Tuesday, May 5, 2015

An Adirondack Mystery: What Is It?

Danker Farm  Foundation 1Hiking through any abandoned “working landscape” in the Adirondacks you are likely to come across evidence of the people that were here before: a lilac bush deep in the forest, an old butternut tree, perhaps an odd patch of daylilies, and, of course, old cellar holes and stonewalls.

The old Danker Farm in Johnsburg is just such a place. It probably hasn’t been used for any real farming for almost a century now. Like most abandoned farms in the Adirondacks, its pastures and fields have grown up to a chaotic mixture of poplar, white pine, fir, maple, beech and white birch. And, like most old farmland, the property is littered with old stone foundations and crumbling stonewalls.

Danker Farm  Foundation 2But on this particular property there is also a mysterious circular stone structure. It is built into a small hill, has an interior diameter measuring 11’ 2”, and a depth of 8’ or so. The stones seem to be primarily glacial till rather than something from a mine or shaped by man.. There is some evidence of very old poor-quality marble mortar between some of the stones. At the bottom there is a purposeful rounded hole blocked with loose stone on the exterior; this may be an old air vent or perhaps the top of a small door onto which has collapsed loose stones. An exploration of what seems to be the bottom of the circular stone formation has yielded no other clues. There is stone rubble at the bottom that may be from a collapsed section. Although it is likely the structure had a roof, so far there is no evidence of one.

One hundred forty feet to the SSW is a small well-constructed foundation measuring 20’ x 20’. It appears to have a “basement” entrance. It does not, however, appear to be the foundation of the farmhouse. An inspection of the 1876 Beers Warren County Atlas indicates the farmhouse and barn were most probably one thousand feet or more to the SE from the circular stone structure.

Danker Farm  Foundation 3Four hundred or so feet SW of the site is what appears to be a small open ore pit. Given the propensity of iron ore in the Adirondacks it was thought that this might be a small iron ore mine, Testing of the stone left around this pit shows no indication of any magnetism. Current thinking is that it is of hornblende with garnet deposits rather than magnetite/iron ore. In any case, the mine is small and probably was quickly abandoned.

To the north of the circular stone structure, by about one hundred feet, is a spring that flows into a twenty-acre beaver meadow. The area around the structure today is a mixed forest.

The circular stone structure, the 20’ x 20’ stone foundation, the small open pit mine, and the site of the old farmhouse and barn may be from the same time period and related in use to each other, but they may also not be.

Inquiries among friends, the staff at the Adirondack Museum, NYS Historical Association Research Library and the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown as to the purpose of the circular stone structure has intrigued many and triggered much speculation, but no real answers.

Some folks initially speculated that the circular stone structure was a well or a springhouse. If so, it would be extraordinarily large for either use. Furthermore, the loose stone would not have retained water.

Others have thought it may be a dry well, although given the time it was probably built (think the era of outhouses) that is unlikely. Furthermore, the land is on a slope and appears naturally well drained.

Perhaps a stone silo for storing grain or silage? Then again, it is rather small for such a use, how would you get the grain or silage out of the bottom? And wouldn’t mice and other rodents gain access to the grain stored by crawling between the loose fitting stones? Insects, too? And grain would likely rot from the dampness and exposure to the rain and snow that would blow in. More importantly, why not just build a large wooden silo like everyone else did?

Some have wondered if it was used as a smoke house, but there is no evidence of a fire in the bottom of the structure or any damage to the rocks that might suggest a fire or high heat.

Danker Farm  Foundation 4And some have thought maybe it was a place to store hanging meat. Breaking into the circular stonewall would certainly have proven a challenge to a hungry bear or passing mountain lion. The present owners of the property heard that years ago some folks used to age their venison in the “well”, climbing down into the structure on ladders, so perhaps that is the answer – or just some local humor. But if so, why aren’t such structures more common given that other early settlers would have similar needs? Would it not be more likely for this farm’s past inhabitants to hang butchered animals such as pork, mutton, beef, and venison for aging in a barn or well built shed like everyone else did?

Cold storage for cheeses or milk? But then why not build it adjacent to or at least closer to the farmhouse, or use the cellar of the farmhouse itself?

An ice house storing ice from the beaver pond? New England farmers have been know to build stone ice houses into the north side of a hill. Those structures, however, were typically built of stones tightly fitted and with a good door to access the ice as you needed it. The nearby beaver pond also would not likely generate good blocks of ice for such storage.

A re-reading of the excellent Stonewalls & Cellarholes: A Guide for Landowners on Historic Features and Landscapes in Vermont’s Forests (Robert Sanford, et al, 1995, pdf), makes me think it must have been some kind of kiln.

In a lime kiln successive layers of limestone with wood or coal were built up within the kiln and then a fire was started at its base which burned up through the materials in a controlled fashion. As the limestone was heated it turned to powder. Once the fire was out and the kiln cooled, the lime was raked out through the small hole in the base of the kiln. Today we think of lime as a primary ingredient in cement and mortars, but in the early agrarian societies lime was spread out over acid soils such as we have here in the Adirondacks and could increase crop productivity four fold. Although there is some rough marble formations at the base of Crane Mountain and a few marble ledges on the Danker farm, according to my geology-trained son Adam, the closest evidence of any real limestone formations are 40 miles away in Glens Falls.

Similarly, a charcoal kiln might be the answer. For perhaps a thousand years man has made charcoal by piling hardwood logs and branches and then topping the pile with earth. A fire would be lit at the base and the fire would slowly burn, limited by the oxygen from air that would seep in through controlled vent holes. Online research turned up a picture of such a charcoal kiln on East Mountain in Shaftsbury, Vt. But with no commercial iron smelting operations nearby, what was the demand for the charcoal? Possibly domestic use by residents?

Perhaps a forge for iron ore? Iron ore mining and smelting was big business in the Adirondacks years ago, even in the smaller settlements. But there is little evidence of iron ore nearby. Furthermore, smelting iron takes intense heat. Not only is there no evidence of that, but also to generate such heat one would need a high, small stack to maximize the air draft. That does not seem to be the design here.

But in the cases of all these kilns, there should be evidence of at least some lime residue, charcoal fragments or smelting residue. So far, none have been found.

This structure has many mystified. Mysterious stone structures appear all over New England and northern New York and have fascinated many. Christopher Pittman has done a nice job listing some on his website cellarwalls.com

After considering all the possibilities for this circular stone structure, some have suggested, in jest, that maybe it is a nest for an alien creature, Bigfoot’s home or a primitive missile silo…

So, what do YOU think it is and what was it used for?

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Adirondack historian Glenn Pearsall is the author of Echoes in these Mountains (2008), When Men and Mountains Meet (2013), and the Adirondack novel, Leaves Torn Asunder (2016).
In 2000, Glenn Pearsall and his wife Carol established and funded the Glenn and Carol Pearsall Adirondack Foundation dedicated to improving the quality of life of year round residents of the Adirondack Park.

When not pursuing a passion for history and philanthropy, Pearsall is a senior partner and Portfolio Manager for a wealth management team in Glens Falls, NY. He and his wife Carol live near the base of Crane Mountain in Johnsburg.

12 Responses

  1. Debbie says:

    We have similar structures on our property in Northville which is now wooded but used to be farm land.

  2. Charles herr says:

    Was there any local tanning small scale?

  3. Charles Moore says:

    was it deep enough to be a reusable pit trap for slaughtering a bear every fall???

  4. Amy Godine says:

    Really very interesting — thank you.

  5. Glenn L. Pearsall says:

    30 e-mail shares and 27 FaceBook shares in the first day! Glad everyone enjoyed the article and has been thinking about what the circular stone structure might have been used for. Getting lots of interesting ideas. Some, of course, just thought it was a well or unusual cellar hole. Dan in Malone knows of an actual old lime kiln near him and plans to re-visit that site and compare the two. Charlie in Old Forge wondered if it might be related to tanning in some way (closest known tannery 5 miles away). Charles comment on a bear trap is intriguing; hole 8′ deep so I suppose that might be an option. Others? Extra good reading in the hyperlinks in the article-

  6. Charlie S says:

    My brother has about four very unique stone monuments in his woods in Schoharie County.Two are fully intact two have fallen apart.They are conical in shape and about four or five feet tall.The stones are perfectly fitted one atop the other and are shaped to form perfectly with the stone above or below due to the wind and rain and snow over at least the past 200 years coming in contact with them.Other landowners in Schoharie have found them in their woods also.Nobody knows what they are.Supposedly the town historians are mystified as to what they are also. They were evidently constructed when those woods were farm fields and the stone walls nearby indicate they were put up when the walls went up which could have been in the mid to late 1700’s. Interesting!
    There are the remains of stone structures all over the northeast.I come across them in my travels to Vermont,New Hampshire and New York. Some author whose name has eluded me these moments has put some books out,with photos,on this topic.My eyes are always searching for stone structures when I travel around the northeast,whether they be stone walls,stone foundations on houses or barns,or stone structures,or the remains of,in the woods.
    Stone sheds seem to be all over the place in New York. I have seen them in Greene County,Duchess County,Ulster County.I found one a month or so ago just south of Albany near an abandoned piece of property owned by Lafarge Cement Company. I found a stone structure in the middle of nowhere in the woods near Blue Mountain Lake that must have been constructed in the 1800’s. Another brother has the remains of an old stone and wood house on his property in Ulster County.The only thing that remains are the two stone sides of the house with a chimney intact on the one wall.Evidently the rest of the house was wood which has since worn away from being in the elements over the years.Nobody knows the history to these remains but they are most certainly of Dutch origin as that area is chock full of Dutch history.
    There are stone mile markers still remaining in this state.These date back to possibly the 1600’s. I found five down in Duchess County recently near Hyde Park.There are at least two that I know of in Washington County and there is one on Rt 40 north of Troy.
    Stone arch bridges are another unique feature in the northeast.I have come across a handful of them so far,one near Rotterdam,one down in Ulster County,one in Vermont….. Old stone structures pique my curiosity and because my camera is always with me I am building up a portfolio of them.

  7. Mary Lou Mairen says:

    Hi. On the old farmsteads around central New York, one sometimes finds a structure like this. Three sides of stone–but often not as well built as your example, they were built into natural rises. There is one in the Tully Valley near me, and I can send a picture if you like. These structures were called root cellars, even though they were not in the main house. Because smaller farm houses often only had crawl spaces under them, the occupants needed a place to store fruits and vegetables, such as carrots, cabbages, and apples for the winter and early spring. The vegetables were placed on straw or dry grasses, alternating, vegetables, straw, vegetables, etc. The produce toward the top was consumed first. The vegetables and fruit need not have to come totally from the labors of the householders. They would buy the food in the fall at markets or through barter. Root cellars were good, but they could be invaded by vermin and small animals. They were checked often and repaired in the process of getting perishable food for the household.

    Without the cache of food covered with straw and boards to keep out larger animals, the root cellar in a natural rise is a strange looking building.

  8. Merry says:

    My first thought was that it was a smokehouse because of the opening in the bottom, but the structure seems too big for that. You might like to know, though, that if it were a smokehouse you would not expect to find evidence of fire or high heat inside the smoke room. To smoke meat requires cool smoke because you don’t want the meat to cook. You build a smoky, smoldering applewood fire a few feet away from the smokehouse in a pit that you cover. The pit is connected to the smokehouse by a gently sloping tunnel or pipe. Wonderful article. It’s always a treat to find stonework in the woods.

  9. jamon baker says:

    I live in upstate New York and have seen similar foundations. I believe its a root cellar or for ice storage . I have dug bottles in many places and seen alot of neat stuff but not many exist like u have . Look around for a old bottle dump usually over a bank close by or foundation many goodies to be found ! Thanks for sharing the article 🙂

  10. Glenn L. Pearsall says:

    575 e-mail shares and 563 FaceBook shares all in the first 48 hours! Thank you so much for your interest in this article and the intriguing suggestions as to the possible use of the 11′ diameter, 8′ deep circular stone structure in Johnsburg. There is talk of a dig around the structure this summer for more clues. I’ll be sure to post you if we find anything. Thanks again for all the interest! Keep the ideas and sharing going!

  11. JH says:


  12. Laura Seldman says:

    Just discovered another hole near Friends Lake that sounds almost identical to this one!
    It’s invaluable to hear what others think this might be. Thanks

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