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100-year-old rock walls serves dual purpose
March 4, 2007
Gene Waters and his dog Beau stand near a rock fence that was probably built around 1910 on his place near Western Grove.
Gene Waters and his dog Beau stand near a rock fence that was probably
built around 1910 on his place near Western Grove.
by Celia DeWoody, Times Staff
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
'Stay where you are until our backs are turned!'
We wear our fingers rough with handling them....
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
'Stay where you are until our backs are turned!'
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.

~ Mending Wall by Robert Frost
Old stone walls thread their way through the Ozarks, climbing hills, following streams, holding up hillsides and marking boundary lines.
"Most stone walls you see are close to 100 years old," said local history buff Gene Waters of Western Grove. "The ones I have on my place were built between 1890 to 1910."
Waters said Ozarks stone walls served two purposes - to serve as a place to put the rocks as they were cleared from the fields and to serve as boundary markers. "They had to clear the fields, and they had to put the rocks somewhere, so they just built fences out of them," Waters said. "Most of the walls are fences, but some are retaining walls to stabilize a hill or a lawn."
Although most of them are only 3 or 4 feet tall, they will keep cows in, Waters said. "Some had rail fences built on top of the stone walls," he said. "They were called 'snake fences.'" Farmers had to get the rocks out of the fields so they could plow, he said.
"My dad used to say he farmed between the rocks," Waters said. "When somebody would ask him, 'Why don't you just pick up all the rocks?', he'd say, 'If I picked all the rocks up, there would just be a hole here. The purpose of this farm is to hold the earth together - the soil is so poor and rocky.'" The stone walls were built without mortar.
"Long, flat rocks could be stacked, and they'd stay there for years," Waters explained. Once placed, the rocks were held in place by gravity, and did not require much maintenance. "If a tree fell on them, or if they were washed out by a stream underneath, they'd have to be rebuilt," he said. "I've rebuilt some that have deteriorated over time."
Building stone walls was not for the faint of heart.
"It was back-breaking work," Waters said. "All of this was done by hand, using brute force. They might have used a wheelbarrow, or loaded rocks onto a Springfield wagon and hitched it up to mules. Or they might have used a sled - two logs with front end upturned, covered with planks that they'd hook to a mule.
"This country was cleared with an ax and a cross-cut saw," he added.
Waters said many of the old walls have been bulldozed down now. "Some of the rock has been taken away to build buildings," he said. "I get calls every once in a while from somebody wanting to buy them." Sometimes in remote areas, the rocks are stolen, Waters said.
Waters' grandfather bought their place on Highway 123 between Western Grove and Yardelle in 1910. The place had been homesteaded in 1870. His grandfather built the red brick house Waters and his wife live in, the third on this location. A log house was built first, in 1870. When his grandad bought the place in 1910, he tore the log house down and built a new house. The brick house was built on the same site in 1965.
"My dad used to say, 'If you live in Missouri, it's a 'farm.' If you live in Texas, it's a 'ranch.' If you live in Arkansas, it's a 'place,'" Waters said.
The Newton County native took a visitor on a tour of three different "rock fences," as he says most folks around here call them, on his place.
The first is a wall about 3 1/2 feet high, tumbledown in some places, just west of Waters' brick house. It's made of flat, roughly rectangular stones, dusted with white lichen. Just behind it, leaning rock piers are all that's left of an old barn that burned years ago.
Waters said he thinks this wall was probably built between 1910 and 1920. "There can be a lot of damage by ground hogs burrowing," Waters said. "Also from the ground freezing and thawing." He said several people have called wanting to buy the fence's rocks, but he's not interested in selling. Waters then walks over to a neat retaining wall, between 2 and 3 feet high, that edges a terrace of lawn in his front yard. Connected to it at right angles is another wall separating the yard from the pasture.
He said his grandad built this wall around 1920. He brought in topsoil for the yard, bordered in front by Old Mayberry Creek, and built the retaining wall. Yards were kept without grass back then, and the dirt swept clean.
Waters has repaired this retaining wall one time. "From time to time, rocks will slip out," he said. The low wall is interrupted by four rock steps leading from the lower yard to the section closer to the house.
Waters' most treasured stone wall is an old original rock fence in a remote spot on the back of his place. He drives his visitor in his pickup through rolling pastures to the edge of a low bluff, where the old wall stands. He said he thinks this fence, still in its original state, was probably built in the 19-teens. "It's a boundary fence and a barrier for livestock," he said.
Just a short section of the old wall is left. Taller than the walls closer to the house, it stands between 4 and 5 feet tall.
The rock in the wall is limestone, Waters said. He pointed out fossils of little sea creatures called "crinoids" that are left on the surface of the rock. "All of this was under the sea," he explained. "We used to have a lot of rock fences," he said. "Some of them have fallen over. We used bulldozers to clear the land, and just covered them up. Now we just use steel fence posts, and barbed wire - they're easier to maintain."
Waters is not interested in selling his rock fences, which he values for their historic significance as well as their beauty.
"I treasure them," he said.
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