For about ten weeks in the summer of 1940 and about a month in the winter of 1941-42, I worked for the Topographic Branch of the U.S. Geological Survey. That was the division of the Survey responsible for topographic mapping of the country. It’s a venerable enterprise
--dates back to the origins of the U.S.G.S. in the days of John Wesley Powell and Hayden, and the urgent demands to map the nation’s land and resources.
The topographic maps used contour lines to show the form of the land; and they also showed water and drainage features and "culture", that is, the man-made, physical features on the landscape, including roads, railroads, power lines, and buildings. At that time, the map of the entire country was overlain by a grid of quadrangles each 15 minutes of latitude by 15 minutes of longitude. The Survey had a long-term goal of making a topographic map for each quadrangle at a scale of 1:62,500--or about one inch to one mile. This was an enormous undertaking and was probably only about a quarter completed at the time I was a college student majoring in geology.
Although I worked for the Survey for only those two short stints, the experience had a very large impact on my maturation and view of the world.
First Lesson: Getting a Job
In the second semester of my junior year at DePauw, I thought it would be a good idea to try to get a summer job somehow related to geology. One obvious place to start was the Indiana state geological survey. I knew there was such an agency. Its publications were in the library, and the director’s name, Dr. Ralph Esarey, was on the title pages.
I had completed the first volume of my report on the previous summer’s field course in the Black Hills. A nicely bound product of my own field work, archival search, analysis, writing, typing, photography, cartographic drafting--I thought it would be useful evidence that I could do geologic investigation. So, report in hand, wearing a clean shirt and tie, I took the interurban to Indianapolis. I was awed and pretty nervous when I walked into the state capitol building and through the corridors to the office of the state geologist. Dr. Esarey was a professor at Indiana University and was not there. It was a small office, occupied by the Assistant State Geologist, a modest, slight, courteous man named Jay Fix. I introduced myself, showed him my report, talked about my education thus far with Rock Smith, and wondered if there was any chance for any kind of work with the Survey in the coming summer.
Mr. Fix seemed interested and seemed to want to be helpful. But he explained that the Survey actually had a very small budget and had no field projects other than the work of Dr. Esarey, himelf, scheduled for the summer. He added that there was some U.S.G.S. topographic mapping scheduled on the Aurora quadrangle, in the southeastern corner of the state, just down the Ohio River from Cincinnati.
There would be jobs for two rodmen, and they’d be tough to get. I said I wanted to apply, and he gave me the forms. Then he said, "Do you have any political connections? Do you know any state officials or legislators, or your congressman? It would help your chances a lot if you could get a recommendation from somebody like that." I realized, "I have a cousin who might know my congressman." Fix said, "See what you can do. And before you leave I want to introduce you to the State Engineer, if he’s in."
I learned that the state engineer was a political appointee who nominally oversaw the state’s land surveying activities; and he might screen applications for jobs on U.S.G.S. maps, which are funded jointly by federal and state governments. The state engineer, Denzil Dogget, was not in his office. But as we were walking down the corridor, he appeared, just coming our of the men’s room. Fix introduced me to him. He must have assumed that if Fix was going so far as to introduce me to him, I must have some connection. He extended his hand warmly, smiled, and thundered, "Didn’t I meet you at the democratic conference at French Lick?" I had to be honest and say no. But I got the idea. Fix said a few things to him about my impressive report and DePauw record, and there was a cordial departure.
Back at DePaw I immediately typed a letter to Oscar Sauerman. He was the husband of my cousin, Margaret Pfeil. Due to an accident of history, his family patriarch had been a prosperous pioneer saddle and harness maker but also one of the few democrat business men in the county--he was a German liberal, not a Yankee. Oscar had stuck to his democrat heritage. With the Roosevelt landslide in 1932, a democrat went to Congress from Lake County for the first time in history; and he appointed Oscar Sauerman postmaster a Crown Point--first democratic postmaster there since Woodrow Wilson’s administration, if not in all time.
I explained the situation in the letter to "Uncle Oscar". He wrote back that he’d write to Congressman Schulte at once, but cautioned me that there were a lot of hungry creatures at the trough. A week later, I received a letter on House of Representatives stationery. Breathless, I opened it and read, "Dear John: My good friend Oscar Sauermann has told me of your excellent qualifications for work with the U.S. Geological Survey this summer. I am pleased to assure you that I am writing at once to the appropriate officials in Washington and Indianapolis with my strongest recommendation. With warmest personal regards . . ." Later a letter came from Indianapolis telling me when to report to Aurora.
Thus I got one of the two jobs available in the state that summer. When I got to Aurora I found that the other one had gone to the nephew of the Chief of the Central Division of the U.S.G.S. Topographic Branch. From that experience I acquired a bias toward job-seeking in person and networking that I never could shed.
The Aurora Quadrangle: Learning from Sam Farmer
It was my good luck to be assigned as Sam Farmer’s rodman. He was one of only two topographers in the field party at Aurora--a thirtyish man named Law, who was party chief, and fortyish Sam Farmer. Sam was not a college graduate but a veteran of the survey, a superb field mapper. He had been wounded in the U.S. Marines in World War I. As a result, he had a rather severe quiver in his hands. When he was sketching in contour lines, the pinpont-sharp pencil would shake-no, literally vibrate--as he moved it toward the paper. Then, the instant it touched the paper, it steadied and the lines were smooth and graceful. His contour maps were works of art. In part that was because he had overcome the effect of his wound. In part it was because he had a lot of knowledge of landform geology, which he had learned on his own. And he had an extraordinary "feel" for the shape of the land. He was a keen observer of detail.
But another factor was his use of stereoscopic interpretation of aerial photos. He was a pioneer. That technique had not yet been officially accepted by the agency, and he was one of the few, if not the first, to use it. He had a big, clumsy stereoscope that he’d had built to his own specifications by a blacksmith in his home town in Kansas. Viewing photos under it, he could sketch form lines on his field sheet and thus plan in advance the details of his traverse and selection of points to take elevation readings. Then he could interpolate and locate contour lines with ease and great accuracy be following the form lines from the photos.
As a result, his work style was unique. He would spend more than average time in the office preparing for his field survey work. Then he’d go to the field and map much faster than average--about twice as many square miles per week as Mr. Law. He was a good teacher. He liked to explain his techniques and strategies, and his understanding of the stream-dissected landforms we were mapping. As I learned, we became a pretty efficient team.
The terrain was the roughest I’d seen except for the Black Hills. We had between 300 and 500 feet of local relief in our area. Divides and bottoms were narrow, and valley walls were steep. Aside from getting into good shape lugging a rod up and down those slopes in the sultry Ohio Valley summer, I could observe and collect fossils from different levels in the Cincinnatian series of sedimentary rock and get a good feel for the niceties of stream erosion. And there were magnificent panoramas from the ridge tops.
Putting the "land office"--township, range, and section lines of the U.S. Land Survey--on the maps was interesting, too. On rainy days, Sam had me go to the land records in the county courthouse and get the descriptions of section corners. The original survey had been in 1792. Our sheet was part of a frontier area granted to the Society of the Cincinnati for Revolutionary War veterans to take up farming, and the title was signed by George Washington. It was exciting to see his signature on the documents in front of me.
All of the section corner descriptions were by metes and bounds. Hence we’d have to find stone cairns, hope to find 150-year-old oak trees or barn foundations, and so on. We worked hard at it. Because Sam’s contour mapping was so efficient, we had spare time to pursue the subject. And we found most corners. When we ran them in, we found that the "mile-square" sections were in fact often trapezoids. The reason was, of course, that the original surveys were much less accurate than ours because of much less geodetic control. It was my first experience with courhouse land survey and ownership records, and that opened a new world for understanding the pattern of settlement on the land.
There was time to kill on week-ends. My land-lady, Mrs. Kohl, wife of a local dentist, was the city librarian. She gave me free run of the library. Among other things, I took time to read the English translation of Adolph Hitler’s "Mein Kampf". If you took him at his word, it was obvious that the war in Europe probably would involve the United States, and it made me very skeptical about the anti-war America First movement, which had a lot of student activist support on the country’s college campuses, including DePauw.
When the summer ended, I had learned a lot; and Sam Farmer said he told his chief I was the best rodman he’d ever had.
The Tensaw Quadrangle: a Strange Land
At the end of the fall semester of 1941-42, in the wake of Pearl Harbor, I resigned my graduate teaching assistantship at Illinois and went to work once more for the U.S. Geological Survey topographic map division, this time as a topographic engineer. Japanese and German submarines had been sighted in U.S. coastal waters, and there was a resulting fear of possible incursions in shore areas. So the USGS received extra congressional appropriations to accelerate the topographic mapping program in those parts of the country.
At the suggestion of Sam Farmer, I went south to join his field party based at Bay Minette, Alabama. With the urgent need for more help, Sam had remembered me as his rodman on the Aurora quadrangle and thought I could handle the work. The party was mapping the Tensaw quadrangle, on the delta where the Alabama-Tombigbee river system joins as the Tensaw river and bayous to enter Mobile Bay. The quadrangle is located mainly in Baldwin county, and Bay Minette is the county seat.
This was the first time I had lived in the old South, and my first experience of any kind in a relatively isolated area of the rural South. Bay Minette was a small town with few amenities in comparison with a Midwestern county seat. West and northwest of Bay Minette, the land lay on the delta at the north end of Mobile Bay. But to the north and northeast, the county was dissected inner coastal plain. It was mostly forested, thinly populated, and quite poor. The southern part of the county was flat outer coastal plain, mostly cleared and agricultural. It was less isolated and less poor than the northern area, yet poor by mid-western standards.
Much of the south-county land was in small farms owned by old families. But there were also extensive farmlands in settlements which had been organized and promoted by northern idealist-developers or speculators, with farm tracts sold to immigrants recruited from both rural and urban northern areas of the U.S. and from Europe. The organized colonies, as well as commercialization of the indigenous farms, came with the introduction of refrigerator cars and extension of a branch rail line into the southern part of the county from the main line at Bay Minette. Loxley and Foley were two of the business centers for those colonies.
A few small fishing towns were on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. Fairhope, on a bluff on the eastern shore was a unique cultural island in this part of the South. It was a utopian colony of northern intellectuals promoted by a Des Moines, Iowa, follower of single-tax proponent, Henry George. At the south edge of the county lay miles of virtually undeveloped Gulf beach. The state had just opened a first-class resort at Gulf Shores, but it was still small, tentative,. With poor accessibility. Mobile was a city of less than 100,000. The Bankhead tunnel and causeway had just opened direct highway traffic across the Bay. But Baldwin county was completely out of the city and suburban circulation.
That was the setting of Bay Minette. Thanks to Sunday drives with Sam and Mrs. Farmer, I got glimpses of these regional landscapes. But most of the time I was confined to the little county-seat town and my small field mapping area.
When I got off the train at Bay Minette, I first found the USGS field party ‘s "office". It was on one of the unpaved, shady streets that comprised much of the town, in a small cottage rented by the party chief, J. O. Kilmartin. I learned my job description, filled out the necessary forms, and headed for the local "hotel", where I could find a place to live. That was the Still House, a block or so off the courthouse square. Ma and Pa Still ran the place--they were so-called because they were the parents of the Still Boys, who ran the Ford garage. The hotel was a ramshackle two-story building.
I settled in a "room", about seven by ten feet, converted from a tiny second-story porch, with a cot, chair, ceiling light bulb, open gas heater, no insulation, and leaky windows to keep out some of the February chill and rain. The "sho-nuff" rooms were pre-empted.
N. D. Robert and his wife rented one. He, too, had just joined the USGS party here. Though he’d had some previous surveying experience, he didn’t know much about the USGS or topographic maps. He was an engineering graduate of Valparaiso University. Like every male my age, he was waiting to see if and when he’d be drafted, and weighing possible enlistment options. He and his wife were newly-weds. I noted their planless, rootless, totally uncertain life and figured Jane and I were right in not rushing into marriage quite yet. The other room was rented by a late-middle-age woman school teacher.
There was a dining room, with an illiterate waiter, Will, who doubled as janitor. Will seemed to have no known last name and, therefore, no legal existence. He seemed to be sort of a ward of Ma and Pa Still. There was a lobby, where Stills, the teacher, and I would often sit for a while after supper, beside the pot-bellied stove. There was no TV, of course, nor a radio. I would read the day’s Mobile papers, while the others speculated about the weather. Typically, Pa would observe, "Ah reckon it’s go’ weathuh a mite." And the teacher would respond, "Yeah. But ah reckon i’ss go’ fayah off tomorrah." That’s what it usually did.
My field area was several miles north of Bay Minnette, near the cross-roads hamlet of Stockton. A narrow gravel road went west, then north from Stockton, along level terrace land. To the west the terrace ended in a low bluff, overlooking the swampy, forested floodplain of the Tensaw. To the north the terrace was incised by bluffs and a small floodplain along Rice Creek, which flowed west to the Tensaw. South of the creek the road passed a two-acre, very rustic graveyard called Richerson (some people said Richardson) cemetery for local white families. There were small corn and cotton fields, fallow in winter, on either side of the road. But away from the road pine woods covered the land. Except for the local fields, the area had always been forested. Virgin pine had been cut over in the early 1900s. The forest I saw was second growth.
My first day in the field in the winter of 1942, my rodman and I ran a traverse on that road to get the feel of the equipment, establish a routine, and see how accurate I was. When I closed the traverse, I was about 20 feet off vertically, and 300 feet off horizontally. What a shock! The weather was chilly and overcast. The fields and roadside were muddy. I went home, cold and wet, to the standard supper of sowbelly, greens, beans, okra, and corn bread, with thick, strong Louisianne chickery coffee, then upstairs to my poorly heated cell to check my field notes and try to figure out what went wrong that first day in the field. And write to Jane.
And a Strange Culture
The next day I started mapping my field area and soon learned the ropes. A rutted sand lane twisted west from Richerson graveyard, to the bluff and the Tensaw bayou near the mouth of Rice Creek. My field area embraced a few square miles to the south of that road. I mapped trails--it was an exaggeration to call them "uniumproved roads"--twisting southward from Rice Creek Landing road past several dwellings, and converging at "Union church". The cabins were about15-by-20-foot, windowless, log buildings. Each was surrounded by a small yard with an outdoor oven, a few chickens, and small garden of okra, corn, and beans, protected by a stockade to keep out the wild hogs and bears. Some contrast with the mechanized corn and dairy farms I knew around Crown Point, or around Champaign, Illinois.
The inhabitants of the cabins in 1942 were friendly, middle-aged or elderly, illiterate black folks--descendants of slaves brought there between 1790 and the Civil War. There were a few young children. But the mobile young people--even those with marginal literacy-- had all left for the booming job market in war-time Mobile, or for the army. The people in the cabins and stockades were, of course, as intrigued by me and my plane table and telescopic alidade as I was by them. Once or twice each day I’d encounter the preacher, I suppose for the Union church. Riding a mule, he covered the community each day or so, having his meals and visiting and praying with the people in the cabins. He, too, was very friendly.
The church was also a windowless, log structure, with seats made of split pine logs. The local folks told me that the building had also served as a school. It contrasted dramatically with the 1930s brick school on the highway, used by white pupils, and built in the 1930s with federal money from the "New Deal" Public Works Administration.
The local folks and I learned to understand each other’s brand of English, and I would visit with them as we worked our way along the trails and through the woods. I was puzzled when I compared this black community with the urban blacks I knew from my work at the Sears store in Gary, Indiana. I had never thought about anything like this before.
Meanwhile, my rodman, Roy, and I gradually became good friends. He’d interrupt our surveying to point to deer, bear, and razorbacks running through the forest of pines, and the diggings of big burrowing turtles he called "gophers" at our feet. We would regale each other with descriptions of our own cultures while we sat on a couple of stumps and ate our lunch each day. He was a 16-year-old high school dropout from a poor white household in Bay Minette. I was a college graduate with ample connections in both the prosperous rural Corn Belt and Chicago. Our moral, social, economic, and physical environmental backgrounds were poles apart.
About a mile south of Stockton, what was then the state road to Bay Minette, passed within a couple of hundred yards of Lower Bryant Landing, on the Tensaw. Julius Lee Bryant owned a store just off the blacktop and up the hill from the landing. Rodman Roy and I usually stopped there on the way to the field in the morning to buy a couple of bottles of coca cola to go with our lunches. I recall the scene vividly. Bryant was a friendly, nearly toothless, tobacco-chewing, grizzly fellow. The store was about ten by 20 feet, windowless, clapboard, rickety front porch, narrow wood shelves running along two inside walls. On the shelves he stocked crackers, salt, catsup, coca cola, and shotgun shells--all the local folks needed or could afford, I suppose. The store had a back door with separately hinged upper and lower halves. Often when we stopped in the morning, the upper door would be open, and his mule, its head inside the store, would be feeding from a nose bag hooked to the lower door. This was a far cry from the rural general stores I grew up with around Crown Point--they had10 times the floor space, 100 times the stock, a post office, storekeepers usually high-school educated.
As if the day-to-day environment of the Still House and the field area were not exotic enough, there were also the "Spanish Mounds" That was the local term for a few mounds perhaps twenty feet in diameter and a yard or so high, isolated in the piney woods. As I recall, they were widely separated, at irregular intervals. We stumbled across a couple of them near the south edge of the sheet.
On our map those particular mounds could be connected by an ENE-WSW line.
I learned at the courthouse that they were intended to be on a precisely east-west line, the 31st parallel of latitude. From the Mississippi to the Chattahoochee, that parallel had been the U.S.-Spanish America boundary established by the Treaty of 1783. I learned later that a joint U.S.-Spanish survey team had slogged through the swamps and forest to establish the line on the ground. They did the job between 1796 and 1799, and their slaves threw up these mounds for fires which could then be sighted to extend the survey line eastward and establish the next mound. If they could not use smoke during the day, they sighted from fires at night.
Of course, when we mapped them in 1940, with vastly better horizontal control established by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, the mounds turned out to be on a zigzag line that only rounghly approximated the 31st parallel. But the officials in the U.S. capital at Philadelphia and the opulent king’s court in Spain were satisfied. And the surveyors had successfully completed their three-year struggle with swamp, reptile, insect, and disease.
A month after arriving, I left Bay Minette to become an aviation cadet in meteorology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. An abrupt, drastic change in every possible way. But that month was a rich experience. It was an opportunity to live in a rural South that could not be experienced today, a part of the U.S. that by today’s standards would have been considered Third World. And it added a few more observations in my discovery that layers of history are exposed in every geogaphic landscape.