Monday, June 27, 2011

The Chilmark Walls, Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts

The Chilmark Walls, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts

Stone Pillars and Gate on Old South Road, Chilmark
Martha’s Vineyard lies off the southern coast of Cape Cod, which extends in an arc like a crooked finger projecting out in to the Atlantic Ocean.  The current form of the island was created by the last ice age, when glaciers deposited thick layers of stone scraped and transported from various geologic formations in New England.  The rest of the island seems to be made up primarily of sand. 

Old Chilmark Wall

I am developing a garden around a newly renovated home in an oak forest in the vicinity of Chilmark.  Chilmark, on the southwest side of the island is known for its stone walls.  Mile upon mile of these walls are inherent to the vernacular of the place, and efforts are being made to encourage their restoration.
Restored walls dividing fields

Nobody knows who built many of the walls, or why.
  Most likely they were a means of using the vast quantity of stone accumulated from clearing fields for agriculture while demarking the boundary lines of land claims.  Massive boulders were often split in to smaller pieces, often by boring holes in a row, and then driving dowels into them to create a crack.  We used this technique to cut old granite curbs to fit and use for steps around the house.
A Wall in the wonderful Polly Hill Arboretum
Old Granite Curb made in to a step in my project
Construction methods vary, but the most common wall is a single thickness of stone, sometimes called ‘Lace Walls’ because the stone is stacked rather loosely with numerous gaps that you can see through.  Some people theorize that the open gaps allowed strong winds to pass through the walls during heavy storms so that the walls wouldn't collapse.  More likely it made the building of the walls faster and easier.  Oxen were used to move the largest of the stones, and it is said that fishermen were sometimes employed when they weren’t at sea as a labor force. 

Restored wall on Old South Road in Chilmark

A passageway for dogs and small animals in a wall on Meeting House Road

Reclining on a boulder we placed at my project
I worked with a crew, with the mechanical advantage of an excavator and forklift rather than oxen for placing many of the field stones, boulders and granite curbs on the site.  I will write about that project later, but I wanted to show the vernacular of the island that so heavily influenced the design of the garden project.
Building new walls in my Martha's Vineyard project

The garden 4 years later.  I've returned to refurbish it from its forlorn condition

The garden after a hard winter, 4 years later

There are a number of skilled stone masons on the island today, including the artist Lew French (, whose artistry takes the work to an entirely different level.  Martha’s Vineyard is a truly inspiring place to visit to see extraordinary stone work.
Contempory Wall in West Tisbury by Lew French
Though the island is forested with beautifully shaped oaks, these forests are not ancient.  The island used to be open and wind swept, so the walls may have acted as wind breaks as well.  Today they are largely an iconic symbol of the island’s character and act as a frame for the many beautiful vistas along the roads threading the island.  Driveways and gates often have stone pillars flanking them to identify the entrance to properties.  Whether they are overgrown or fully restored, their solidity and enduring beauty makes me want to pull over when driving around the island every hundred feet or so to capture yet another lovely view with my camera.  Here are some of those images.
Sassafras grove in Polly Hill Arboretum
Climbing Hydrangea on a wall in the Polly Hill Arboretum

Another wall at Polly Hill Arboretum
Path in Polly Hill Arboretum
Old Chilmark Farm House with new shingles around the front door

Picket Gate in Chilmark


  1. "lace wall," what a perfect description.

  2. Just randomly found your blog, wow! your work is incredible!

  3. Hi Jeffrey,
    My name is Jane and I'm with Dwellable.
    I was looking for blogs about Chilmark to share on our site and I came across your post...If you're open to it, shoot me an email at jane(at)dwellable(dot)com.
    Hope to hear from you soon!

  4. Very nice pictures! Its amazing the different things you can find there. I have been to many Martha's Vineyard rental over the years and each time we find some new beautiful scenery

  5. Western blogs is always unique and give a new idea for people like me that come from Indonesia Jasa Desain Interior
    Thanks for sharing J.

  6. We are on vacation from Ireland and we felt very much at home yesterday as we passed through Chilmark and saw all the stone walls...these are all over Ireland especially in rural areas of Galway and Connemara and the Aran Islands... It may have been an Irish man who built them originally as they are very specific and difficult to build. Beautiful work you

  7. As someone who spent many summers as a young man on "the Island", I am well aware of those stone walls primarily "up Island" so markedly different from the better known/famous Vineyard Haven, Edgartown or Oak Bluffs where I lived (in the Tabernacle). For all the "inside" secrets I knew of the Island, I never found out who did the work restoring those walls.

    I would also like to mention one of the great treasures of the Vineyard: Alison Shaw, a very special.photographer who regularly captures the Island's secrets on film, often in haunting black & white. First saw her work in the Vineyard Gazette ...