Salted with Sharks

On the Old Stone Road: A Stone Worker’s Log, part 1

In Culture Bluffs, On and off the Apron on June 9, 2013 at 9:35 am

Michael Murphy holds certificates from the Great Britain Dry Stone Walling Association and the Dry Stone Conservancy of the United States and is a certified instructor with the Dry Stone Conservancy. He designs and builds walls, stairs, walkways, benches and special features in dry stone. He will be teaching a dry stone walling workshop in the region this summer. Michael and his company the Nature of Stone reside in Elberta. Did you know that Elberta is home to more than one working stonemason? It’s kind of like lifting up a rock—you never know what you’re going to find here in the Village. We’ll be interviewing Bill Soper soon, as part of this series on Elberta odd jobs. If you have an idea for a Villager odd-job profile, let us know at elberta.alert@gmail.com.

Stone wall and bench created by Michael Murphy in Bear Lake, circa 2010. Photograph by Robert Bruce Bushway

Stone wall and bench created by Michael Murphy in Bear Lake, circa 2010. Photograph by Robert Bruce Bushway

By Michael Murphy

It was impossible to contain my excitement in the autumn of 2011 when my friend Neil Rippingale invited me to teach stonework with him and another “dry stone waller” friend, Dale Mitchell. Neil is a master dry stone waller from Scotland who runs the training program for the Dry Stone Conservancy (DSC), based in Lexington, Kentucky, and Dale runs a landscaping business in North Carolina. Founded in 1996, the mission of the DSC is to preserve dry-laid stone structures and promote the ancient craft of dry stone masonry.

Neil received his master’s certification from the Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain (DSWAGB) and is also an examiner. With 4 grades, from initial to master, the examiner not only judges candidates going for certification, they may also judge a dry stone walling competition. The Dry Stone Conservancy recruited Neil to come over from Scotland to train dry stone masons and run a project for a short period. That short period evolved into a twelve-year-plus stint here—teaching workshops, doing presentations, and providing training to wallers chosen to work on DSC projects. Dale and I were picked by Neil so that we could receive instruction as to how to teach dry stone walling.

Dry stone construction (also known as mortarless masonry) uses no mortar (unlike “wet” masonry). It has been used for aeons to build such wonders as the Roman aqueducts, the Pyramids at Giza, Egypt, parts of the Great Wall in China as well as the Incans’ mountain compound at Machu Picchu, Peru. The most visible examples of dry stone in North America are in New England and the “rock fences” of Kentucky, as they are called. Work in dry stone walling goes on year round, most notably in Japan, Scotland, England and off the coast of Spain on the island of Mallorca.

I decided to take the scenic route to Hopewell Furnace, near Elverson, Pennsylvania, via Brattleboro, Vermont. Two friends there are part of an initiative called the Stone Trust. Similar to the DSC, the Stone Trust seeks to preserve and expand the art and craft of dry stone walling. Located in an old timber-framed barn on a sprawling estate formerly owned by author Rudyard Kipling, it is the only venue in the world that offers year-round training and certification in dry stone walling. I spent a day with Jared Flynn loading stone tailings in a quarry and discussing the small but interconnected global world of walling. Another friend, Dan Snow, was in the midst of building a large turtle out of dry stone, and I was much enthused to work with him. An DSWAGB master and examiner as well, Dan has been doing dry stone work for over 30 years and also has published two lovely books that I recommend to anyone interested in stonework.

Our first two groups were students young men and women 15 to 18 years of age who were enrolled in vocational schools near Hopewell Furnace. In concert with a National Park Service employee, we gave classroom presentations on Hopewell and stonework respectively. A run through the history, benefits, and negatives of dry stone work led us to the importance of proper walling technique. Students learned “the four basics”: length in, lay stone level, pack from inside, and cover the joints. Building on those, an additional “5 Golden Rules” provided the remaining theory students would put into practice.

Hopewell Furnace is a National Historic Site administered by the National Park Service. An early industrial area, Berks County, Pennsylvania, contained the four necessities to operate a massive blast furnace producing iron: wood to make charcoal, iron-rich stone, limestone as a flux to carry away impurities, and a water supply to turn the 24-foot water wheel that pumped the bellows with forced air. From 1771 to 1883, Hopewell and other “iron plantations” provided the raw material for armaments and goods such as cast iron stoves. The retaining wall we taught on was on the engineered “raceway” for water diverted from a lake one mile away from the furnace.

Students’ interest in the classroom session varied greatly. Some were very enthused and curious right from the start. A female student named Omaris (now a legend) who sat in the front row promptly shredded her paper name tag to bits as Neil began his introductory presentation a few feet away from her. Omaris’s hair was coiffed long, hanging down forward and over the front of her face, with just a nose poking out à la Cousin It from television’s Addams Family. Neil wanted to ask her a question, and didn’t have the benefit of her name tag, so he made a breast-stroke motion in front of Omaris and said “Is anybody in there?” Omaris snickered, came to life, spoke up and was given another name tag to replace the shredded one. She became a very interested student when we went on-site later in the week.

The third group was all male, ages 18 to 30 and in their second and final year of a dedicated masonry program. Once in the field they were quite at home with the tools and work of building to a string line. Their schooling in masonry was expansive and impressive: it included brick, block, stone, concrete, modern mortar (aka ordinary portland cements, which have been in use for about 200 years—a very very recent development in the history of what we call mortar), restoration, and of course, the wonderful world of historic lime mortars which abound in the eastern U.S. and in the Old World.

Neil, Dale, and I were so inspired by all the students that on one of our last nights after dinner we founded a scholarship fund to cover further training and education in our craft, to pay for the travel and lodging for a one-week program. The recipient will attend a retaining wall workshop and be entered in the annual Dry Stone Walling Competition held every autumn at Shaker Village, Harrodsburg, Kentucky. In addition, the student will be able to earn certification with the DSC and DSWAGB and work on the various “special features” required for certification levels.

After the group photos, every class we taught at Hopewell Furnace signed their names and placed a time capsule inside the wall. In this ceremony, the chief of the National Park reminded everyone that they had learned and shared in our national heritage. She said “This is your wall … You own 1/300,000,000th of this wall,” expressing it numerically in proportion to the U.S. population. As Dale, Neil and I mused together afterwards on the four week experience—what great gifts we may never see, yet still share! Ψ

Michael Murphy, Neil Rippingale, and Dale Mitchell, taken at Hopewell Furnace, Elverson, Pennsylvania.

Michael Murphy, Neil Rippingale, and Dan Mitchell, taken at Hopewell Furnace, Elverson, Pennsylvania.

  1. “it’s called a stone after you touch it”. MKM

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