Peaceable Man Files #15: Finding History in Old Rock Walls
Random musings on my gypsy existence at my cabin in the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania and wherever else life takes me.
It was twenty years ago this month that a good friend, sadly no longer with us, took me and my three boys up to the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania for a weekend visit to his family’s cottage on Fiddle Lake in Susquehanna County.
And so my love affair with this area was born. The following year I was lucky enough to snap up a 52-acre undeveloped parcel in Clifford Township, with a view of the South Knob of Elk Mountain, where I now have my dream cabin.
One of the first things that struck me about this area, aside from the fact that it’s a lot less crowded and more scenic (in my opinion) than the commercialized Pocono Mountains to the south, were the rock walls that transverse the landscape. Take a drive along the winding country roads up here and you will see the walls bordering fields and meadows, cutting through hedgerows, and meandering through apple orchards and hardwood groves.
I call them walls, but they are really just rows of stacked fieldstones put there years ago by farmers who tended these fields. The ground up here is rich with Pennsylvania bluestone and other limestone sedimentary rocks. After every winter, these stones push up to the surface like mushrooms.
For the immigrant farmers who settled this area, the rocks were a nuisance. They broke plowshares, impeded planting, and generally just got in the way. So whenever they ran into a stone while plowing or planting, they would carry it to the nearest hedgerow and stack it on top of the others to get it out of the way.
Modern eyes look on these stones a little differently. Landscapers around here prize the fieldstones their striking colors, which vary from tan to bluish-gray. The stones are also generally flat, perfect for hardscaping or rock gardening. Every spring, Rachael and I gather stones from the surrounding fields and carry them back to the cabin to wash off and use around our flower gardens.
All told, I would guess we have a couple miles of old stone walls running through our property. Sometimes on my walks with Cassie, I will stop and run my hands on the mossy, lichen-coated stones, thinking about the men who set them there. Who were these people? What were their lives like?
Burning to know, I recently connected with the area’s resident historian Sandy Wilmot. Sandy and her husband Mark live on a 130-acre farm about a mile away from my house (in the winter when the leaves are down, I can see the Wilmot house and barn on the mountain across the valley to the north).
Sandy was excited by my interest in the history of the area and pointed me in the direction of a well-done book that was printed in 2006 on the occasion of the township’s 200th anniversary. She also gave me copies of early survey maps of the area and took me on a tour of the Clifford Township Historical Museum on site at the township community center.
Here’s what I’ve discovered so far about the history of this area through my chats with Sandy and other research I’ve done:
The area around Elk Mountain was originally used as hunting grounds by Native Americans – namely, the Iroquois, who lived to the north, and the Lenni Lenape, who lived to the south. There were no big Native American settlements in this area, which is why people find so few Native American relics in the area.
Connecticut and Pennsylvania battled over control of this territory in the late 1700s in what was known as the Pennimite Wars, before finally the disputed claims were settled in favor of the Pennsylvanians.
It was in this point that, around 1800, the first European immigrants began settling this area and claiming titles to the land.
According to early survey maps of the area, my current property appears to have been part of adjacent parcels owned by a James Wells and a Hallowell Lowry.
James Wells settled on his 100-acre parcel around 1806 and ran a gristmill along the river that runs through the valley north of my property. Hallowell Lowry was the son of George and Mary Lowry, who settled in the area around 1808 and owned the farm to the west and south of my property.
With this information in hand, I went for a walk. I recalled my neighbor who owns the field next to me saying there was an old family cemetery at the back of his property and inviting me to check it out if I was interested. Curious if any of the names in that cemetery matched those that I was seeing in the early maps of the area, I followed the stone wall along the westernmost edge of my property and found the cemetery, nearly lost amidst the trees and overgrown brush.
Sure enough, there in the center of the walled cemetery as an obelisk marking the final resting place of Hallowell Lowry, born 1801 and died 1875. The dates match those in the township anniversary book. Other stones in the cemetery mark the resting places of other Lowry family members.
Alas, being that this was the early 1800s, there are no pictures of James Wells or Hallowell Lowry that I can look at. But I was able to find this picture of Hallowell’s grandson Clark Lowry (1881-1933) and his family from the year 1912. Clark was also a farmer in the area, though I don’t know if he actually worked the land where I now have my cabin.
Still, at least now I know the names of some of the men who built the walls around my property. It gives me a deeper connection to this land that I own.
Now when I walk my fields, I think of James Wells, Hallowell Lowry, and their descendants out in these fields behind horse-drawn plows, halting the team to carry off a rock that popped up during the plowing. Their hands once held the rocks I am touching today.
History is not dead. It’s alive and part of a great continuum that speaks to us in the things all around us. I can hear it speaking to me through these rocks.