The dismantling of the centuries-old dry walls of West Meade | Cover story

For 21 years, Trent Rosenbloom ran the ridges that ring West Meade.

The hills rise sharply from the troughs and slums between Belle Meade and Bellevue, with Highway 70 culminating dramatically to Ninemile Hill before plunging into the Harpeth River watershed.

For decades, the ridges provided a natural property line for the Harding family’s Belle Meade plantation. Even when what we now call West Meade was subdivided in the 1950s and 1960s, home builders largely avoided the ridge tops. It’s too difficult, too expensive to haul construction equipment up hills, too narrow and dangerous to try to lay foundations. It’s hard enough to get up there with nothing more than a journalist’s notebook. Well, it’s not that hard for Rosenbloom, who has worked there for two decades and organizes the Flying Monkey Marathon, the annual 26.2-mile course that climbs and descends the hills of Percy Warner Park.

So Rosenbloom loves her crests. He likes to climb and slide on his jacket when it snows. And he enjoys rummaging in the woods for morels, the fungal treat coveted by pickers.

And so it was April 21. Rosenbloom hiked an access road to Metro Water and climbed the ridge to where he knew a stone wall marked the ridge.

“My heart sank when I got here,” he told the Stage a few days after this ascent.

While a long section of the wall remains in good condition even around 200 years after it was built, the part that ran east along the ridge was gone, its stones stacked with field rock and other rubble in a clearing.

Academics call the walls “dry pile walls” and they are common throughout middle Tennessee and Kentucky. Built without mortar, they are held together by their own weight, each stone being a puzzle piece in a durable structure.

Colloquially, they are often referred to as “slave walls”, as their ubiquity on antebellum farms naturally leads people to believe they were built by slaves. Historians say that’s not the whole story. The technique came from Scotland, which is why walls are so common in those areas where Scottish and Scots-Irish settlers were common. Many of the earliest walls were probably built by Scottish masons and hired labour, but later maintenance and some later construction was probably carried out by slaves under the supervision of masons.

There are records of several former slaves who became masons and wall builders after emancipation.

Building this particular wall was surely an exhausting undertaking. The limestone may have been quarried in the lowlands and then hoisted up the ridges to be carefully placed.

“They are perhaps the only remaining monument to the hard and forced labor that led to their creation, the names of the craftsman who built them long since lost to history if ever recorded,” wrote Rosenbloom on Facebook after its discovery.

What led to the destruction of this particular wall is the ongoing construction of an 11,000 square foot mansion perched on the ridge. The driveway winds up the crest of Jocelyn Hills Road and curves behind the footprint of the future home, breaking the wall in two places. Now the stones of the wall, their tool marks still visible, are thrown to the bottom of the ground.

Unfortunately, little can be done. Governments can – and increasingly do – urge landowners to preserve walls. Tennessee passed a law two decades ago urging the Tennessee Department of Transportation to preserve walls whenever possible on public rights-of-way. But on private property, owners can do whatever they want with the wall. And if a 200-year-old wall so meticulously crafted it still stands needs a driveway turnaround for a mega-mansion, the power of the state is powerless to stop it.

Additionally, a number of old trees were clearcut, including a sassafras that won the Nashville Tree Foundation’s 2020 Big Old Tree competition. A number of prominent oak and chestnut trees were also leveled.

Replacing trees and their roots that hold the ground and absorb rainfall runoff: thousands of square feet of impermeable surface.

And that has major implications down the hill. During the May 2010 historic floods in the Midstate, the face of the hill behind Rosenbloom’s house collapsed, crashing into a van, the garage, and the first floor of the house. The rushing water carried a multi-tonne boulder down Carnavon Parkway. The stone was so solid, Rosenbloom says, that a contractor almost had to blast it.

For decades, the ridges have been a de facto commons for the inhabitants of the valley below. Yes, there are property lines, but up the hill they’ve been largely irrelevant. The people from below have all tacitly agreed to leave the wild space and the walls erected, a collective heritage bequeathed to posterity.

But the commons are fragile, and their famous tragedy is that unspoken agreements and traditions and unanimous benevolence can all crumble like a hill under a flood, or a wall under a bulldozer.

About Raymond A. Bentley

Check Also

My flooded basement. What will the insurance cover?

A flooded basement is covered if it is caused by a peril named in your …