Little Compton’s Stonemasons: Their Walls and Their Ways

Rhode Island Home & Design Magazine

June 2011

By Ivor Hanson

Stone upon stone, layer upon layer, the stonewalls of Little Compton have helped define the small Rhode Island coastal town for the past couple of centuries.

Seemingly formed by nature, as much as they’ve been built by man, the walls convey, if not embody, rustic essence and primitive charm; stones, soil, lichen, and time, along with rain, snow, wind, and sun collaborate with stonemasons on imperfect perfection.

“The art of the stonemason,” says Jason Oliveira, a Little Compton native, and a stonewall mason for the past twenty-two years, “is taking something almost straight and almost true and making something special with it.”

Oliveira is not alone in this sensibility. Other stonemasons who work in Little Compton — Steve Reuter, Mike Gigere, and Bill Sanford – concur.

Reuter, a long-time landscaper with ten years of wall building experience, strives to make his walls look natural — “not too square, not too neat” — by preserving the lichen as much as possible, facing the old stones out, and preserving the stones’ shapes. At the same time, he throws in the occasional odd-colored or odd-shaped stone to set his work apart.

“You don’t want a wall that looks processed,” Reuter says. “That’s too ‘estate.’ Little Compton is rural.”

Gigere, a stonemason for the past twenty-six years, keeps a level around to guard against “going uphill,” or building unevenly, just as he “builds a bridge over each stone” to keep them together.

“I like getting the stones in the wall as tight as I can, so you can’t see daylight through it,” says Gigere. “That way you know it’s strong. Otherwise, weight and gravity will tear it apart.”

Sanford, an arborist and stonemason for twenty years, views his job as making his work “fit in” with the existing wall or surrounding walls.

“Every wall is different, just as every stone is different,” says Sanford, who enjoys the inherent ingenuity the job demands. “But if you keep quality and stability in mind, the wall will stand for another hundred years.”

And the walls seem to be everywhere: along the main roads and back roads, in front yards and backyards, bordering fields.

“Little Compton is like the stonewall capital of the world,” says Oliveira. “You see them in the middle of the woods, and you wonder ‘Why are they here?’ But it’s because they were marking off farmlands. They’re everywhere.”

Indeed, back in the 1700’s, Little Compton’s representative, Thomas Church, declared to the legislature that his calculations showed that the combined length of the town’s walls measured seventy-four miles, or the distance from LC to Boston. When his colleagues doubted his assertion, Church went over his figures. Turned out he was wrong: the length was twice as much.

The ubiquity of walls, however, does not mean a ready supply of stones. When Little Compton was a truly agricultural town, farmers would annually “harvest” a crop of stones, with granite on the east side of town, and slate on the west. But since that’s no longer the case, stones are harder to come by. Nowadays, newer stonewalls in Little Compton may include rocks from Tiverton, Portsmouth, Jamestown (which sparkle courtesy of their mineral content), and even Pennsylvania. Bottom line: the odds of good rocks being dug up are getting slimmer.

“An old timer once told me,” says Oliveira, “that we stonemasons today are better than they were back then, since they didn’t have to mess around with the ‘garbage stones’ that we do today.”

Essentially, there are three types of stonewalls: double-stack walls, single-stack walls, and those made with palleted stone.

“Double-stacks” are the classic Little Compton stonewall. Building them “dry”, meaning without concrete, is “almost a lost art,” says Oliveira, marveling that they were built out of necessity, “if only to get rid of the rocks in the ground.”

Once the wall’s foundation has been dug out, big, heavy base stones go in to provide stability, since the wall does flex and move. Next are the layers of fill stone, ideally, “angular rocks that bite together” for a good fit.

As the wall goes up, it batters, or narrows, which Oliveira compares to being “kind of like a pyramid.” Typically, Oliveira’s “double-stacks” measure 24 inches wide at the bottom, narrowing to 18 inches as they reach a height of 32 inches, when they are topped by a capstone.

“Single-stacks” are less involved, says Oliveira, being “one rock, on one rock, on one rock, and so on,” and built primarily for boundary purposes; they aren’t for show, so to speak.

Walls made of palleted, or shaped, stones are dismissed by Oliveira as “cookie-cutter” walls, likening them to a brick wall made of blue bricks; they’re just not right.

And though Gigere and Oliveira both compare building stonewalls to designing puzzles, they readily accept that the rocks will have their say in the solution.

“It’s not about what you, or the customer wants,” says Gigere. “It’s about the stones.”

Gigere says that, over time, stonemasons develop an affinity for the stones they work with.

“I’ve got a feel for the rocks,” says Gigere. “I pick up a stone and see the potential for the stone, where it can go, what it can do.”

Gigere recalls how the late Caroline Haffenreffer, who long worked to preserve Little Compton’s heritage and beauty, took a keen interest in his walls:

“She would sit by the side of the road and watch me work, and she’d say to me, ‘Mike, every stone looks comfortable. You put it there and it stays there.’ I’ll always remember that.”

In other words, when Gigere picks up a rock from a pile, he intuitively knows where it needs to go, where it belongs.

“I don’t put it back down on the ground,” says Gigere. “Unless, of course, I’m working with rubble.”

If these stonemasons share a credo, it may be found in the words of Oliveira.

“You gotta know your walls,” he says, adding, “And the guys in Little Compton, we know our ways around a stonewall.”

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