Mille Lacs County surveyor Warren Delles has pieces of old wooden posts, parts of old rusted barbed wire, and photos in his office of things he has found lying in the ground as part of his surveying job.
His update on his work for the Mille Lacs County Board on Feb. 18 was also colorful. It included stories about how artifacts and landmarks have frequently helped him in his job of restoring and maintaining “government corners.”
Government corners were established in the mid 1800s by government surveyors as part of the Public Land Survey, and they designate corners of sections and points between section lines.
Mille Lacs County has a policy that places priority on restoring and maintaining government corners in places that are to be affected by road construction. Delles explained that it is difficult to get in and do the survey work after contractors have torn up the ground and covered it with asphalt, so he gets the site first. Mille Lacs County Road 132, also known as Sawmill Road, in East Side Township, was one location where Delles had to do such survey work within the past few years.
Once government corners are restored and maintained in the road construction areas each year, the county surveyor is charged with restoring and maintaining government corners throughout the rest of the county, working from south to north. The job includes making sure there is a certificate of location of each corner filed with the county.
Delles has been working since 2009 to survey the entire county and so far has completed it the townships of Princeton, Greenbush, Milo, Bogus Brook, Milaca, Borgholm, Page and Hayland. He hopes to complete government-corner restoration and maintenance in Dailey, Mudget and Lewis townships this year and Onamia and Bradbury townships next year.
What will then remain in the county to complete could prove to be some of the most difficult because the remaining townships border Mille Lacs Lake, making for some irregular borders.
When Delles gave his presentation to the board, he was accompanied by county Land Services Director Michele McPherson. The two held up a big map of the county that was full of red dots, each dot showing a government corner. McPherson noted that the location of each dot corresponds with a document and individual number.
Presentation spurred some questions
Commissioner Tim Wilhelm, a farmer in rural Princeton, asked if a rural landowner could lose land if it was found that a fence that had been in place for 20 years and had been considered a border was found to be off because of new surveying.
The farmer won’t necessarily lose land because of that, Delles answered. He said there have been situations where a resident will say their grandfather showed them where a corner or border was. In that case, Delles will research the records to see what happened on the property.
Delles is “persistent” in his digging into information and researching, McPherson told the board.
Delles explained that the county needs enough information to support the location of the original corner and that he wants the corner to be where it was originally.
He noted that some years ago there were issues of there being more than one corner where there should be one, and when he looked into the records, “it came down to one corner.”
Wilhelm asked if all the dots on the county map are accurate, Wilhelm expressing concern about the area of Mille Lacs Lake because so much private surveying was done there.
“As far as I know (they area accurate),” Delles said about the dots. Delles added that he still compares the private survey with other records.
Commissioner Dave Oslin, Isle, asked what happens if there turns out to be a dispute where a corner is.
“You try to go to the government corner,” Delles answered. “It carries the weight.”
Delles noted that the physical evidence used to mark the corners in the 1800s have deteriorated with age, neglect and development. Sometimes an unidentified object was placed at a corner to perpetuate the government corner of record, he added.
Old grindstone marker
In one case, an old grindstone and an iron bar were used to mark a government corner for decades in Milo Township located between Princeton and Milaca.
Delles explained that Mille Lacs County Deputy Surveyor S.L. Kennedy in a 1915 survey record, talks about an old marked grindstone in the north corner of Section 28 in Milo Township. Kennedy said that Mille Lacs County Surveyor James F. McClellan had set the grindstone in place “when one witness tree was plain,” and that McClellan then set a length of iron into the hole of the grindstone. Kennedy’s 1915 survey record describes the iron as being 1 1/2 inches in diameter and resting 6 inches below the surface.
On May 10, 2010 a backhoe was used to dig into a spot on a roadbed that corresponded to a computed position of the north quarter corner of Section 28 in Milo.
Approximately 5 feet below the gravel road surface, the top of a solid 1 1/2-inch iron post was encountered. Excavation surrounding the iron post continued, and at the base of the pointed solid iron post, a grinding wheel was located. Delles said that Kennedy had accepted only a small number of McClellan’s monuments as being correct, but did accept the grindstone.
Delles continued that the iron was left in place as found, the gravel road was repaired and a three-quarter-inch iron pipe with plastic cap inscribed with RLS41890 was placed directly above the grindstone and about a few inches below the gravel road surface. A certificate of location of government corner was prepared and is now on file as document number 1561 for the grindstone found at the north quarter corner of Section 28.
Surveying equipment has advanced
“We’ve got some great equipment (including GPS),” Delles also told the commissioners. “We can measure very close.”
Although astronomic observations were used to establish some survey positions long ago, much of the section corner work was performed with a Gunter’s chain and a surveyor’s compass, Delles explained. The Gunter’s or surveyor’s chain was 66 feet long, and 80 chains came out to 5,280 feet, or 1 mile.
“The established method was well documented and the work well done by the original surveyors with the equipment of the time. However, the process was subject to systemic, accidental and human error,” Delles continued.
The chains were stretched over uneven, wooded and wet ground and there weren’t roads at the time of the original survey like there are today, and sometimes the chains could get kinked and would get worn, Delles noted.
Delles, at his office later, showed a photo of a piece of granite survey marker that was unearthed. The piece of granite was about 2 feet long and would have been very heavy for a couple of surveyors to carry, Delles said.
Importance of the job
The reason for establishing the corners to their original locations is because if they are repeatedly changed, then there “would always be land disputes,” Delles said.
“The county decided they (the corners) ought to be for all time. That’s why there is so much effort being put in.
“Although technology continuously allows us to obtain measurements with greater accuracy and precision, the evidence of the location of the original corner is paramount. The foresight of the permanency of the original corners protects and maintains the rights of the landowners, which could otherwise be jeopardized as technology continuously improves our measuring capabilities,” he said.
The U.S. government, which initiated the original government surveys, had that in mind, according to Delles. He explained that the government wanted to have a “real firm way to grant property to private owners and it made the locations of the borderlines very specific.”
Sometimes the landowners are very helpful, because they know the importance of the corners, Delles added.
To prevent problems in re-establishing corners where monuments are moved, surveyors over the years have recorded distances between two stable points, such as between a large tree and a large rock and the distance from each to the survey monument. Then if the monument is removed, the surveyor can go to the record and measure in from the rock and the tree. GPS information is also used to re-establish the corners, he said.
Wilhelm, reached after the commissioners’ meeting, talked about the government surveying done in the 1800s and farther back to the time of George Washington, who was a surveyor. It’s amazing, he said, with the frontier terrain to work in and the surveying equipment of the day, how accurate those surveyors were.
But there have still been boundary disputes among landowners over the years and that includes Princeton Township, Wilhelm added. It is also not uncommon that border disputes can get pretty contested as one landowner might feel a neighbor has encroached on their property.
It does work out when the neighbors are agreeable, Wilhelm said.