Stone walls tell the story of the Shawomet Purchase
The first map of today's Town of Somerset dates back to the 17th century. It is a surveyor's plan of the Shawomet Purchase, and it shows the property lines, as they were in 1683, of individual parcels of land. It also supplies the name of the person who owned each parcel. As soon as Shawomet had been surveyed and the roads had been laid out, these property owners were required by law to mark the boundaries of their holdings. They were also directed to enclose any part of their property that bordered the settlement's new roads.
And so, walls were constructed; they were built of the cheapest and most abundant
material available: Somerset stones. The drudgery of clearing fields of rocks was usually undertaken after the harvest. Once the undergrowth had been hacked down by a scythe, rocks were hauled by hand, cart, or horse to a central dumping area. The entire process was dangerous and backbreaking, and Shawomet farmers usually soaked their hands in brine to toughen them before the actual wall building began. Once completed, the stone walls were subject to inspection by Shawomet's official "fence viewers". If approved, the walls were accepted as the legal designation of a boundary line. Many stone walls on Somerset house lots continue to serve the same purpose today.
Stone walls stretching over a distance and usually ranging from the west in an easterly direction, are most often the oldest. Amazingly, many portions of stone walls that marked the original boundary lines of the Shawomet Purchase can still be seen today. Take a walk or a ride along Centre Street in either direction. Look to your left and your right. You will be looking at the two boundary walls that enclosed a land share in the Shawomet Purchase. Another portion of an ancient stone wall is located on Riverside Avenue between Gifford Avenue and Cusick Lane. That wall once extended from the Taunton River's edge to County Street, and it clearly shows the slanted construction of the original stone walls running down Somerset's eastern slope.
The pattern of parallel stone walls slanting eastward mark the boundaries of Somerset's earliest farms. Between the walls, which ended at the river's edge, little stone docks or wharves were built by each landowner. This allowed farmers to conveniently load lumber, crops, and livestock from their own property onto a sloop for shipment out to the bay and beyond. Most of the little docks are gone, but a few of the oldest are visible along the Main Street waterfront. Larger stone wharfs that date from a later period can be seen along Riverside Avenue.
In south Somerset, on Read Street near the Swansea line,the remains of a very early stone landing can be glimpsed along Lee's River. Both Read Street and Lee's River Avenue are still bordered in 2017 by fragments of stone walls that were built to comply with the directive issued by the Shawomet proprietors in the 1680's. Somerset's stone walls add a certain charm to the landscape, but they are also an important historic resource. In a sense, they are Somerset's early history made visible.