Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Happy stonewallers just moments after completing the rebuild of approximately 30 feet of the wall. Photo: Alan Weekes

The Link, Autumn 2018
| by Janet Jarrell |

Prince Edward County (the County) has long been known as a destination spot for wineries, beaches and history buffs alike. This island community on the north shore of Lake Ontario boasts a unique rural culture that coexists with a big city influx. A Sunday drive, or a ‘horn trip’ as the locals like to call it, will take you from Picton down to Cressy and back through Waupoos, making sure you stop at Black River Cheese for some fresh curds. On your stop you’ll find yourself in the fifth township, as it was originally known, today called Marysburgh. A drive along Morrison Point Road in South Marysburgh will feel like a drive back in time.

A solid drystone wall built centuries ago borders both sides of the road and meanders back into the fields, acting as a natural fence line. Sometimes the wall is completely exposed, other times nature has grown up and taken it over. In some places the wall is intact, in others it is in various states of repair or disrepair as it may be, and in others it has been removed entirely. No one really seems to know just when these drystone walls were built, nor do they know by whom.

“A few disillusioned Loyalists traded their slice of wilderness for a 26’er of rum and vamoosed to greener pastures. But mostly they stayed…” – Peter C Newman, Hostages to Fortune, The United Empire Loyalists and the Making of Canada

Historically, in the late 1700s, much of the County was inhabited by the United Empire Loyalists who were regimental officers fighting with the British and then fleeing the American Revolution with their families in tow. The reward for their loyalty to the Crown was acres of land allotted according to rank in what was then Upper Canada. Water access was key as travel by boat was the main mode of transportation. With the abundance of shoreline, it is no surprise that the County was a part of the UE Loyalist settlement.

Although we like to think of these settlers as aristocrats, generally they were hard-working farmers, hunters, trappers and indigenous peoples. The notion of hard work to earn your keep would come in handy as the terrain and the weather were less than kind. The term hardscrabble farming certainly applies to Morrison Point – in clearing the land on this peninsula it quickly became apparent that the soil was shallow and there was an abundance of stone to be picked from the fields. Instead of throwing the stone into fence lines as was common practice in the day, someone decided to build the walls.

Folklore surrounds the who, why and when these walls were built. Like stories of two Irish brothers that were hired by local farmers for 50 cents a day or that the militia troop stationed in the area during the War of 1812 built the walls as a way to stay busy. A group of locals have taken a keen interest, including Alan Weeks and Les Stanfield, as these walls are part of their properties and the locals, along with the walls, have a story to tell. They have been working together with Dry Stone Canada and volunteers from the community and abroad to preserve, repair and rebuild the walls. In 2017, the Morrison Point Dry Stone Wall Project began and along with rebuilding the walls this project has brought the community together, and renewed the interest and respect for those who originally built the walls generations ago.

Alan and Les explained that the walls were all built with stones collected from the immediate fields. These walls are double-skinned – two walls, built side by side, gently leaning towards each other. The large stones are sorted and stacked in an interlocking formation for stability. Angled upward about an inch for every foot, the weight pushes down instead of out. The gap in between is packed tightly with ‘hearting’ (stone rubble).

The feature that really makes these walls stand out as unique is the capstones. Placed at a 30-degree angle, these large, somewhat intimidating, stones are not merely there for decoration, they are a mass to hold everything down and serve the dual purpose of preventing any livestock from attempting to ‘jump the fence’.

Drystone walls date back thousands of years and can still be seen today all over the world, but notably in England, Ireland and Scotland. Certainly, part of the oral legends considers that immigrants from Britain brought these drystone masonry skills to Canada with them. The innovative architecture is nothing less than spectacular. With no grout or mortar, the stones themselves hold the walls together.

With the help of Dry Stone Canada and the many dedicated volunteers, these walls will certainly be rebuilt properly to ensure they survive the most difficult test of all – time.

The next workshop at Morrison Point is on October 2 to 28. For more information, visit morrisonpointstonewall.ca

Janet Jarrell is an editor and writer of short stories, sketches, and poetry. Her work has been published in local magazines, books and on her blog, ‘A Room Of My Own’. She teaches writing courses and is the General Manager of the Quinte Arts Council in Belleville.

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