Mansfield’s Historic Stone Walls by Rudy Favretti

Historical Article Series May 17, 2020 > Mansfield’s Historic Stone Walls by Rudy Favretti

From the Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 55, No. 1, April 2019

Stone walls typify New England. Throughout most of the region we see farm walls that separated woodland from fields, or gardens from pastures. Mansfield has its share of these walls and some of them have a history and are beautifully built, all the stones fitting closely together like the pieces of a jig-saw puzzle.

The Dewing Walls

The best known of these historic walls is the one that parallels the south side of Browns Road. It is a battered wall, meaning that the base of the wall is a foot wider than the top. This batter, in addition to the fact that the wall is built on a good footing of rubble, is probably why the wall still stands.

The walkway and retaining wall built between the Dewing mansion and the church
The walkway and retaining wall built between the Dewing mansion and the church

The wall enclosed fifteen acres that included an orchard, pasture, and woodlot. Walking or driving by we are not aware of other walls going off at right angles off the main north wall. Built of gneissose-granite, it is estimated that 600 tons of rock compose the walls.

Who was the wall builder? His name was Rand B. White, a native of Dixfield, Maine. White was employed by Zalmon Storrs who lived south of the present Congregational Church parsonage. Storrs left his house and grounds to his daughter Susan, the wife of Leonard H. Dewing of Hartford. After remodeling and expanding the house extensively the Dewings spent their summers there. They further enhanced the park-like setting created by Zalmon Storrs around his home.  The park was to include a walk from their mansion to the church and the brick school house and well beyond it to the north. (In order to have the walk mostly on one plain, a low area where the topography dipped, had to be filled, and in order to retain the fill a fourteen foot retaining wall was built sometime around 1874, ten years before the wall along Browns Road was finished. The Dewing Mansion burned in 1909.

Rand B. White was a lover of stone. He lived in a small wooden house and as his family expanded he added an addition built of stone. (The Rand B. White house is presently 21 Browns Road.) When he built the forty inch high wall, also forty inches wide, oxen hauled the stone, on a drag, from elsewhere on site, and with the help of other workmen and by a series of plank contrivances, they inched the stones into place.

I have always wondered why there was a stile (steps for mounting the wall) at the end of the wall just north of the church, and on the west end of the little parking area there. The cap stones on the wall were laid so perfectly that they resemble a stone walk, and when Browns Road became muddy during thaws in winter and spring, people actually walked on the wall to keep their shoes and skirts from getting too muddy.

White died in 1881 so his helpers finished the wall. Near the wall’s west end on Browns Road, there is a stone a yard square on which is engraved, “1884 LHD”. Dewing took full credit for the walls as one who holds the purse often does, and he stated that they were completed in 1884, but certainly started many years before that date, probably just after the wall on Storrs Road was completed.

Spring Manor Farm
Spring Manor Farm, Home of George H. Reynolds. On the hill above the house you can see a portion of the extensive stone wall alongside Route 32.

Spring Manor Farm

This 175 acre farm was just north of Mansfield Depot where 16,000 feet of beautiful wall were built. Its western boundary was the Willimantic River, and the eastern bound was Route 32.

A long section of wall parallels Stafford Road, or Route 32. Enough space was left between the road and the wall to accommodate a wide gravel walk. The walk was shaded by a long row of elms. At least one of the elms, or a seedling, survived the Dutch Elm Disease plague and had the beautiful elm vase shape until a crew hired by the electric company came along and mutilated it. 

Spring Manor Farm was carved out of a virtual forest by George Huntington Reynolds, one of twelve children of Christopher and Clarissa Huntington Reynolds. The Reynolds family migrated to Mansfield in 1810 from East Greenwich, Rhode Island. Reynolds and his brother, Edwin, apprenticed with various companies to become “mechanical engineers” in that day when an academic field of study did not exist in that field. The brothers became quite wealthy and George bought this parcel that he later called Spring Manor Farm, and brother Edwin purchased Rock Spring Farm, basically where the Mansfield Training School used to be. They spent most summers on their farms along with their families.

When George Reynolds had his workmen build the walls that we now see, he planned to build them quite the same size as the Dewing walls just discussed, although it appears that their height never attained that of the Dewing wall.

Where there was to be an opening, or where one already existed, abutments were built larger and higher than the wall itself; these are visible to this day. Also the big difference between the Spring Manor Farm walls and the Dewing wall is that the stone used, was not the extremely large slabs of stone that Rand White used at Dewing; thus the Spring Manor stone is but a fraction in size but just as nicely put together. The capstones are much larger than the stones beneath and they were obtained from the Humphrey Quarry in Willimantic.

The Curriculum Wall

In the book authored by Walter Stemmons, entitled Connecticut Agricultural College, A History, he states that part of the curriculum for each day, mostly an entire afternoon, consisted of harvesting crops and “digging and drawing stones, and laying them into a wall, and in carrying out minor improvements on the premises, but chiefly the drainage of the swamp…”

When I was a student at the University, many years ago, I always wondered where the walls built by the students were but I never received an answer from the many people I asked. But I often saw an elderly man, walking his beloved little white terrier, and I discovered that he walked from his home in Storrs to Gurleyville, then north on Cod Fish Falls Road ( ‘twas a gravel road then), then up Old Turnpike Road, and then south on Moulton Rd. (called Savage Rd. then), and home. One day I asked him his name and he said Charles A. Wheeler and he added that he graduated from Connecticut Agricultural College, class of 1888. He later joined the faculty and retired as Emeritus Professor of Agricultural Science and Mathematics. Naturally I asked him about the walls that the students built. He responded “They’re down there, under the road.” What he meant was that the walls were holding up Gurleyville Road, the road being like a terrace with the wall of great length holding it in place. I walked down with him as he showed me the walls, and then he said: “See those ditches down there? We students dug them too.” Where the ditches are is quite evident and it is the “swamp” that the students were to drain. They did a good job of draining, and the swamp is now called Valentine Meadow (an in-law of one of the Storrs brothers held the surname Valentine.)

The “Curriculum Wall” is not visible from Gurleyville Road. If you want to see it you must park in a safe place and go into Valentine Meadow. The drainage ditches are visible from Gurleyville Road.

Credits: I drew freely from Jewell Friedman’s article entitled A PASSION FOR STONES, that appeared in Yankee Magazine, November 1973, and an article written by Ann Galonska in the July 2004 Newsletter of the Mansfield Historical Society about the walls at Spring Manor Farm.

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