Rocktoberfest: A Blast for Stone Wallers

By Willa Wick in Community, Places, Events, & History

As a direct result of the 2009 Ontario Horticultural Association convention, I recently ‘worked’ my way through a very cool weekend. ‘Cool’ being the younger generation’s description for fantastic, and cool literally for my age group who found it darned chilly being outside from 8:30 a.m. till 6 p.m. for three days — but I am truly glad I took advantage of the opportunity.
Back in July, at the convention in Peterborough, we had a choice of one-hour topics for the afternoon sessions. One I chose was “The Bones of the Garden are Stones.” I have a passion for stones and it just seemed like a great topic to look forward to.
During the cafeteria-style lunch at long tables, a white haired gentleman sat opposite our group and quickly started up a conversation. When it got to “where are you from?” it was apparent “Harriston” meant nothing to him. Several minutes later he suddenly made the statement “Harriston is somewhere near Holstein isn’t it?” Naturally we gave him some queer looks – how in the world would he know tiny little Holstein?
Turned out his work buddy lived there. Then he went on to admit that he was the guest speaker for one of the afternoon sessions. Although it meant nothing to us right then – we were in the presence of John Shaw-Rimmington.
John had a very interesting presentation, with pictures of stone walls and structures that would simply make you drool. The hour of explanation went all too quickly. He talked of the various structures he worked on, and workshops that have been held – all of which were in the Peterborough/Port Hope area. He described the Dry Stone Walling Festival that is held every fall and how it always includes an instructional workshop for ‘newbies.’ It ran through my mind how much I would like to attend such a workshop but there was no way I was travelling to Peterborough in October on my own.
Then he told us that, for the first time, the three-day Thanksgiving weekend festival was going to be held some where other than the Peterborough area. I nearly fell off my stool when he said Grand Valley!! Even I could find my way to Grand Valley.
The Dry Stone Walling website carried all the information I needed and within days of returning home I had warned my two families that I wouldn’t be around for Thanksgiving.
In cruising through past articles on the website I found that Jim Zaryski’s daughter, Tanya, and her husband, Mark, had taken a workshop and had hosted one at their place in Kimberly a couple of years ago. They subsequently held another November 1, 2009 and completed their wall.
Thanksgiving weekend finally arrived. At 8:30 Saturday morning, over coffee, we milled about on the lawn of our hosts to the music of stone hammers, chisels and friendly banter. A group of seasoned dry stone wallers were already at work. This was the third time that they had gathered to fabricate a ‘Blackhouse’ from quarry stone, and they hoped to complete the project this weekend.
The other 26 of us waited for instruction. I didn’t expect to see anyone I knew but, right off the bat, I ran into Ashley Jay, and then met two local stone masons – Steve Hodges, from the Mount Forest area and Mark Bancroft, who lives between Palmerston and Listowel. As I anticipated, there were only four or five gals. The participants were from far and wide – literally. Three instructors/leaders were from Scotland, one from Ireland, and one from Vermont. Our slide presenters in the evenings were from Scotland and New Mexico, as well as John and his crew from the Peterborough area. One chap from Wales saw the information on the website a week earlier, emailed his intent to attend and hopped a plane. If an ear was tuned to the chatter and discussions, several very English voices could be heard, as well as the slight accents from several States.
Many of the young participants were attending colleges (from Manitoba and Ontario as well the States) taking stone mason courses and wanting the ‘dry stone walling’ hands-on experience. One young man from Montreal was doing his practical exam in order to become a
qualified dry stone waller.
Most of the participants were seasoned masons, others were in the landscaping business.
All of us girls loved stonework and wanted to learn how to lay it out properly.
And lay it out we did. After five minutes of explaining what we were going to build (a Fedine Wall), and how we would accomplish it, it was “there’s the stone” and “here’s the foundation.” In a matter of minutes Patrick, our Irish Instructor, had a group of about 10 of us selecting field stone and laying them in position for the first course (layer) of our double thickness stone wall.
Dry Stone Walling simply means building structures from stone, which will stand for an eternity if done properly, yet no mortar is used.
By the end of work day one we had erected a 20-foot wall. It consisted of five courses of rounded ordinary fieldstone, topped with a three-foot layer of ‘coping’ stones. These were pieces of quarry stone of various thickness and heights, in a triangular shape and standing on edge.
As this was a “festival” anyone in the area could come and watch. At one point I looked up and saw Dale Connell. Later I learned he had taken a workshop a year or so ago and had helped work on the Blackhouse Project in Holstein.
Dean McLellan, one of the co-hosts and coordinators for the weekend, lives in Holstein. If you drive down the main street you can see his dry stone walls, and behind his house is his in-progress Blackhouse. (A blackhouse is a very ancient dwelling made of stone. The original ones had no windows (there was no glass). The only opening was the door. Usually it had thatching, peat blocks, or cut sods for a roof. Often they were round or oval shaped. Some were called circle 8’s and these had a second round attached to the first and separated by a narrow passageway. The cattle were kept there. In addition to the fire pit in the main house the cattle added extra heat.)
There were three groups of new wallers and each day we moved to a new instructor and learned the concept of another type of wall building. My second one was a cut quarry stone layered in courses of varying thickness. The stones in each layer had to be even so that the next course would sit flat. Dry stone walling involves a double wall with a centre filling of chips and smaller cut stone binding the two sides together. Some type of coping (topping), either on edge or flat, ensures the weight and strength to hold the whole thing together to last for centuries.
The last wall was constructed from block shaped quarry stone. This wall showed the principle of making corners. The outside wall was a square corner but the inside of the wall had a rounded one.
And finally I’m getting to the “Horticultural aspect” of the weekend. This wall had a ‘green roof’ topping. The wall was at least two feet thick and over four feet tall. When completed it was crowned with a layer of sod. Nooo, we don’t plan on taking the lawn mower up there. It is used as a base. On top of the sod was placed a biodegradable mat with all kinds of short sedums infused in it. The layer of sod provides the soil without the muss of loose earth. Being shaded and smothered by the sedum mat, the grass will soon die out and the roots of the sedum will take over to keep the soil bound together. The instructor for this wall was Norm Haddow, a Scottish dry stone expert who maintains the stone walls at Balmoral Castle, summer home of our British royal family.”
Our different walls will provide the background for the Blackhouse the more experienced wallers were working on. They had hoped to finish the top during the session and crown it with a green roof but time just ran out.
Eric Landman, the farm owner, is in the landscaping business.  His sister Karen Landman is a Professor of Landscape at the University of Guelph.
This will certainly be a property to tour next year when they have finished all the surrounding beds and plantings.


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