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History is set in stone around former Armagh stagecoach stop

| Saturday, Nov. 28, 2009

Stone by stone -- more than 300 tons in all so far -- Joe Dinwiddie has been painstakingly building a stone fence in Indiana County that harkens back to the way things used to be built.

Since 2006, Dinwiddie has been building the fence around a private home, which used to serve as Armagh's stagecoach stop.

The technique he uses -- drystone masonry -- was at one time used to build everything from foundations to bridges to iron furnaces. Without mortar, Dinwiddie shapes stones and stacks them into a wall that he said will only strengthen over time.

"I'm so intrigued with the textures and the colors of the stone," said Dinwiddie, 40, a Kentucky native now living in Indiana County. "It's gratifying to do the work."

The project started out simply enough in 2006.

John and Michelle Dunn were looking for somebody to repair the retaining wall on their property. But they could only find people who would use block to repair the wall, and they wanted an old-fashioned stone look.

"We thought the stone kind of fit our house. Our house, it was an old stagecoach stop in the 1800s, and it was a local hotel in the 1920s. It's a neat old house with a lot of history, and we just thought the stone kind of fit the house," John Dunn said.

A neighbor mentioned Dinwiddie and his company, Dinwiddie Drystone Masonry, and he was hired to fix the wall. Once the retaining wall was finished, the Dunns asked Dinwiddie if he could build a stone fence around their property.

When it's finished, the fence will be around 500 feet long. It's about three-quarters finished, and Dinwiddie has used more than 300 tons of stone so far. The fence ranges in height from 3 1/2 feet to just over 7 feet.

The Dunns, both teachers in the United School District, work with a custodian in the district, Bob Palmer, who finds the stone for them in barn foundations, fallen-down chimneys and in other places.

Dinwiddie works on the fence as new stone is found, using mostly his eyes, hands and a hammer, looking for the right stones and fitting them into the fence in a methodical manner.

Dinwiddie learned the technique in his native Kentucky. In the 1990s, officials there became concerned about the loss of drystone fences to road widening projects. So the state brought in an expert from Scotland to teach drystone techniques so the fences could be disassembled, moved back and rebuilt.

Dinwiddie, who was interested in building a stone house, learned the process in the workshops and has studied in Scotland.

Dinwiddie said all drystone structures have the same traits. He teaches homeowners the technique in workshops he holds locally and around the country.

He always lays out foundation stones on the ground that jut out a few inches. The length of each stone, not the width, always goes into the wall or fence. The stones must touch to form a tight joint. Any voids are filled with smaller stones. Joints must be staggered for stability, and a single joint should never run the entire height of a wall.

There is no mortar, which Dinwiddie says breaks down over time and doesn't allow for proper drainage.

"This method takes into account Mother Nature," Dinwiddie said. "It's built to last pretty much indefinitely."

Friction and gravity keep the stones in place.

Dinwiddie has worked on the project with his assistant, Steve Soltez, a blacksmith, who made an iron gate for the back portion of the fence.

Dinwiddie has added some different elements based on the stones found for the project. At the corners of the fence, he incorporated four large stones that served as steps to the stagecoach stop.

Three shaped stones, which may have been used as a coal chute, form the backs of benches built into the wall because they have a slope and sides like armrests.

Some stones already had been shaped for their former uses, and the tool marks are visible.

"It's been really neat for us to be working with stone that was shaped 100 years ago," Dinwiddie said.

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