Rust In Peace
By Dave Anderson
New Hampshire Sunday News
Publication date: September 16, 2007
“There’s a place called Faraway Meadow We never shall mow in again, Or such is the talk at the farmhouse: The meadow is finished with men.” - from “The Last Mowing” by Robert Frost.
A steel-wheeled hay rake once pulled behind a creaking hay wagon seems out of place in the shade of thick pine forest, but it is preserved in place: right where the last farm hand parked it at the edge of a mowing at the end of summer, after the last rack of second-cut hay was hauled to a barn. The relict reminds us that today’s forests were once farms where people lived and worked.
Time passes slowly in a forest. Autumn leaves fall and rot while trees die and decay, stumps rot away leaving no trace. Not so with cultural artifacts hidden in the woods. Man-made fragments of history are testaments to the work of our predecessors - stories in weathered stone and rusty steel.
Imagine a place that hasn’t changed much in the past 80 years. Chances are slim you can think of one unless it’s an out-of-the-way patch of woods in a rural area. Our forests are open air museums of New Hampshire history where we find unexpected stories safely hidden from passing traffic and the passage of time.
The recent rapid pace of change to the landscape of southern New Hampshire happened once before. At the end of the French and Indian War in 1760, inland Colonial settlement boomed. All of present towns in central New Hampshire were established in thirty years prior to 1790. By 1840, an estimated 600,000 sheep grazed open hillsides that had been a howling forested wilderness just a few generations earlier. By the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in post- Civil War New England, farmers burned their houses to rake nails from the ashes for reuse and headed west for the more fertile, un-glaciated soils of the Midwest. By 1900 most cleared farms had begun to grow back to forest.
Imagine the shock and disappointment of the nineteenth century farmers if they could see their endless ranks of hard-won hillside pastures covered by trees. Today the State is 83% forested. But trees gently conceal the contours of the underlying landscape, unlike bulldozers which scrape away stories in stone. Cultural artifacts remaining in the woods are preserved in place and should be left that way when possible.
I’m fascinated by artifacts I find at abandoned farm sites. Telltale tokens of rural toil shed light on how our predecessors lived in our shared landscape of familiar valleys, mountain ranges, rivers and lakes. Local histories are evocative, sometimes romantic and often grim. The woods contain hundreds of miles of rough stonewalls, deep wells and shallow cellars, surface granite quarries and old lime kilns. I’ve seen the shrapnel of an exploded iron boiler from a steam-powered sawmill. I’ve found wagon wheels, cart springs and the remains of picking ladders beneath skeletons of shade-choked, dead apple trees. I’ve found galvanized sap buckets, steel door hinges, sugaring pans and bricks from the collapsed arches of tumble-down sugarhouses. In the rubble of abandoned farms are discarded rum bottles, patented medicine bottles, harness buckles and horseshoes. Once, I found a delicate hand-painted porcelain china doll face, blue eyes blackened with soot from a fire. On the same forgotten farm deep in the forest, there’s a child’s grave in the family cemetery.
Note how quarried granite stone was split. Technology used to split granite offers a rough means of dating when stone was cut. Prior to 1830, granite was split using a hammer and chisel to create thin grooves which appear faintly triangular in cross-section. Thin metal shims were inserted into grooves and granite was split with flat wedges driven between the shims. The split-stone of a cellar with flat, triangular marks along cut edges can be dated as late 18th or early 19th century. The more familiar, round “plug drill” holes along a cut edge indicates granite was split sometime after 1830 using a round star bit and half-round “feathers” placed in the hole and wedged apart with a steel wedge driven between the feathers.
It’s estimated there are 250,000 miles of stonewalls remaining in New England. Single thickness walls of fieldstone indicate land was pasture or possibly a hay meadow. Parallel outer walls with small stones filled in the center indicate adjacent land was once tilled to cultivate field crops such as potatoes or grains. Wire ribbon and barbed wire fences replaced stone beginning around 1870. Today, barbed wire is found running through large trees that have engulfed wires tacked to them more than a century ago.
“One man’s junk…”
Among more contemporary artifacts in the woods are the rusting steel hulks of cars or farm implements including wagon frames, sickle bar mowers, hay rakes and tine harrows. I know where one 1920’s era Chevy is reduced to a rusted engine block, frame, fenders, hood cowling and windowless cab with bullet holes in its doors. Springs poke through upholstered mohair seats and the ash tray contains bottle caps and pull tops matching rusted steel beer cans on the floor. While generations of skunks prowl inside the trunk and the leaves accumulate against once shiny hubcaps, rust never sleeps.
Each hulk becomes part of its local landscape – like the living reefs for marine life created from sunken ships. In the twisted ruins of that exploded steam-powered sawmill boiler, there is a long-time porcupine den. Abandoned apple orchards continue to attract deer, bears and coyotes. Washed-out granite blocks of a collapsed mill dam below a former gristmill offer shadowy pools for wary brook trout. Local bobcats favor ledges and talus rocks surrounding the site of an early graphite mine. Authentic abandoned houses have bats in the attic. In time, relicts become wildlife habitat and cultural artifacts are buried by fallen leaves and soil.
The pace of rapid landscape change transforming rural areas of New Hampshire make the preservation of hidden historical treasures, preserved in place in our forests even more important with the passing decades.
What is our legacy - what artifacts will contemporary culture will leave for future students of land use history to ponder? While it’s unlikely that homes, malls, restaurants, car dealerships and discount stores will be reclaimed by forest, the cement, steel, brass, glass and porcelain in our lives will outlive all of us.
Naturalist Dave Anderson is Director of Education for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. He can be reached through the Forest Society website at www.forestsociety.org.
Forest Journal appears in the Lifestyles section of the New Hampshire Sunday News and online at NH.com