Before ’52, settlers out here had cleared a thousand acres in no time. Twenty shillings per acre, the government paid to have the peninsula opened and hay lots enclosed. But the fires of that year scorched the earth and devoured all the wood-rail fencing. Many gave up on this place then and that’s when I staked my claim. It was hardscrabble for four years. I still can’t abide the smell of powdered fish. Fishmeal soup was all there was to eat by the end of those winters. Farming was slow to take hold again after the fires. Finally, the high price extracted by Boston brokers for imported hay forced the Governor and Council to offer a bounty for local-grown fodder. On top of that, labor put into the erection of stone fences was reimbursed. It got so as the stone wall building was more lucrative than the crop yields.
I needed no more than the wind of the word. I strung stone fence around every patch I could. Admittedly, I threw up some fences that had but one vertical side, the other just sloped to the ground. Wherever there was loose stone about, swampy ground or no, a fence went up to collect the bounty. See, as long as it enclosed some bit of earth, no matter how rough the construction, a stone fence brought a bounty that repaid the builder.
By ’62, an acre of land brought into cultivation and enclosed would net a man twenty-two pounds sterling. There were rumors of some folk doubling their gain by dividing one previously enclosed area down the middle with a driftway and collecting the bounty a second time. What’s a “driftway” you ask? By building a lane down the spine of the holding, livestock could be rotated through different pastures over the course of a summer without shepherding them. Once a pasture was cropped down, a gate was opened and the herd would drift out onto the lane. On their own accord, the cattle would move along until coming to a gate opened into the next pasture to be grazed. We were always looking for ways to cut some labor out of a chore, or find a way to make the labor we did, pay a little more. That’s just good industry.
I see you looking all-round about. You’re thinking there aren’t all that many fences to be seen. It’s true; there are precious few stone fences in sight. Have patience; I’ll explain where they got off to, shortly. Building all those miles of fence wasn’t the only way we profited by the stone underfoot. As shipping traffic increased, a ballast trade developed along the Eastern Passage. Every sailing vessel required a good amount weight, deep in its hold, to keep it from capsizing in a gale, especially those with light cargo; like hay. Both sides of the harbor walls were once dotted with sturdy little wharfs for ships to tie up to and take on stone for ballast. You can still see, in the heap of ruins at the waters edge, there where the ring-plover forages, a hint of the wharf that was once mine.
At first we broke up the land, quarrying any bedrock that would snap out with the spring of an iron bar. There was a ready sale for what we could break out, or take from wherever it was already loose and handy-by. That’s how the fences began to disappear. In our eyes, the stone in them had turned to ballast, just waiting to be carted down to the wharf and sold.
The ballast trade is a thing of the past now, as are the many smallholdings strung round with stone fences.The hay trade raised the fences, and the ballast trade ripped them down. Was I a fool to strip my land of the fences I’d worked so hard to erect? I was paid twice for each and every stone on the place. I’d have been a fool not to wouldn’t I?
Seems my laboring life was spent scaling fences. In my time I climbed them, measured them, and finally, removed their skins. The stone fences disappeared, and along with them my ambition. No more do I run around like a hen that’s just laid an egg. The sun will zenith by noon time, no help needed from me. This morning, my bright love, I’m going to sit out here in the booly, press my old bones against these warm stones, and have a dog’s life at the pipe.