RAYMOND – In 1988, Anita Holmquist moved with her husband, Wayne, to a sand-infested plot of land off Route 121 in Raymond.
The 3-acre lakeside parcel overlooked gorgeous Panther Pond, and Anita, a consummate gardener with a dozen other artistic hobbies, felt a compulsion to work her barren land so it would become productive and more beautiful.
So, embracing the rocky and sandy nature of her soil, she decided to make lemonade with lemons, and set about building stone walls.
All these years later, the industrious wife, mother and grandmother has built several hundred linear feet of rock walls on her property. There are about a dozen different walls surrounding the home. The walls range from a foot to 5 feet in height, depending on what the topography dictates. Some, such as the circular one ringing a conifer tree, span only a few feet, while others, including the ones that flank her driveway, span several hundred.
Holmquist’s affinity and acumen for stone walls – and the gardens they support – will be on display Saturday, June 29, as one of a dozen stops on the Raymond Garden Tour, a fundraiser for the Raymond Village Library.
Most of the walls visitors will see share the common purpose of helping to retain terraces upon which Holmquist grows her flowering plants and shrubs. Without the walls, and the more loamy soil they hold back, any rainwater would seep quickly through the native sandy soil, she says.
And since she likes variety, Holmquist also incorporates different kinds of rocks, which, because of their physical properties, require different approaches to building a wall. She especially likes her granite walls, which feature rocks of various sizes, with the larger ones providing a good base layer.
Granite is her go-to medium, but she’s crafted walls from blue stone, which she describes as “incredibly difficult to work with since it doesn’t have any grip.” She’s also built retaining walls several feet wide out of native granite stones that feature rounded edges.
One particularly impressive set of walls, located at the end of the long driveway, retains a 20-foot-tall hill of pure sand. The hill was excavated when the home was built. Holmquist has converted the ugly and barren hillside into a terraced garden space supported by four distinct stone walls.
Most of the stone she uses for her walls has come from other properties the Holmquists have owned through the years, mostly in Gray and Raymond.
And when you ask Holmquist why she spends most of the summer working with stone, she has a simple answer:
“I appreciate stone walls because I grew up with them around my house in Beverly, Mass., and also Hopkinton, N.H.,” she said.
The explanation doesn’t end there, however. Holmquist grew up on land in Beverly formerly owned by the wealthy Dodge family back before Maine split off from Massachusetts in 1820. When she moved to Raymond, the late local historian Ernest Knight shared some research he had done on the property. Much to the Holmquists’ surprise, the Dodge family had once owned a large amount of property surrounding Panther Pond, including the land the Holmquists purchased in 1988.
“So, where I grew up in Beverly, which was called Dodge Row and was filled with stone walls everywhere, that family owned this property as well. They got it as a result of fighting in the French and Indian War. And when Ernie Knight told me that, well, I thought this is destiny. I’m supposed to be here,” Holmquist said.
When asked to clarify that “destiny,” she answered quickly, “to build my stone walls, of course!”
An artist through and through, she tries to incorporate curvy lines into most of her creations.
“I just love making them. I like the way they look. And I like puzzles, so this is like a puzzle,” Holmquist said. “I especially love big rocks intermixed with the smaller ones. It’s more of an ornamental piece. And the larger rocks help stabilize the smaller rocks.”
Building rock walls is not for the weak or timid. It can get quite dangerous. Not only is there the chance of falling on her tri-level terrace, the rocks can be heavy, with some weighing up to 700 pounds. For those, she’ll enlist the help of husband, who ties a chain around the rock and uses a backhoe for placement. But once it’s close, he knows to get out of the way and let his wife do what she wants.
“She lets me haul them, but she won’t let me place them because I can’t do it artistically,” Wayne Holmquist says. “She’s a total artist, craftsman person. She makes oriental rugs, does jewelry, makes walls. It drives me crazy sometimes because she never rests.”
She also knows she can take care of the larger stones just fine by herself, thanks for asking.
“Once [a large rock] is in an area that’s close, I can move it to put whatever angle I want. It’s all leverage. I use a long metal rod you put in and move them inch by inch,” Holmquist said.
It’s also a good workout. Holmquist will “shot-put” stones from below up onto a high wall, and then amble up and around to get where she needs to go, either for gardening or placing or replacing a stone. And in all her years out in her rock wall playground, she’s never taken a spill.
“Sometimes I hurt myself but not too often. I have back problems, but I’m not sure what it’s from, either the walls or my age,” Holmquist said.
Her favorite creation is a seemingly flat and straight granite wall featuring a visually pleasing combination of large and smaller stones. Upon closer inspection, however, the 2-foot-tall, 2-foot-wide wall is actually set in two sections forming about a 135-degree angle along a property boundary line.
“This is my masterpiece. It’s 100 feet long and is not straight. Wait until you see it, you won’t believe it,” Holmquist said as she approaches the wall. “It’s quite the angle, isn’t it? It’s like an optical illusion. And when this is wet, it looks entirely different. It looks very black and white and pink, so it’s pretty exciting.”
Despite no masonry background, Holmquist’s rock walls resemble the work of a seasoned professional. She acknowledges her talent for making rock do her bidding is rare, especially for an older woman.
“When I was doing the driveway walls out near the road, people driving by would see me and eventually, they would stop and say, ‘Are you really doing that?’ because they don’t see many women doing this,” she said.
Despite all this rock handling, Holmquist says she really doesn’t have an interest in geology, although she can tell you from experience that various types of rocks vary greatly in density.
For her, the slow and careful creation of a stone wall offers a practical beauty, both from far away as it forms a supportive structure for her garden terraces and up close where innumerable and unmoving interlocking stones display her dedicated and painstaking handiwork.
“I just like them, because I can do something with them, organize them. That and I want to leave things in better shape than when I came,” she said, “I’m putting my stamp on my property, yes, and on the earth, beautifying.”