OLD STONE WALLS
CATSKILL LAND AND LORE
by Norman J. Van Valkenburgh
From the first chapter, "Old Stone Walls"
Looking across to the Catskills from the middle of the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge, one has to wonder just what possessed the early settlers to pass by the productive lowlands for the harsh environment of the foreboding mountains. This puzzle becomes more perplexing when these hills are capped with snow and being savaged by the wild winds of winter.
The mountains rear up from the plains like giants, creating their own horizon; the only way to scale them (from the east anyway) was to climb up through craggy cloves that had been carved over the millennia by swift, plunging, ice-cold streams. Whatever prompted these staunch individuals, they came and sought out the upper reaches of the deep valleys hemmed in by steep slopes. These seemed to have been built in layers with distinct levels of ledges and outcroppings of rock that only added to the desolateness of the landscape. Were these people running from something and seeking some kind of sanctuary or hiding place? Or were they simply unsociable types looking for a quiet place far off the beaten path? No matter what their purpose, they turned out to be as rugged as their surroundings. They had to be in order to scrape a living—and a meager one it must have been—from a coarse soil suited only to growing rock and thorn apple and not much else. Why ever they came, they found an inexhaustible supply of building material.
Alf Evers, in his colossal The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock, relates the answer he got when he asked an old-timer how he could tell just where the Catskills began—”You keep on going until you get to where there's two stones to every dirt. Then, b' Jesus, you're there.”
Indeed, few would argue with that interpretation. One of the better-forgotten memories of my youth on the family farm is of picking stones from the garden plot on the hill in back of the house. As soon as the snow melted and the ground dried, I picked what must have been tons of stones so the soil—what there was of it—could be plowed and dragged prior to planting. That, of course, turned up other stones and I started on another round of the same thing. With the job done, I expected next spring would find the ground clear. Not so. During the winter, a whole new crop of stones grew; I never knew how, but there they were.
The task of the first farmers was more monumental. They had to remove trees, brush, and brambles from flats and hillsides so they could pasture livestock and plant crops, but this only exposed acres of rock and stone that also had to be cleared. They soon realized here was the raw material with which they could build walls to divide one ownership from another, pastures from home sites, fields from wood lots, and foundations for houses, barns, wagon sheds, and the all-important outhouses.
Robert Frost, in his delightful “Mending Wall,” wrote, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Surveyors know that stone walls do the job best of all.
Those who built the first stone walls must have followed close behind the surveyors who laid out the original patents, tracts, and lots. If not, how come great lot lines reaching up and over the ridges of the Catskills are marked by stone walls exactly in range from one valley to the next? They run down the lower slopes of one mountain, cross the bottom land, climb halfway up the next mountain straight as an arrow, and appear again on the other side directly in line.
Stone walls are holy relics to surveyors; nothing better marks where one property ends and the next begins. Perhaps this reverence derives from knowing the very first builder of walls. Amos tells of seeing the Lord standing “upon a wall made by a plumbline, with a plumbline in his hand.” The obvious question is, was the Lord simply the stone mason who built the wall or the surveyor who laid it out? Or both?
My grandfather told me how walls came to be so straight. The early stone masons were also fond of drink, he said. The farmers who hired them marked the point where the wall was to begin and then set a bottle of whiskey out ahead at a distance marking the end of a day’s work. The mason could have the bottle when he reached it, so he took the straightest line in order to get there the quickest. And that’s why straight walls were called whiskey walls, my grandfather explained. Perhaps crooked walls were constructed by those who started the day where the bottle was set instead of at the other end.
However, surveyors must be cautious before accepting a stone wall as marking a certain line as I learned early on in my apprenticeship with the master of Catskill Mountain surveyors. Coming upon a well-built wall tracking across the steep side hill and disappearing into the woods, I remarked, “That looks like a lot line to me.” Not one to suffer fools, Ed snorted, “It's a lot line all right, between the sheep lot and the cow lot.” We moved on, not giving that wall a second glance.
The argument could easily be made that stone walls are works of art. Not only do they have utility, they have grace and beauty as well. Some have fallen, collapsed from age and neglect, but still trace a painter's brush stroke across the landscape. Others are as solid as the day they were built and mark out huge checkerboards on green summer hills and winter countrysides. Those wandering around remote cellar holes and old barn foundations stitch a crazy-quilt portrait of a forgotten family who once lived and labored there. Maybe those rugged individuals who first settled these mountains had a bit of the artist in their souls. The stone walls they left behind seem to say so.
Readers of Norm Van Valkenburgh’s Murder in the Catskills and his other mysteries may wonder if his principal character, surveyor/sleuth Ward Eastman, is based on his own career. Unlike Eastman, however, Van Valkenburgh doesn’t find any corpses or other evidence of dastardly deeds in his latest book Old Stone Walls: Catskill Life and Lore.
Licensed to practice land surveying in 1961, following a six-year apprenticeship under Ed West, the renown Catskills surveyor, Van Valkenburgh has drawn on his nearly fifty years of experiences seeking out lost boundary lines to put together a collection of reminiscences of people, places and happenings along the way. These are grouped under three headings: “People, Places, and Things”; “On the Transit Line” and “Surveyors I Have Known.” The first part includes essays that introduce some of the people who constitute the folklore of the Catskills while others describe the natural world as seen by a land surveyor traveling routes seldom walked by others.
The second tells the tales of some trying days and days of pure delight Van Valkenburgh experienced on the transit line. The final part records biographies of surveyors whose tracks he has followed over the years. It all goes back to the old stone walls, those relics left by previous generations to mark their history on the landscape of the Catskills. Those with dignity are followed by Van Valkenburgh and others of his profession as they try to solve the puzzles woven into old and faded deeds. While he was at it, Van Valkenburgh met some of the characters who became part of the tradition and legend of these rugged hills. It’s all great fun. What better way to celebrate this centennial year of the Catskill Park than exploring the hidden cloves and far-flung ridges of these mountains with a land surveyor as a guide? Come on along.
Norman Van Valkenburgh is the author of four Ward Eastman, Land Surveyor, mysteries:
Murder in the Catskills
Mayhem in the Catskills
Mischief in the Catskills
(a mystery novella with five short stories)
Murder in the Shawangunks
(a mystery novella plus another, Class of '68: A Mountain Top Mystery, by his daughter, Airilee Ellyn Blessing)
His other non-fiction works published by Purple Mountain Press include
The Forest Preserve in New York State in the Adirondack and Catskill Mountains
112 pages, illustrated, 7 x 10, 2004
$12.50 paperback--A Purple Mountain Press original
Copyright © 2004 Purple Mountain Press. All rights reserved.