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Fencing in Appalachia

For 13 years now, students from the Department of Historic Preservation have attended the annual dry stone masonry workshop at Pine Mountain Settlement School in Eastern Kentucky. This year’s workshop, which ran from Oct. 20-22, 2017, gave graduate students in Professor Travis Rose’s class a newfound respect for what could very well be the reason “a rock and a hard place” was ever uttered.

The Friday evening of the workshop had the students learning, theoretical style, about the foundations of dry stone masonry from instructors Joe Dinwiddie (a.k.a. Drystone Joe) and Keenan Bishop. Then Saturday came, and that theory was put into real-time practice as the students took part in building a retaining wall and stairs.

“You look at the stairs in the photo, and it looks pretty simple, like we just stacked rocks on top of each other,” explained Brittany Sams. “But let me tell you, those stones took hours of chiseling to lay on top of each other right without wobbling.”

While there have been examples of dry stone that date back to the Neolithic Age, from Europe to Egypt, the United States has used this type of construction since the Colonial times. Early settlers to Kentucky, especially English, Scottish and Irish immigrants, used the widespread availability of stone to build fences and other structures, especially on many of the horse farms in the Bluegrass region.

So, having the opportunity to visit Eastern Kentucky to study this construction method allowed these preservation students to work in a hotbed of exemplary dry stone monuments. “It was my first time in Eastern Kentucky,” said Christina Rieth. “We had no [phone] service and were completely disconnected, it was great.”

This uncoupling from the distractions of daily life allowed the students to fully invest in the workshop, which started with a review of past projects by Historic Preservation students. Rose was quick to point out that a review of Pine Mountain shows that quite a bit of the dry stone work was done by former students in the HP program.

Now it was the students in the fall 2017 semester to have their turn. But before any chiseling began, there was planning to be done. “A lot goes into the background work before you physically start doing it,” explained Jennifer Owen, noting that levels and tape measures were in constant use. “You’re measuring and make sure you don’t have a running joint that could shift. It was quite technical and precise.”

And dirty.

“It was so much more hands-on than I thought it was going to be,” acknowledged Sams. “We were down in the poison ivy and dirt. When you actually go in there and do it with your hands, you learn to appreciate the labor and skill that goes into it.”

This first-person perspective is what Katarina Litva feels will be the true benefit for future preservation specialists. “Having done the actual physical part where we understood the theory behind it and actually did it, I think that when we’re in the field working as preservationists, we can have an intelligent conversation with trades people and others in the field. That’s the benefit of being able to do hands-on workshops.”

The time and the labor involved resulted in heavy appreciation for this skill. “We learned how physically intense it was,” said Allyson Ayers. “I think by the end of it we were all real sore. But we learned a lot of good teamwork, which you need to do in that field to get it done.”

Dry stone masonry and teamwork – two essential skills in the preservationist’s tool kit.

Workshop students include:

Allyson Ayers

Christine Huck

Katarina Litva

Steven Lowe

Jennifer Owen

Christina Rieth

Brittany Sams

Fencing in Appalachia