I’m used to coming across stone cellar holes or remnants of foundations in the woods and fields. But this rudimentary structure, spotted on a farm visit in Walpole, stumped me. It had a doorway and yet was too tiny to be a house even for a Who down in Whoville.

What was it? A stone animal pound, an essential part of Maine’s early, agrarian roots and one of an estimated 38 left in the state.

Christi Mitchell, architectural historian for the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, explained how it was used.

“The pound is essentially a jail,” she said. For animals.

Just about every early settlement in Maine had at least one pound (bigger towns might have one for the south end and one for the north end). Because no one had time to build fences around their pastures, livestock essentially roamed free and, occasionally, into the wrong place. If you found Farmer John’s cow on your property, or say, “downtown,” you could lead it to the pound (often made of stone for strength) and shut it in behind a wooden door or even a stone door that slid across (that sounds like a lot of work).

There was even bail. “You had to pay the pound keeper a certain amount of money to get the animal out of the pound,” Mitchell said.

This was serious business because, as she pointed out, “a hungry pig could, in a short amount of time, destroy a family’s food crops.”

Some pounds were established in the center of town, and others on private property belonging to someone who had agreed to be the pound keeper, which was probably the case with this Walpole farm.

A pound wasn’t just a helpful thing, it was a requirement. This line was included in a successful petition Mitchell filed on behalf of adding the Town Pound in Turner to the National Register of Historic Places: “By 1635 the courts of Massachusetts Bay ordered that every town under its jurisdiction construct a strong impoundment in which wayward beasts could be held until claimed by their owner and returned to pasture.”

In Maine’s first year of statehood, the state Legislature passed similar resolves.

South Bristol, encompassing Walpole, was incorporated in 1765, one of the earliest towns in what was then the Province of Maine, which means that this stone pound could date to that period.

The invention of barbed wire in 1873 made the stone pound all but obsolete, Mitchell said. Obsolete, but still standing. — MARY POLS