If You See A Mysterious Stone Circle From The Highway, You Should Know Its Fascinating History

As you drive down a New England road, something strange comes into view close to the asphalt. When you get closer, you see that it’s a circular stone structure – how bizarre! But before you dismiss it as a local oddity, you should know that walls of this type actually have a fascinating history behind them.

So what do these structures look like? Are they similar to other famous stone arrangements such as the landmark at Stonehenge? Well…not really. Because the walls in New England are much smaller for a start, when compared to the giant monument in Wiltshire, England. And that’s not all.

As opposed to a massive singular slab, the walls are made up of numerous stones grouped together. And in terms of size, the structures vary across the New England region. Using Vermont as an example, one circular wall there measured 6 feet in height with a base of 4 feet in width.

And the Vermont structure became a little thinner nearer the summit, while the area inside was roughly 30 square feet. Pretty spacious right? Yet if you visit Medfield, Massachusetts, you’ll spot a similar-looking wall that’s a lot shorter. It’s certainly not 6 feet! So you’re probably curious as to how many of these are scattered around New England.

Well, no one really knows the true number at present. Back in September 2019, it was reported that around 100 stone structures were still standing in the region. But that figure could be significantly higher as some of the walls are potentially hiding in plain sight. You might’ve seen one without even knowing it, and simply stepped over it!

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Why were these strange structures built, though? What purpose did they serve to the communities? Well, we first need to look back on the period of history when the stone walls were constructed. Because that coincided with New England’s early years in the 17th century.

That’s right: New England was established back in the fall of 1620. And the region came into being when a group of travelers arrived from the English city of Plymouth, hitting the shores close to Provincetown, Massachusetts. They made the area their home – even naming the local town after their old haunt!

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And Plymouth isn’t the only town to bear the name of an English city or region in New England. In Connecticut, for instance, you’ll find communities like Coventry and Kent. Plus New Hampshire has places like Canterbury and Portsmouth. The latter is also up there with America’s oldest-ever metropolitan areas.

But here’s the thing – even though some of New England’s communities and buildings harken back to the founders’ old home, it still feels like America. And this region is arguably one of the most historically-rich places in the entire country. So much has happened there throughout the last few centuries.

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One of the biggest moments occurred in April 1775. While history buffs are no doubt familiar with the significance of that period, you might not recognize it yourself. Don’t worry, though – we’ve got you covered. In the spring of that year, the Revolutionary War with the British began in Massachusetts.

And it all started in the communities of Concord and Lexington. Like we said, it was a significant moment. But New England isn’t just remembered for sparking the fight for independence. As the war raged on, Connecticut housed an important figure in America’s history, strategizing the army’s next move against its adversaries.

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We’re referring to George Washington, who was a general in 1781. Quite a different role from the presidency! And he operated out of Wethersfield at that time, running things from Joseph Webb House. The building still exists today as part of the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum, should you ever fancy a visit.

Connecticut was residence to another important figure during the war, as Nathan Hale lived in Coventry. Yes, the man who was killed by the British over spying accusations had an estate that continues to attract tourists over 240 years later. And it offers a real snapshot of the 18th century.

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But while New England certainly played a big part in the Revolutionary War, there’s more to its history than that. The Industrial Revolution in America began in Rhode Island in 1793, for instance. And a man named Samuel Slater put his skills into practice to create a new type of mill.

That’s right: the Slater Mill was born. This building utilized water to energize the machines that spun cotton. And no other mill in the United States did that at the time. It was called the “Arkwright system,” and it sparked real change across the country. Nice one Samuel! He wasn’t called the “father of the American Industrial Revolution” for nothing.

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All important periods in history right? But even though we’ve covered a bit here, there’s still one part of New England’s history that we haven’t touched on up to now. What is it? Well, the region has quite the past when it comes to farming. And it wasn’t the easiest of jobs, as we’re about to discover.

Yes, the colonists were in for quite a shock when they looked to farm the ground around New England. The soil was full of rocks, you see, so their opening job didn’t even involve the planting of crops. Instead, they had to remove the stones. Annoying!

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Once that was done, though, an even bigger issue came to light. Because the land didn’t really lend itself to cultivate planted produce. The period for growth wasn’t particularly long, so people couldn’t harvest more than a single crop at a time. We can only imagine how difficult things got back then…you know, a life without supermarkets and all that.

Plus the farmers’ quarters were tight to say the least! In the early days of New England farming, those buildings consisted of a single room – even if you had your family with you. So much for privacy right? But of course there was more to the role than just watching over the soil and crops.

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The colonists in New England had their own animals with them as well. But that livestock wasn’t looked after in the manner that you’d think. Because, surprisingly, they weren’t penned into a specific area with barriers keeping them in place. Before they’d even traveled to America, another system had been utilized.

According to the Atlas Obscura website, “herders” were responsible for keeping the livestock in line in old England. Yet that position didn’t exist once the colonists made New England their home. Quite simply, there weren’t enough people to take on jobs of that type. So what happened? How did they look after the animals?

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The livestock was allowed to move around as they pleased – so long as they didn’t intrude on any privately-owned land. That was a big no-no at the time. When a cow or sheep was discovered in a place like that, they were taken to a pound. Yes, just like a dog!

And that’s where the circular stone walls come in. Because these structures served as pounds to the livestock, holding them in place for their owners. Today some of the barriers still have wooden gates built into them that highlight their old purpose, as well as the year they were constructed.

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To give you an idea of how old these pounds are, there’s one in Sherborn, Massachusetts, that was erected in 1770. And remember the circular wall in Medfield that we spoke of earlier? That’s a little more recent, having been built in 1862. But there are a few that go back even further.

In Westwood, Massachusetts, for instance, you’ll find a sign next to a pound that confirms it was constructed in the year 1700. But that’s not the earliest example. The state actually mandated that local areas have enclosures of that type in 1635. So they’ve been around for a very long time!

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You’re probably wondering what happened when the owners came to collect their livestock from the pound. Did they face any penalties? Or could they get their animals back without a problem? Well, providing that you had some money on you, there shouldn’t have been an issue with the resident pound-keeper.

Yup, there was a financial charge for holding the animals, but the fee wasn’t the same across the region. And Elizabeth Banks MacRury shed a bit more light on this topic in her 1979 publication Town Pounds of New England. She revealed that one area asked for a specific figure when dealing with larger livestock.

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It would cost you 12 cents and 5 mills to get a cow, horse or mule back from the pound, according to MacRury. A mill in this case was a financial figure worth a thousandth of $1. So not a literal factory! Plus the fee was a bit lower for smaller livestock.

Because owners needed to hand over 8 cents to pick up a goose, while a sheep would set you back by one 1 cent and 4 mills. And here’s something else to consider. You couldn’t put off the payment for too long, otherwise the livestock would be auctioned off to someone else.

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That’s right: you’d have 24 hours to get your goose from the pound. As for the other livestock, the deadline was pushed to three days. Plus the stone structure didn’t stop certain individuals from plotting to snatch the animals, but that came with a hefty price of its own.

Thieves apparently had to pay $7 if they were caught red-handed. But overall it was a fascinating process that highlighted what life was like back in 17th-century New England. And did you know that specific jobs related to the pounds haven’t just disappeared from record? The laws continue to exist.

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Using Connecticut as an example, you’ll see that the “fence-viewer” role hasn’t been erased from state statutes. This job involved patrolling the outskirts of local areas to keep an eye on things. Part of the law reads, “Selectmen shall receive two dollars for each day’s service as fence viewers.” Pretty interesting right?

But that still leaves us with one unanswered question – when did the New England pounds stop being used? Well, it ties into the period when farmers finally invested in some enclosures of their own. That started in the 19th century, so the stone structures were no longer required from there.

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As we’ve already discussed, though, some of the stone pounds are still standing today, scattered across the region. And they just appear to be strange additions to the side of the roads in New England. Sticking with that, a woman named Lura Provost spoke to Atlas Obscura in September 2019.

Provost is one of the people in charge of Westwood’s Historical Society. And she says the local pound fails to draw much interest, even though it features on the community’s official seal. “No one asks about it,” she admitted to the website. But it’s not like that with all of them.

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Take Sterling, Connecticut, for example. That community houses a stone structure known as Ye Olde Voluntown Pound, which has stood in place since the early 1700s. The Sterling Historical Society’s chief informed Atlas Obscura that she faces down questions about it from time to time. Social media users with a passion for history also spoke of it on Facebook in 2018.

So the interest seems to vary from place to place – just like the pounds’ fees! Yet the walls might’ve had a bigger impact on New England than you’d first think. Going back to MacRury’s book, she made an intriguing claim regarding their connection to the societal structure of the region.

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Yes: rules, roads and governments in New England could’ve well stemmed from the pounds’ locations – by using them as regional bedrocks, claims MacRury. She wrote that the stone structures “[remind us] of the paths, ways, and directions which have been made for us – which we follow knowingly or unknowingly.” It certainly gets you thinking.


The connection to the roads is definitely there because some New England thoroughfares started out as cow tracks. And you might be curious to hear that certain communities continue to employ pound-keepers in a humorous fashion. Despite the apparent lack of interest in Westwood, the tradition lives on there.
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It’s also going strong in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire. And here’s something exciting to consider. Atlas Obscura reported that you might be able to uncover a missing pound in the region if you’re lucky. After all, the current figure doesn’t reflect what the count would’ve been in the past. So keep your eyes open avid archeologists!

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