America’s early hinterland houses, built of native stone, are more than just well-constructed dwellings, they reveal the desire of the frontier inhabitants to be part of the architectural fashion of the day.
Even the simplest l8th Century fieldstone dwelling, having no obvious Georgian architectural style for that period, may very well contain large “quoins” (pronounced coins) or cornerstones that architecturally gave the home symmetry and framed the randomly laid walls. To our Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors, the New World was just that, a new beginning, and wherever they looked around, they saw men with ideas.
Picture a typical Pennsylvania Dutch farmstead with coped garden walls, terraces, a barnyard, and an occasional arched bridge to compliment the huge Swiss-bank barn and large stone manor house. Not to mention a bake oven, smokehouse, springhouse, and other out-buildings; this stone culture was something to behold!
Of all the practical places to have a stone wall on a farm, the most ideal was the barnyard, and normally, the barnyard enclosure was done with a five-rail wooden fence that accommodated all the animals in the yard including the pigs. However, this manure wonderland was hard on the sturdiest of locust fence posts, and if one was able to lay up a stone barnyard wall, it may last indefinitely. Another advantage of the stone barnyard wall was that it could be incorporated in terracing if the front of the barn was too hard at the hill.
But in the days when there was no cement, the top of a stone wall was vulnerable to soaking up rainwater, therefore, the mud-lime mortar would deteriorate and the wall eventually crumble. However, to protect the top of a stone wall, early masons mortared blocks of wood in the last course of stone upon which a short roof was fastened.
The roof or “coping” was most often finished off with two or three rows of wooden shingles, and when coping was put on a cemetery wall, it was most often angled that the rainwater would fall within the walls, keeping the grass nice and green. For bridges, the coping roof was angled to the outside. One of the best examples that survived in the area was the coping trim on the old Hoch family cemetery, near Lobachsville. Although the rows of wooden shingles have been covered with roofing tin, the outline of the coping is quite evident.
The widespread use of fieldstone for houses, barns, and mills is well-known, and a number of structures that survive in the southeastern part of the state, remain in fine shape. However, the stone culture of early Pennsylvania was quite elaborate and stone was practically used for every purpose.
Fieldstone arched bridges that dotted the landscape by the hundreds just a century or more ago are now rare. Even rarer, if not impossible to find, is the coping-style roof trim that adorned stone walls of the arched bridges that protected the courses of stone from the elements. Today, stone walls are most often capped with blocks of cement or mortared stone with cement.
Some of the best examples of terraced stone barnyards are the Johannes Keim farmstead at Pikeville and that of Brethren Ben Fox’s farm, just south of Pricetown in Ruscombmanor Township, down Memorial Highway before reaching Oley. Here is a barnyard wall almost 12 feet high from the meadow below, and at least eight of the 12 feet are part of a terrace at the side of the hill. The farmstead at Johannes Keim, southeast of Oley, is a more typical of the style of stone barnyard found on the flat bottomlands of the Valley. This six foot wall still retains traces of the original, wooden shingle coping roof. In most cases, people buying stone farmsteads overestimate the durability of stone walls and terracing.