Blog

STONE WALLS

| Bob Hill
STONE WALLS

The unifying park plan was a natural, almost kids play; build 740 feet of new stone walls with 450 million-year-old Kentucky limestone.

The clean, perfectly tapered, almost four-foot high dry-stone walls would anchor and guide the Creekside Playground and Sprayground of Beckley Creek Park – a kids section of the Parklands of Floyds Fork that will include circus-colored playground equipment and a wheelchair-accessible “Sway Fun” glider.

Reaching back almost a half-billion years, the new walls would link a warm Ordovician Kentucky sea filled with brachiopods and bryozoa – and the layers of limestone thus created – with children dancing and laughing under high-tech spray fountains in the new Louisville park.

The walls would emotionally connect the new 4,000 acres of Floyds Fork parklands to existing sections of old stone walls already on the property – walls built by forgotten Kentucky settlers and farmers; gray, fallen-down, moss-encrusted walls of organic beauty and considerable mystery.

The new walls would help tell the story of Kentucky’s Dry Stone Conservancy – and the story of immigrant family that built them.

And the walls would bring a touch of the Kentucky Bluegrass and its iconic stone fences to Louisville.

Good walls can do all that. The trick was to make the right plans, truck in about 400 tons of limestone from Scott County, find the family with the certified skills to shape and lay the stones, build that 740 feet of connective historical tissue – then bring on the kids.

“Stone walls are going to be a theme throughout the park,” said Jim Walters, owner of Bravura, which designed and implemented many of the specifics of The Parklands of Floyds Fork.

“And that goes back to the icons of agricultural folk architecture in Kentucky….Those walls are kind of a logical solution for a guy who’s got a field full of rocks and wants to build a fence…”

Those old, now fallen stone fences can be found in several newly purchased areas along The Parklands of Floyds Fork. The fences are slowly returning back into the earth, partially buried in what are now second-growth woods near creeks, or the silt from 150 years of floods.

Two other long and impressive walls face one another on both sides of Chenoweth Run – walls that a local farmer believes were used to funnel cattle down the creek and away from farm fields.

Being in the silent presence of those old walls always requires some reflection on the building process. I sit and look at them, try to put myself in the time, place and mindset of the people who built them. It was indeed “logical” that stone walls were the best and cheapest option at the time – and the work to be done only when the regular chores and field work completed – but where did it all end?

I think about that Sisyphean labor; the gathering and hauling of rocks and dredging up the creek stone for raw materials. I think about my own wall-building ventures; the gratification to be found in seeing a day’s worth of work standing in front of you. But my walls were recreational; my cattle had wire fences; I could always buy food at Kroger’s.

Then come my deeper questions: Who built those old stone walls? What were their lives like? What happened to them? And finally – and often the hardest to figure – were those long forgotten farmers fencing something in or fencing something out?

By design, the new stone walls at Beckley Park follow the contours of nearby Beckley Creek. Rising above those playground walls are massive, wooden-post shelters that will provide shade and looming context; rainwater designed to spill off one roof onto a thick limestone “splash blocks” below. Beckley Creek itself will be cleaned up and adapted as another classroom for kids; a mini-version of Floyds Fork which curls around the other side of the property..

But the stone walls are not the parklands’ only unifying factors. Walters said plans for the entire park include historic focal points that will meld roads, walls, bridges, forest paths and existing wooden structures and silos.

He spoke in almost poetic terms of the indigenous beauty of a weathered tobacco barn; the distinctive, functional shape; the dark siding ; the metal roof with vertical louvers; the stained-wood, honey-colored interior with sunlight slanting through.

“That’s the unifying thing,” said Walters. “Let’s respect that. Let’s connect the roads so that we can bring people through this land, and certainly the trails so that you can enjoy it through all these different environments.”

Joe Daley, a designer with Main Street Realty, said the walls were incorporated after discussions with Parklands naturalist Michael Gaige, who has spent years locating the old stone walls in the parklands property.

“Michael found remnant pieces of old walls that gave us the idea,” said Daley. “But we want to use the new walls judiciously, not make them omnipresent.”

Cecil Aguilar adds his own history to that of Beckley Creek Park. As a child in Mexico he would watch his father and grandfather build stone walls on their farm in Mexico. He came to the United States to work laying tile and framing buildings. About 10 years ago a friend told him about Dry Stone Conservancy, a Lexington-based organization dedicated to preserving dry-laid (without mortar) stone structures and promote the ancient craft of dry stone masonry.

“I just signed up for a workshop,” said Aguilar. “And after that they asked me if I wanted to participate in some of their projects…And after that…they just kept calling me back for more projects.”

A few years later Aguilar’s father, Jesus Aguilar, his brother, Rigoberto Aguilar, took the dry stone workshop and they were asked to help on Dry Stone Conservancy projects, including the restoration of a five-mile wall along Paris Pike north of Lexington.

Along the way, Aguilar built some stone walls outside of his rural home between Lexington and Georgetown, added a few signs saying he built stone entrances and retaining walls – and quickly had all the work he needed.

“I’d get about three calls every day,” he said.

Four years ago he and his family founded their own business – Aguilar Stone Masonry – complete with website, video and photo gallery.

“Cecil Aguilar is one of four masons in the United States to complete the Journeyman Mason certification,” says the site.

“He has been inspired by all the incredible stonework from around the world and is proud to be building his own beautiful walls and be able to pass this art on to his children and grandchildren.”

Aguilar said no one is more proud of the company – and the work that it does – than his father.

“He’s basically the owner of the company and I kind of manage it,” he said. “I mean he was working out picking up tomatoes, and all that, and here he is getting big contracts…”

Creating 740-feet of even stone walls from thousands of smaller uneven pieces is an art – once you get the raw material into workable condition.

The wall is built over a thick layer of gravel and six inches of base rock. Its sides must taper evenly upward – 26 inches at the bottom and 16 inches at the top – be supported with flat capstones. On top of that comes the “coping” layer, slightly angled rocks that run along the top of the walls – a layer that with the Beckley Creek Park walls was mortared together to prevent park users from pulling it away.

Big, thick, heavier rocks about 10 inches tall and 16 inches wide are used for the “wall heads” – the flat, almost sheered looking ends of each section of wall.

For all that size and weight, the enduring strength of any dry-laid wall comes from the hundreds of smaller rocks tucked away inside it – rocks that allow the wall to slightly bend to the frost-cycle flow of the seasons; bend but not break.

Aguilar said the rock for the Beckley Creek Park came from a buddy who had run a waterline to a camping park in Scott County.

The rock came out of the ground in large, jagged pieces; some 12 feet long and weighing as much as a ton. Using a skid loader, Aguilar loaded the rock onto a dump truck and brought it to Louisville.

Using hand drills and wedges, the bigger pieces were divided into more useable sections. Those sections were hauled to a new $36,000 hydraulic rock splitter Aguilar had to buy for the job: “It saves time and we really needed it.”

As the rock is processed it is place in separate piles depending on size and need; foundation, “tie” rocks, wall stones, end stones.

From there – and the engineering specifics of the job required the walls be set within one-tenth of an inch – the process is turned over to human hands, eyes and something close to artistic instinct.

Aguilar, a solid muscular man with a direct way of talking, led a tour of the Beckley Creek site as he explained what’s involved in shaping rock into a wall; the thousands of decisions made every day about which rock to fit where.

The work crew that day included his father, his brother, his brother-in-law and a good friend. Using drills, chisels and hammers, the crew can build 30 feet of rock wall a day.

“These guys are very hard-working,” said Aguilar, “and very intelligent. They’ll pick up a rock and you know they’re going to use that rock…And it’s really hard to teach people that…It’s more like what you can visualize.

“It’s just like a puzzle…You know, once you’re trained, your eyes, your hands…and the feeling about where you need to shape it. That’s where the speed is.”

Because the coping layer running along the top of the Beckley Creek walls are so important, Aguilar did most of that work himself – a task that will put him in a reflective mood about wall building, too.

“Too me, emotionally, it’s more about you’re building something that you can sit back and say, “Yeah, I did that,” and it’s going to be there for at least a hundred to 200 years.

“And if they keep the repairs they’ll be here maybe 500 years, or more…And it’s just amazing…I’ll be gone, these walls will stay here – and I built them.”

-Bob Hill

About the Author

Picture of Bob Hill

Bob Hill

Former Louisville-Courier columnist Bob Hill is a historian for The Parklands of Floyds Fork. He travels Floyds Fork writing of the people, the places and the history of the stream within the 20-mile park system - all of which is to be preserved in the Filson Historical Society. Some of Hill's stories appear in A Landscape and its Legacy, the commemorative book for The Parklands of Floyds Fork project. Hill has also compiled a Floyds Fork “Places & Faces” presentation that adds imagery to the words.

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