Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Stone Wall Stories- #2 Stone Walls and Cellar Holes

In those parts of New England where rocks sprout like dandelions, there are stone walls running hither and thither.  Often they run through the thickest forests, where it appears no one has ever lived.  However, at one time most of New England was deforested and agricultural.  These stone walls marked boundaries and places where crops grew.  Now, most of New Hampshire is as forested as it was before European settlement.  It is hard to imagine farmers farming these thick woods.

An old cellar hole in Windham, New Hampshire
As the trees were cut and the fields were cleared, the stones were piled around the boundaries.  Sometimes the walls were quite carefully constructed, and other times they were just places to put the rocks.   Over the years they have tumbled, and frost heaves have knocked the stones down.  In some places the stone walls have been carefully repaired and reconstructed, and in other places the walls have disappeared due to theft, ignorance or excavation.

Maple trees for collecting sap have grown up
near where there were once field crops or grazing pastures
By the late 1800s many thousands of New England farms had been abandoned for better farmland in the mid-west and far west.  The population of New Hampshire actually dropped, and stayed low until the turn of the twentieth century.  Cellar holes, now deep in forests, are the only sign that man ever lived in some of these places.  Sometimes only a lone apple tree or lilac bush marks where a cellar hole can be found.

As a girl growing up in Holden, Massachusetts, I remember playing in the streams near where there were abandoned mills.  Their sluiceways for waterwheels, and cellar holes marking where buildings stood were a mystery to me.  Often tall oaks and maples grew in the middle of the cellar holes, and I couldn’t imagine people living  and working there.  We walked along where canals and bridges were supported by granite boulders and blocks, and it seemed like an ancient civilization had been there thousands of years before.  But in reality, only 100 years before, there had been villages and settlements along those brooks and near those waterways.

Robert Frost wrote about how good stone walls make good neighbors.  There is also a drink popular around these parts called the "stone fence".  You need 2 oz of dark rum, a few ice cubes, and fill the glass with hard cider.  A very New England drink considering the history of rum and hard cider in these parts.   Share a few of these with your neighbors, and you'll be instantly popular! 

A wonderful video about New England stone walls can be seen here: http://www.yankeemagazine.com/issues/2009-03/interact/exclusives/stone-wall-photos

Someone is blogging about the cellar holes and stone formations found in New England at this link http://rockpiles.blogspot.com/

This post is part of a series of stories I wrote for this week all about stone walls.

Story 1- America's Stonehenge-

Story 3- Dogtown, Massachusetts

Story 4 - The Stone Sheepcote in Burlington, Massachusetts

For the truly curious:
A poem about New England cellar holes -


Heather Wilkinson Rojo, "Stone Wall Stories- #2 Stone Walls and Cellar Holes", Nutfield Genealogy, posted June 19, 2012, ( https://nutfieldgenealogy.blogspot.com/2012/06/stone-wall-stories-2-stone-walls-and.html: accessed [access date]). 


  1. I have been visiting the Derry area virtually by internet and am alarmed that many of the "cellar holes" I visited and played in as a boy are gone. I found two with tunnels in the Kilrea Rd. area, one literally being on the side of the road with the mouth of the tunnel exposed. Are these sites being logged by anyone or protected? When I lived in Derry, 1967-1974, my house, the 1810 school house, was just below the 1730 Gen. Reid House. It is such an old historic area that people have built all around it now to enjoy the country setting, but the history should be protected as well. Scott Bruce Randall, Esq.

    1. Scott, did you see the comment by Anna below. The NH State archeologists are interested in cellar holes, and must be keeping files on them.

  2. Hi Scott! I'm not aware of anyone recording, listing, or cataloging cellar holes in New Hampshire or anywhere else. But it's a great idea. Maybe someone reading this can comment?

  3. NH state archeologists are interested in recording cellar holes. I've had David Trubey out in our Mont Vernon area, he has recorded 3 that I was familiar with. You can email him: David.Trubey@dcr.nh.gov.