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Walking the Line

November 10, 2018

This past October, on a beautiful Saturday morning, I joined folks from The Backbone Ridge History Group on a walk following one of the original boundary lines from the Military Lots. This was an exciting opportunity for me as it ties into my own Boundaries Project, where I am exploring original lot lines from the division of the land as a means to compensate soldiers for their service in the Revolutionary War. Although I am exploring areas on state land near Dryden, I have deep roots in the Backbone Ridge area of Hector, having grown up nearby. Even though the federal lands are now collectively called Finger Lakes National Forest, locals tend to refer to it simply as Hector from when it was Hector Land Use Area. The mixed forests and grazing pastures at the apex of the gently curving arc of land between the two longest Finger Lakes is a patchwork quilt of squared parcels, a result of the government program of buying out ailing farmers during the great depression. There is a general agreement that the thin hilltop soils were fairly depleted and that, along with changes in modes of transportation, made it hard to compete with Midwestern farms. Some farmers decided to stick it out and many of their successors work those same lands today, thus the checkerboard of public and private land. Much of the forest is second growth, replanted by the forest service, who also removed much, but not all, of the evidence of the former farms. Because of this, there are more trees now then there were during the late nineteenth century when deforestation reached its peak.


Hector was my romping grounds as a kid, so I was excited to learn that the Backbone Ridge group shared my interest in the historic division of land into neat parcels. That division set into play the ensuing development of the land and helped establish the framework for the growing nation. My artwork explores how place helps define who we are; my feeling is that as much as the early settlers tried to alter the landscape to suit their needs, the landscape they discovered altered them and fed them in ways that they could not initially fathom. It certainly has had its effect on me.


Exploring these early boundaries, most of which are embedded in contemporary roads, hedgerows, and property lines, makes me think about what it was like for those early settlers to arrive at terra incognito and then to be faced with the heavy burden of improving the land by clearing timber, creating fields, houses, roads and mills. A step off any trail into the dense mixed hardwood forest gives one a sense of the overwhelming task. Initially, the forest must have seemed infinite; the incredible views we now enjoy from the open grazing land would not be apparent to them for years. The terrain was fairly gentle and accessible and punctuated by small streams that could provide waterpower. But as one left the ridge, these same streams must have proven to be obstacles as they funneled into steep east-west running gorges obstructing north-south travel. The upland soils today are thin and clayey, one wonders if that was always the case or if it is the result of overworking the land. The flat-bottomed valleys of glacial moraine would have been the most productive land then, as it is now. Granted a chunk of land through a lottery system, soldiers (or more likely, their heirs or subsequent speculators) likely had no idea of what they were getting into; new arrivals on the ridge must have cast a jealous eye towards those lowland parcels. After a century of farming, the thin hilltop soils became so depleted that the government stepped in and bought back much of the land, establishing the federal and state land preserves that we enjoy today.


If one traces the lineage of the families that ended up on the Ridge in the early 1800’s many of them still have family farms in the area and their names can be found on local road signs. Growing up here, it was understood that these are the hard working families that are the base of region’s agrarian economy. As hard as the work is today, I can only imagine what clearing the land with oxen and ax was like two hundred years ago. While our European counterparts were sipping tea and enjoying luxuries, early Americans were working their hands bare eking out a rudimentary existence in the woods. Yet this was part of Jefferson’s vision: A nation of independent yeoman farmers, self-sufficient, self governing, and hard working, but free from an oppressive government standing over them.


My walk with the Hector Ridge Backbone group was a planned outing to recreate the effort it took to survey just a small portion of the thousands of miles of boundary lines that were accurately surveyed under the leadership of Simeon De Witt at the beginning of the nineteenth century. We walked north along the Interloken Trail from Teeter Pond and then explored the northwest section of Military Lot 92, measuring a line south from Townsend road to a west- flowing stream and site of an old saw-mill listed as belonging to J.G. Skinner on a map from 1850. Along the way we encountered old cellar holes and foundations associated with the settlement. To measure the line we used an antique chain, which is both a unit of measure equal to 66 feet and the actual device used to measure it. It has 100 steel links, elegant brass handles at the ends and brass counters at set distances. The logic of the length has to do with the units of measure we inherited from the British. One acre is 10 square chains; 640 acres equals a square mile. One rod is a quarter of a chain, and was a common width for a road, such as in “One Rod Road”. Although it is not as simple as the metric system, there is some mathematical logic to it all. Since the roads bounding those early lots tend to form a mile square grid, and the Military lots were 600 acres, it isn’t clear what happened to the remaining 40 acres. Furthermore, A square mile, or 600 acres, can’t be evenly squared, thus the familiar rectangular parcels. Lots were divided into smaller parcels according to the soldier’s ranks, with a quarter of a quarter lot being the minimum standard of 40 acres that is still colloquially referred to (although that has more to do antebellum era in the South). The geometry of it all is pretty perplexing; it is amazing that the maps we use today still use those early lines as a base.


Having explored the concept of land division in my work for the past several years, it was really exciting to be using one those original devices. Albeit, we weren’t running through the brush, tugging on the brass hand-holds as I image the early surveyors did but, rather, given the antique nature of the chain, we gingerly carried it aloft of the pervasive mud with team of a dozen of us. Thinking back to those surveyors who forged through far worse and were guided only by compass, it is amazing to consider just how accurate they were. Flying over most of the country today, one can see the results of those efforts in the precise grid that defines the mid-west farmlands.


Our little Sunday jaunt opened a window to the past and to the incredible efforts it took for the early settlers to gain a foothold on this land. The work I have been doing raises questions about that dominion and the incongruity of the imposition of the grid onto an organic landscape with it’s own boundaries of streams, hills and lakes, and history of Iroquois settlement. Jefferson’s concept of the Yeoman Farmer was the incubator for the independent thinking American that we know today but also formed the mythos of the autonomous landholder that goes along with that. These early settlers had to make it on their own without depending on government support and that was the intended price of living free of government control. Here, in the hills of Central New York, whole communities of strong individuals developed from that history.

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  1. simonespicer permalink

    Hi Rob,
    I like your work with the land boundaries! There’s something in there that makes me think of your mother and her quest to locate herself through history :). Yeah.
    But mostly I relate it to my own work through thoughts of the future of humanity around over population and the epic human migrations we are going to face due to climate change and over crowding. What kind of land boundaries will there be in a globalized future? How real are land boundaries? Do they really create safety? Are they more about separation and distrust? Resources? Very fascinating topic. Past, present and future. Have fun!! Xx

    • Yes, what will the future hold with shifting populations due to climate change? The model of everyone claiming their square parcel of land will have to give way to shared community space that allows for a flux in populations and community use. Ironically, the current federal land model of the west isn’t a bad one, just poorly managed by the BLM and weighted towards corporate interest. What if public land was set aside for not just for the extremes of extraction or wilderness but for living, farming and community- a village without borders where responsibility is shared and the poor have the same access to land as the rich?

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