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Rock Fences of the Bluegrass Still in Jeopardy

by Leatha Kendrick

As a student traveling through Kentucky on the way back to his native Minnesota, Karl Raitz says he was swept off his feet by the Bluegrass. Raitz, who now serves as the chairman of UK's geography department, took a visiting professorship in geography at the University of Kentucky in 1970 and never left. Eventually, his work focused on how the most extensive collection of quarried rock fences still standing in the United States came to be built.

Photo of Carolyn Murray-Wooley and Karl RaitzIn a 1990 photo, Carolyn Murray-Wooley and Karl Raitz examine a rock fence a few miles northeast of Lexington.

Eight years ago Karl Raitz' work on rock fences in Kentucky was instrumental in debunking the myth that these fences were built by slaves before the Civil War. The myth of the fences' construction, like many myths, was partly true. His investigation traced the real origins of the fences to the work of Irish stonemasons who immigrated into the Bluegrass in the early to mid-19th century. These masons passed the craft along to slaves who became master artisans themselves and further passed the craft on to other black artisans, giving rise to the popular labeling of the rock fences as "slave walls."

When the detective work of Raitz and his co-researcher, Carolyn Murray-Wooley, an architectural historian, was detailed in a 1990 ODYSSEY article, their goal was very specific: to provide the Kentucky Heritage Council with a detailed historical context statement that would become the basis for nomination of large segments of rural property for historic preservation status. Their book, Rock Fences of the Bluegrass, was published by the University of Kentucky Press in 1992.

"The book had a huge impact on public awareness of the history of the fences," Raitz says. "Unfortunately, this awareness and appreciation have not translated into methods of preservation."

Though Raitz and Murray-Wooley were successful in discovering the context for the rock fences -- how, why and by whom they were built -- what ended up being preserved was not the fences themselves, but the secrets of their construction. The most visible legacy of their work is the Dry Stone Masonry Conservancy, a group dedicated to preserving and promulgating this art.

The existence of the conservancy has had a diverse and far-reaching impact, despite the small staff (two full-time and one part-time) and lack of consistent funding. For example, when the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and the Kentucky Heritage Council set up a program to train mortar-masons to build dry-laid fences for the relocation of the historic fences on Paris Pike, Murray-Wooley was asked to organize it. And the work that began with Rock Fences of the Bluegrass has reached far past the confines of Kentucky.

A connection made in the course of Raitz' and Murray-Wooley's research has become crucial in the renewal of dry-stone masonry. That connection is Richard Tufnell. Tufnell (a British stonemason who lives in southern Scotland), along with Raitz, Murray-Wooley, and a few others form the board of the Dry Stone Masonry Conservancy. Tufnell has provided the on-site expertise in building, repairing and restoring dry stone structures.

As part of the conservancy's mission, for the past three years Tufnell has presented workshops on dry-stone masonry around the United States and has found a ready audience for his teaching. Dry-stone masonry is art as much as craft. Stones must be selected by shape to fit snugly and securely together. Raitz gets excited when he describes what lies behind the craft. "You have to be able to look at a pile of stone and pick up the one that's mostly likely to fit. You can't stand there all afternoon and fiddle with one or two stones," he says.

In 1990 Raitz's ultimate goal was that his documentation of the origin and significance of the rock fences would aid rural landowners in defending their property against construction projects, such as road building and other development. Raitz estimates that 95 percent of the fences that once existed around Lexington are already gone. Now, when asked if he feels there is any hope of preserving what's left, he says, "Not in the long run. When I came here in 1970, I thought there had to be a way of doing this, but it does not seem to have happened."

Despite some small successes (notably the preservation of fences along Paris Pike), preservation itself has become increasingly controversial as development accelerates around Lexington.

"Fayette and Scott counties do have ordinances to prevent removal of rock fences in public rights-of-way," Murray-Wooley points out. "However, region-wide legislation is needed, which would have to be enacted by the General Assembly."

Around Lexington, as in most other areas of the country, the landscape reveals less and less of the culture which once shaped it. As rock fences, spring houses, and other structures disappear, the countryside has become more homogeneous, less distinctive, stripped of its history.

"Growth Destroys Bluegrass Forever" says a bumper sticker popular with some motorists around Lexington. "You know, that bumper sticker is true," says Raitz. "And it doesn't make any difference how many times you stand up in an audience and say that this is the only place on the face of the earth that is like this."