As you pass along busy streets and quiet neighborhoods throughout Forest Hills, keep your eyes peeled for historic stone fences. Those old dry-stack stone walls probably hold a hint to the history of the area you are crossing.
For centuries, dry-stack stone has been used in this area to indicate property lines, restrain livestock, and protect family cemeteries from animal intruders, as well as to define the path of turnpikes. Abundant limestone deposits in Middle Tennessee provided ample material to use for fence construction.
“Forest Hills’ history evolves organically from a rural area on the southwest side of early Nashville, and its roadways have ties to buffalo and Indian trails,” Hillsboro Pike resident Clay Jackson said.
“The demarcation of properties was achieved with what was most readily at hand—stone, and lots of it.”
While stone walls no doubt have been used in the region for as long as it has had human inhabitants, most of the dry-stack stone fences seen today are constructed using techniques brought to this area by Irish and Scottish stone masons who immigrated in the early 1800s. They passed the tradition of their craft down through families, and many of the skilled masons taught the slaves who labored for them.
The slaves, in turn, passed the techniques down through families after they were freed. The Adams family, for example, maintained much of stonework along Hillsboro Pike from the late 1800s to around 1930.
Some of the rock walls and fences standing today date back to the early 1800s.
Much of Forest Hills belonged to the Compton family and their descendants who settled on the land where you see many of the stone walls along Hillsboro Pike. The rest of the Forest Hills area essentially was divided into smaller farms where stone walls lined the pikes and divided the fields between property owners.
Henry Compton and his bride Sarah Cox started with 325 acres when they came to the Forest Hills area in 1815. Over the generations, the Compton family’s holdings grew by 1871 to cover the span from William Harding’s Belle Meade Plantation on the west to John M. Lea’s Lealand on the east.
A few other big farms filled the boundaries of present-day Forest Hills. William Scruggs owned about 700 acres along Hillsboro Pike in the 1830s, and Green Simmons had about 190 acres on what is now Old Hickory Boulevard in the 1840s.
Besides providing fences for farms, the other frequent use of rock walls in Forest Hills was to denote turnpikes and roadways. Many of the stone fences still standing today marked the roadways along Hillsboro Pike and Granny White Pike.
Coincidentally Edward Scruggs, who inherited his uncle William’s farm, became a key figure in the Hillsboro Turnpike Company, and Thomas Herrin, who bought Green Simmons’ farm in 1857, was president of the Granny White Turnpike and a director of the Harding Turnpike Company.
Dry-stack walls are built without mortar—hence, they are called “dry.”
The stones are stacked one on top of the other. This makes them naturally draining, which is important when using a wall to retain soil.
There is no need to build a foundation below the frost line because the loose stones can shift slightly to accommodate frost heave. This flexibility also means the wall is not subject to frost damage.
When they do move, it is usually because of nearby trees, especially growing saplings, which will tend to push on them.
Many in and around Nashville have adapted the original design to incorporate a “wet center” to the wall in an effort to make it more able to withstand nearby trees and last longer.
This method has a center core of mortar, from which the stones are built out. It maintains the beautiful outward dry stack appearance.
– Clay Jackson
The City has commissioned two surveys of its stone fences: a 2001 survey to document types of stone fences, and a 2007 project by Middle Tennessee State University to map locations. The survey documented more than four miles of stone fence segments. If you locate old dry-stack stonework not indicated on the survey map, please carefully photograph it and send the photo to City Hall. MORE
The fate of historic stone fences lies in the hands of property owners.
“We lost a long segment along Hillsboro when new owners tore down the historic fence for development,” history buff and former Forest Hills mayor Bill Coke said. “They built one back, but once the old one is gone, it’s gone for good.”
“You get mad, and wonder what we can do to protect them,” Fletch Coke said. “They are important structural, architectural features from our past.”
Crafting appropriate legislation to protect old walls and fences is difficult, City Attorney Matt Foster said, and the City of Forest Hills has no such ordinance protecting private property because doing so would fall into the category of a “taking.”
“For example,” Foster explained, “if I own property with a stone fence on it, and I want to tear it down (or, more likely, sell it to someone who is willing to come remove it from my property and relocate it elsewhere) then I would consider the City’s telling me that I ‘can’t’ tear down my wall to be a taking without compensation.”
Property owners who make the effort to protect old stone walls on their land are preserving a unique part of the region’s past, residents Cathy and Clay Jackson said.
“Remaining historically faithful to original elements of the place helps this particular community stay grounded in what is most special about Forest Hills,” they agreed.
Taking care of old rock walls requires a careful hand, Fletch Coke warned.
“Don’t pull the vines!” she said. “Kill the vines first, then carefully remove them and gently clean the stones.”
If you try to pull away the live vines, you’ll just pull down the whole fence because, by definition, dry-stack stone walls have no mortar.
Choose your contractor carefully when an old stone fence is repaired or rebuilt, the Jacksons said. “Building a dry stacked wall is an art. Many say they can do it, but few can do it well and historically accurately.”