root-cellar; let him build upon this a second
story of like materials for the stalls of his cattle; and now he may add
a third story and roof of wood for his bay and grain, if he sees fit.
His son or grandson will, probably, take this off, and replace it with
concrete walls and a slate roof; or this may be postponed until the
original wooden structure has rotted off; but I feel sure that,
ultimately, the dwellings as well as barns of thrifty farmers, in stony
districts, will mainly be built of rough stone, thrown into a box and
firmly cemented by a thin mortar composed of much sand and little lime;
and that thus at least ten thousand tuns of stone to each farm will be
disposed of. It may be somewhat later still before our barn-yards, fowl
inclosures, gardens, pig-pens, etc., will be shut in by cemented walls;
but the other sort affords such ample and perpetual lurking places for
rats, minks, weasels, and all manner of destructive vermin, that they
are certain to go out of fashion before the close of the next century.

As to blasting out Stone, too large or too firmly fixed to be otherwise
handled, I would solve the problem by asking, "Do you mean to keep this
lot in cultivation?" If you do, clear it of stone from the surface
upward, and for at least two feet downward, though they be as large as
haycocks, and as fixed as the everlasting hills. Clear your field of
every stone bigger than a goose egg, that the Plow or the Mower may
strike in doing its work, or give it up to timber, plant it thoroughly,
and leave its stones unmolested until you or your descendants shall have
a paying use for them.

A friend deeply engaged in lumbering gives me a hint, which I think some
owners of stony farms will find useful. He is obliged to run his logs
down shallow, stony creeks, from the bottom of which large rocks often
protrude, arresting the downward progress of his lumber. When the beds
of these creeks are nearly dry in Summer, he goes in, with two or three
stout, strong assistants, armed with crowbars and levers, and rolls the
stones to this side and that, so as to leave a clear passage for his
logs. Occasionally, he is confronted by a big fellow, which defies his
utmost force; when, instead of drilling and blasting, he gathers dead
tree-tops, and other dry wood of no value, from the banks, and builds a
hot fire on the top of each giant bowlder. When the fire has burned out,
and the rock has cooled, he finds it softened, and, as it were, rotten,
on the top, often split, and every way so demoralized that he can deal
with it as though it were chalk or cheese. He estimates his saving by
this process, as compared with drilling and blasting as much more than
fifty per cent. I trust farmers with whom wood is abundant, and big
stones superabundant, will give this simple device a trial. Powder and
drilling cost money, part of which may be saved by this expedient.

I have built some stone walls--at first, not very well; but for the last
ten years my rule has been: Very little fence on a farm, but that little
of a kind that asks no forbearance of the wildest bull that ever wore a
horn. The last wall I built cost me at least $5 per rod; and it is worth
the money. Beginning by plowing its bed and turning the two furrows
together, so as to raise the ground a foot, and make a shallow ditch on
either side, I built a wall thereon which will outlast my younger child.
An ordinary wall dividing a wood on the north from an open field of
sunny, gravelly loam on the south, would have been partly thrown down
and wholly twisted out of shape in a few years, by the thawing of the
earth under its sunny side, while it remained firm as a rock on the
north; but the ground is always dry under my entire wall; so nothing
freezes there, and there is consequently nothing to thaw and let down my
wall. I shall be sorely disappointed if that wall does not outlast my
memory, and be known as a thorough barrier to roving cattle long after
the name of its original owner shall have been forgotten.

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