Surveyors of Presidential Proportion

November 25, 2002
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Statues of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington as young surveyors pay tribute to the profession.



Sketch by Lloyd Ostendorf.
It is no secret among surveyors that two of our nation’s most famous and beloved presidents were surveyors as young men, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. To much of the general public, however, the surveying careers of these two men is little known. But now, two projects are in the works that may change that. Efforts to commission statues of Lincoln and Washington as young surveyors are coming to fruition. The Illinois Professional Land Surveyors Association (IPLSA) is spearheading an effort to honor and commemorate the surveying career of Abraham Lincoln with a life-size statue at Lincoln’s New Salem Historic Site near Petersburg, Illinois. At the same time, a statue of young George Washington as a surveyor is in the works in Winchester, Virginia.

Sculptor Malcolm Harlow poses with his statue of Washington as a surveyor.

George Washington: First He Was a Surveyor (Then He Was First President)

Approximately 70 miles west of Washington, D.C., in Winchester, Va., preparations are well under way to erect a 9 1⁄2 ft statue of George Washington as a young man with his surveying equipment. Malcolm Harlow, an accomplished sculptor from northern Virginia, is putting the finishing touches on the statue.

A high school student came up with the idea for the statue. Joe Vance was doing a research paper on the City of Winchester. He noticed that there wasn’t anything to commemorate Washington in Winchester, even though he spent a significant part of his youth there and also began his successful surveying career in the town. The idea occurred to him to commission a statue of young Washington as a surveyor.

Impressed with Washington’s history and connection to his city, Vance proposed the idea for the statue to the Winchester City government, which received acceptance. One of Vance’s parents works for the National Park Service as a graphic designer and knew of Harlow’s sculpture work. They asked Harlow to create a maquette (a small replica). Harlow agreed, using Vance as the model “to get that character and feel of a young man,” he says. They sent the maquette to Mt. Vernon for approval.

Harlow made 35 bronze maquettes to sell in order to raise the funds to create the statue, one of which was purchased by the Virginia Association of Surveyors. He is now completing the finishing details on the statue before he ships it to the foundry to be cast in bronze.

Harlow hopes to have the statue completed in time for a dedication ceremony to be held in Winchester on Washington’s birthday in February.

Washington’s Surveying Career in Winchester

Lord Fairfax, a landowner with vast property holdings in the Virginia Northern Neck area, gave Washington his first surveying job. George set out with two of Lord Fairfax’s experienced surveyors on a month-long trip across the Blue Ridge Mountains in early 1748 with as little as three practice surveys to his credit. Part of the land they surveyed would become the city of Winchester, later chartered in 1752.

This journey served as Washington’s initiation into the field of surveying and led him to pursue it as a career. It also may have helped him achieve his final presidential career. Washington developed a lifelong friendship with the powerful and influential Fairfax family that allowed him upward mobility through Virginia society. In a way, surveying gave Washington the connections he needed to later become president of the United States! Washington was able to generate a successful surveying career before later becoming involved in the military and politics. Between 1747 and 1799 Washington surveyed over two hundred tracts of land and held title to more than 65,000 acres in 37 different locations. Early in the Revolutionary War, even with the responsibility of leading the army on his shoulders, Washington sometimes found it necessary to make his own field sketches. Recognizing a need, Washington appointed Robert Erskine as the first geographer to the Continental army in 1777 (1).

Abraham Lincoln: Surveying on the Path to Presidency

Abraham Lincoln is remembered for many things—president, statesman, lawyer—even his career as a railsplitter is fairly well-known. He is least remembered for surveying. But survey he did, and he left behind much evidence in the form of signed plats, maps and the towns he helped lay out.

The IPLSA has come up with a way to remember Lincoln’s important survey work. The society has commissioned sculptor John McClarey, a noted sculptor with several Lincoln statues to his credit spread throughout the Midwest, to complete a full-size statue of Lincoln as a surveyor. Bob Church, executive director of IPLSA and chairman of the Lincoln Survey Statue Project, says that the idea for the statue came about after he discovered that Lincoln was a surveyor through a book called A. Lincoln with Compass and Chain by Adin Baber.

Uncovering Lincoln’s Surveying Roots

Baber, a surveyor from southeastern Illinois, was first to document Lincoln’s work as a surveyor. He became interested in Lincoln’s early surveying days indirectly, as he was originally tackling the genealogy that connected his family back to Nancy Hanks, Lincoln’s mother. Through this research, Baber became increasingly interested in the fact that Lincoln was a surveyor. He started investigating this often overlooked era of Lincoln’s personal history, resurveying and redrawing plats from many original Lincoln surveys, researching the instruments he would have used and studying the surveying laws under which Lincoln worked. He visited the towns Lincoln helped lay out and even located some of the bearing trees Lincoln used to establish critical survey points. Written in 1968, Baber’s work is still the most extensive body of knowledge we have today of Lincoln as a surveyor.

At a 1980 IPLSA chapter meeting, a fellow member of IPLSA brought Baber’s book and showed it to Church. His interest piqued, he tried to locate a copy of the book for himself only to discover that the author had passed away and the book was out of print. After further digging, he found two cases of the books that the printers had stored away in a warehouse. Church bought those 50 copies, numbered them, had them signed by Lloyd Ostendorf, a noted Lincoln artist, and Wayne Temple, a historian who helped write the book, and auctioned them off to raise money for an IPLSA scholarship program. Local surveyors responded with much enthusiasm to this effort, prompting Church to look for Baber’s daughter, Nancy Baber McNeil, off and on for the next 20 years, in hopes of getting the book back into print. Years later, Church would finally find McNeil and receive her permission to put the book back into print.

A 12" maquette of the Lincoln surveyor statue, done by the statue’s sculptor, John McClarey.

A Statue is Born

The discovery of this important book led to the idea for a statue of Lincoln as a surveyor. Each year some members of IPLSA dress in period costume and go to Lincoln’s New Salem Historic Site to perform surveys with compass and chain as they would have been done in Lincoln’s day. New Salem, Ill., served as Lincoln’s adopted hometown. It was here that he taught himself the art and science of surveying and where he traveled from in his role as a Deputy Surveyor of Sangamon County. This site is a working 1800s village re-created just as it was when Lincoln lived there. Lincoln’s surveying equipment is on permanent display.

Also on display are three different statues of Lincoln, depicting him in his roles as lawyer and president. Church noticed that there is no statue of Lincoln as a land surveyor. He wanted to remedy this so he commissioned Lloyd Ostendorf as the artist/sculptor. Shortly after agreeing to the project, Ostendorf began the pen and ink sketch that the statue is to be based on.

Sadly, Lloyd Ostendorf passed away before he was able to finish the sketch. His brother, Ned, also an artist, picked up where Lloyd left off, finished the sketch and altered it for greater professional accuracy. The IPLSA commissioned John McClarey to sculpt the statue. McClarey is now working on a 9 ft statue of Lincoln as president for the entrance of a new federally authorized Presidential Library/Museum in Springfield, Ill., now under construction. He is also making 12" maquettes of the Lincoln surveyor statue.

In order to complete the project, the IPLSA needs to raise $130,000. This amount includes the cost of casting a second identical statue for the Museum of Surveying in Lansing, Mich. IPLSA hopes to have the unveiling of the new statue in September of 2003, which coincides with the 75th Anniversary of IPLSA’s Charter. Church believes it is important to have all the U.S. land surveying associations involved in the project. He has requested pledges of $3,000 from the associations and any other entities that would like to help. Because this sum is not mere pocket change to most state societies, IPLSA is offering items that can be auctioned off to help obtain the pledge. With a donation of $3,000, a “Gold Compass Pledge,” the donator will receive a 12" bronze composite maquette of the statue, a revised edition of the newly reissued A. Lincoln With Compass and Chain and a signed and numbered print of Ned Ostendorf’s “Lincoln As a Surveyor.” Also, with the $3,000 donation the purchaser will get their name on a plaque at the base of the statue. These items can also be purchased separately with profits going to the project fund.

The surveying history of Lincoln and Washington is already fairly well known and appreciated among surveyors. Now, with these two projects, more people will have the chance to learn of surveying’s great heritage and gain a deeper appreciation for the age-old profession.

(1) Redmond, Edward. “George Washington: Surveyor and Mapmaker.” Annals of American Geographers 23.3 (Sept. 1941). 14 Oct. 2002 .

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