By Bruce Burdett
Kate Johnson was intrigued by things other youngsters may have missed during her walks home from the bus stop in Little Compton.
She noticed stone walls vanishing into the undergrowth, an old cemetery whose graves were unmarked.
“I’d find bits of ceramic and think about where they came from. And I’d wonder why apple trees were growing in the middle of the woods.”
She’s still on the lookout for ancient stone walls and cellar holes but these days her exploring gets help from some remarkable tools.
An archeologist who is working on her PhD in geography at the University of Connecticut, Ms. Johnson now tracks down New England’s lost villages from above with the help of LiDAR (light detection and ranging) scanners.
The airborne technology bounces laster light pulses off the ground and enables researchers to peer through the tree canopy and undergrowth at the hard structures hidden beneath.
“Suddenly a whole other world appears that you wouldn’t have dreamed was there,” she said. “Suddenly you can see the land as it looked centuries ago” — farmsteads, pastures and long-gone lane ways. “Even people who’ve lived nearby for years are often surprised to see what’s there.”
Then, armed with GPS coordinates, “you go out into the woods and there it is — a foundation for what was once somebody’s home.”
The work she and her colleagues are doing caught the attention of National Geographic Online which recently interviewed her about her ‘lost villages’ work.
“New England’s woody hills and dales hide a secret,” the interview’s preface said. “They weren’t always forested. Instead, many were once covered with colonial roads and farmsteads.”
Lately she does much of her searching in the woods on eastern Connecticut, a place blessed with abundant stone walls and less of the undergrowth that is found here.
But she has done the same work closer to home in the woods of Westport and in Tiverton’s Weetamoo Woods.
Working from above, in the woods and at Town Hall in Westport, she found something interesting about the wealth of old stone walls there.
Many of the walls were a perfect match for property map boundaries in old town records. In fact, some followed precisely the boundaries set out in a town map dated 1712 — “so these walls which are still standing are at least that old” And even to this day the walls are the basis for many property lines in town.
Weetamoo Woods is a wonderful place to explore. “It has it all”— stone walls, foundations an old dam and mill and “great trails to get around … It’s well preserved too. People have treated it with respect.”
The doctoral dissertation that her work produces will stick to the facts — observations and conclusions.
But Ms. Johnson said that tracing the old walls also unleashes her imagination, just as it did when she was a child.
“I really do think about the people who built these things so long ago — you can almost feel their presence when you are out there, picture them at work. It’s a very powerful feeling sometimes.”
The walls reveal much about these long-gone places, Ms. Johnson said. To those interested in learning more, she recommends the book ‘Stone by Stone,’ by UConn geology professor Robert Thorson.
The walls served several purposes. They marked boundaries, kept livestock from wandering off and provided a good place to put the glacial till stones that made agriculture here such a challenge. “They’d clear a field of stones,” she said, “and a year or two later, more had pushed up through the earth and had to be removed.”
Their locations were governed in part by how far a person could move a stone; their height was often dictated by how high that farmer might be able to lift it. And sometimes walls created fields within fields, perhaps indications of farms being divided up by later generations.
These vanished villages date back to the late 1600s and likely peaked in the early 1800s. Then began a steady decline.
“The start of industrialization drew people away from farming … to mill towns like Fall River, Danielson (Conn.) … ” And many farms were lost to inheritance, “the quandary of deciding what would become of the farm after the farmer’s death — “dividing it into smaller and smaller pieces until it really wasn’t a farm anymore.”
Ms. Johnson is pleased that many towns have enacted rules protecting old walls. “They are our history, something unique to this region … really some of the only clues left to what was here before.”
People here can see for themselves what LiDAR reveals about their hometowns on various GIS websites — Rhode Island’s is especially complete and easy to use,” Ms. Johnson said. (Try one organized by URI or through ArcGIS.)