Stories on the Boundaries

A surveyor for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation finds more than property boundaries in the forests and fields of Oneida and Herkimer Counties.

Story by Sue Smith Romero. Photos by Sue Smith Romero and Mike Carroll.

On the Tug Hill Plateau somewhere near Boonville one warm September Friday, Mike Carroll spots four strands of rusted barbed wire embedded deep in the trunk of a maple tree. To anyone else, these bits of decaying fence would seem like the forgotten remnants of a once-productive farm, but to Carroll, they’re evidence of the precise boundary he’s searching for. As a surveyor for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Carroll’s research and measurements will lead to the preservation of these 500 acres of picturesque hill country by adding them to the Clark Hill State Forest.

Carroll lifts two of the wires. “You can see this is a more modern fence, here, and this is a much older fence, here, that goes right through the center of the tree,” he says. He recognizes the older fence because it’s made with a much simpler process. The newer fence is wound in a complex pattern less likely to roll away from animals when they press against it. He has a book back at the office that lists the first and last manufacturer of each type of barbed wire fence as far back as the mid-1800s when it was invented.

“These are key,” he says. “We seek these because the people before us were closer to the original survey so they had a better idea of where the boundaries were.” But, Carroll adds, the type of wire alone is not a sure sign of the age of the fence or the property boundary, which reminds him of a story. “We had that crazy case up in Elpis...”

Some examples of barbed wire encountered in the forest.

A Surveyor's Mystery

In the hamlet of Elpis, between Camden and Oneida Lake, he and his co-worker found sections of rusted wire fencing buried deep in the bark of a row of trees. “Most of the time, when we see these, they’re very old,” he says. The line of 3-foot-long pieces of barbed wire seemed like a fence that went away from the recorded property line and off into the woods. It made no sense.

Most of us, who are not surveyors, think the job requires measuring and math only, but actually, it involves much more. Studying maps and aerial photos, locating deeds in the county clerk’s office, and looking up historical information are also part of the job. Then, with this background research in hand, DEC surveyors have to find physical evidence of boundaries on the ground. Fences are usually reliable markers. But not this one in Elpis.

Finally, Carroll spoke to a neighboring farmer who explained that back in the 1970s his grandfather intended to sell the piece of land. So he cut old wire fencing he found stored in his barn into sections and tacked it to trees. Though he had used the pieces of fence to show where the land for sale would be, it was never actually sold.

“You couldn’t have made a worse mystery for a surveyor,” Carroll said. “Normally when we see an old wire fence it means a farmer’s trying to keep cows out of a field. It indicates ownership. That’s why this one was so befuddling. It was just as if they were saying, ‘We’re going to fool some surveyors in 50 years.’ But it was totally unintentional.”

A Life Dedicated to Nature

As Carroll turns to nail a DEC sign on a tree trunk, he explains that the current owners of this property are deeply committed to dedicating their land for public use. They offered to sell it to the DEC so it would join the more than four million acres of forests and wildlife management areas throughout the state that the DEC manages for the benefit of New York’s plant, animal, and human populations.

Carroll knew early in life he wanted to spend his working days outdoors. He went to SUNY Plattsburgh, majoring in environmental science and minoring in geology. After a forestry job he had lined up fell through on graduation day in 1992, a friend of the family offered to train him for a surveyor’s job in his company. Knowing it would keep him outside, Carroll accepted it, eventually earning his surveyor’s license and securing his current job with the DEC in 1998.

Today he’s dressed in his usual forest green shirt under a bright orange vest with reflective stripes and khaki cargo pants with plenty of pockets where often an Irish penny whistle is tucked away to play during breaks. (We’re fellow musicians in an Irish band and good friends.) He speaks in a musical tenor voice full of wonder and appreciation for the history and nature he sees displayed before him in the forest.

“We’d all chew our legs off if we had to be inside more than two or three days in a row,” he says of his fellow DEC surveyors. Fortunately, he does spend two or three days every week in the field, with the other days spent doing research in his office in Herkimer.

Mike Carroll, surveyor for the NYS DEC

Rediscovering the Past

“We end up being historians,” he says. “You have to blink and imagine this was a field and that was a pasture, and likely one side and the other there were cows.” He points to rows of stones that outline small rectangular patches of the forest floor around a wet area that may have been a spring. Carroll says those were probably paddocks for other animals like goats or pigs.

He gestures toward a line of gray rocks covered with velvety green moss a short distance away. “There’s an old stone fence laid out by some hard-working farmer, probably at least 150 years ago. And this looks like a farm lane of some merit. You can see where they pulled the stones out of it.” Two rows of rocks in assorted sizes form the edges of what looks like a road large enough for a horse-drawn wagon.

“We came across an old map just this morning that had some indication there was a cheese factory down here,” he says, guessing that the lane may have led to it. “But we haven’t come across much more information than just that. There were cheese factories everywhere back then. It was the only way to store milk any longer than a couple days.”

A rock wall, an old aerial photo, and a forgotten lane

Carroll says this area was well-developed from the 19th through the mid-20th centuries as he pulls out an aerial photo dated 1938 that shows cleared fields and pastures edged with hedgerows as well as several roads. Often we think land development happens in a continual progression from forests to farms, but that’s not always true. In New York, many small farmers turned to other professions or moved away. After they sold their land to the state, their fields gradually returned to forest.

Clark Hill State Forest, with a sign and entrance on nearby Egypt Road, is a good example. Between 1933 and 1950, the DEC bought 2,819 acres from 20 local farmers. This land is now thickly forested, providing habitat for many species. And it’s open to all New Yorkers and visitors from around the world who want to hike, camp, hunt or trap there.

When most people hear “New York,” they think of the Big Apple, but the state is actually 63% forested. This wasn’t always the case. In the early 1600s, when Europeans began to settle in what is now the State of New York, all of its 30 million acres were completely forested. It seemed to offer a never-ending abundance of lumber and land. European immigrants logged and cleared and farmed with wild abandon until 1875 when there were only six million acres of forest left in the state and a few people began to speak up for conservation.

In Search of Colvin

Verplank Colvin was one of the first. Known as the “Father of the Adirondacks,” Colvin was superintendent of the New York state land survey and instrumental in the creation of the Adirondack Forest Preserve in 1885.

Carroll said he’s seen evidence of Colvin’s work many times in the forests of New York, including corners on the Herkimer and Oneida County boundaries. One corner was a six-foot-long, two-ton dressed limestone obelisk that was hauled by a Chenango Canal barge to its position on a hill in New Hartford in 1884 or ‘85. Then it was sunk five feet into the earth with only its top point showing a foot above ground. At some point in its long history, someone had tried to dig the monument out of its burial place, but could not remove it. So it lay askew and mostly unearthed. Carroll said it was well-known among the state surveyors and it meant a lot to one in particular.

A few examples of Verplank Colvin's corner markers.

Jim Dexter, Carroll's predecessor in the Herkimer office, was living in a local nursing home due to Parkinson’s Disease in 2010. Surveying had always been more of a vocation than a job to him and he formed a deep desire to see this Colvin corner he had read about. He tried to get the nursing home workers to take him up the hill, but they never could. So Carroll and a friend decided to help him make the trip.

They managed to push his wheelchair through the brambles and brush to where he could see the giant marker. It was chiseled with references to the patents granted by the King of England before the American Revolution, and still represents the current county border today. His excitement propelled him out of his wheelchair to look for Colvin’s nearby reference points.

Carroll said he knows that feeling of exhilaration. He and his colleagues often look for these corners they read about in century-old records. They know there should be a stone with a chisel mark that says both Herkimer and Oneida county on it. Out in the forest, they use their measurements and other information to get as close as they can.

“Then it says we’re only 150 feet away. So we go 150 feet and start scouring and scouring and we dig around and we find it! We’re the only two people on the planet who care about this stone with four letters chiseled into it,” Carroll said. “It’s like elite expert geocaching. You’re using a record from 1890 done poorly, connecting dots with the county clerk’s office. You’re not just going on a website to get coordinates. We figure out the coordinates of it. And then go see if it’s even there.”

A Surveyor's Challenge

Much of the land sold to the DEC hadn’t changed hands in decades or in some cases a century or more. Some of those acres had been on farms left behind by people lured by better land out west. These abandoned farms lost value and were later traded with less attention to detail. “That’s when the descriptions fall apart,” Carroll says. “Then it becomes a real chore for surveyors to recover those lines. We have to take history and sort of mine it for people’s intentions, especially when you get into these older deeds. How did they think? When they said ‘road’ what did they mean?” There was even a case in the 1890s of timber thieves destroying boundary markers so they could take all the trees they wanted.

Carroll said the goal of the surveyor is to walk in the steps of the previous surveyor. They’re not trying to reproduce his measurements. Often an old boundary will show little evidence on the ground, so they piece together measurements from different records and look for stacks of stones, bits of fences, and even the shadowy remains of roads that never saw an automobile.

One day last summer Carroll was in search of just such a road that had been abandoned in 1898 in a rugged area near Stratford (a hamlet about 16 miles northeast of Little Falls.) The documents mentioned it as the property line. “But it was completely and utterly gone. So what do you do?” he said. “We were trying to piece it together from the mathematics and we found it! But little pieces of it. We could see a little berm here and where it turns. We were so thrilled.”

Carroll often comes across other remnants of past lives lived in the woods of Central New York: small family cemeteries, a lone headstone. Once on a surveying assignment near the original Erie Canal in Oriskany, Carroll came across a rusty iron shoe just the right size for a mule that may have pulled a barge along the towpath.

Four-legged Obstacles

With so much time spent in the forest, you might expect DEC surveyors would run across plenty of wildlife along with historical artifacts, but Carroll said they don’t. Animals tend to avoid humans, but one kind of forest creature makes its opinion of surveyors well known. Throughout his 27-year career, Carroll has noticed the destruction of certain markers he has placed in the woods. To measure a line, surveyors hammer 8-inch metal spikes into the ground at intervals. They add ribbons on wooden sticks to help them find these spots where they will later set up their instruments. Very often in late summer and early fall, Carroll has found the ribbons torn and chewed, the sticks snapped in half, and the metal stakes pulled out and thrown a few feet away.

At first, he wondered if this was human interference, but tooth and claw marks have led him to conclude that it must be the work of bears. He has never actually witnessed one in action, but he said they are the only animal with the strength and intelligence to accomplish this.

“Bears are very territorial,” he said. “You’ll find bear trees in the woods. There are certain trees, almost like a bear’s property corner where they’ll score up the tree with their claws.”

Once he found a large hole dug around one of the spikes. It had been hammered into a tree root, which made it much harder to pull out. Whenever the bears do this, it adds extra hours of work for surveyors to measure and reset the markers, but Carroll said, “I don’t begrudge the bears this because I am in their home slashing and hacking and making a corridor through the woods and leaving my ribbon and my scent. So if I have to do a little extra work, I don’t mind too much.”

He emerges from the forest into a sunny meadow freshly mown for hay. Goldenrod, knapweed, and thistle flowers paint the hedgerows yellow, magenta, and purple. Monarch butterflies gently alight on the blooms. Walking to the edge of the meadow, the majestic vista over the valley stretches as far as the windmills of Munnsville and Fenner on the opposite hilltops. Thanks to the DEC’s land purchases and the surveyors who help make them happen, this view will be preserved and protected for many years to come.

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