Solo Notes: Surveying at Age 99
Robert Charles Vollmer, LS, grew fascinated with the idea of surveying while serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He was a part of the engineering unit and says he always enjoyed watching the navigator use a wrist watch and sextant to determine position in the South Pacific.
“I always wondered how in the heck they could look at the sun or a star with just a wrist watch. That’s original surveying,” Vollmer says.
After being honorably discharged following nearly four years of active duty, he returned to his home state, Indiana, and obtained a degree in agricultural and biological engineering from Purdue University. Since graduating in 1952, Vollmer has been a professional land surveyor. For more than 50 years, he has been a part of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources’ engineering division. His current title is chief surveyor. Born in 1917, he is 99 years old and still works full-time, carrying out boundary and topographical surveying across the state.
Appropriately, he says, “My favorite expression is, work like the battery bunny that keeps hitting the drum. That’s my religion. I believe in going until you drop. … Once you give up and hit the rocking chair you’re done.”
A good chunk of Vollmer’s projects involve encroachments and he says a lot of cases he comes across involve people building across property lines knowingly. When they are caught, he says it isn’t unusual for them to get angry.
“Sometimes you run into a hothead and you have to use a little diplomacy. My secret is, I don’t care how mean a guy is. You’ve got to feel him out and find out what you might have in common. If you can find out something that you have in common and build your case there and finally get down to the point you want to get to, you can handle the guy.”
In last month’s issue, Solo Notes spotlighted a soon-to-be surveyor, sharing his expectations for the profession and shedding light on why one next-generation surveyor is choosing this career path at a time when attracting young talent is one of the surveying community’s biggest challenges.
In this special edition of Solo Notes, the story of a longtime surveyor is told, offering more of an experience-based perspective. Vollmer says he has seen a lot of change over the course of his career and while he embraces technological advancements, he highlights the importance of keeping the most basic of theories and practices a part of the profession.
POB: What aspects of the business do you enjoy most and why?
VOLLMER: I like it all. I like all of it. I’ve got some other hobbies I like to do. I’ve got one heck of a music collection. … What I like the best is there’s an unwritten law that as a surveyor, when you go out to a property, you follow the footsteps of the original surveyor. You’ve got to remember the original surveyor started those footsteps a long time ago. … You’ve got to follow their footsteps and survey according to what they had originally. Sometimes it’s hard to find the evidence. It’s really enjoyable to go out and search for evidence. There are a lot of ways you learn to go about finding evidence that isn’t in the book. For instance, old fence lines. A lot of people look at fence lines as being the original survey. If you don’t have the original corners, sometimes a fence line is all you have to go by because the measurements are never the same. You’ve got to understand this. You’ve got to put yourself in their perspective and follow their footprints. When you come out to a piece of ground that’s been cleared many times and plowed, and all of the natural monuments are gone, sometimes it’s hard to find where a line really was. Calculations don’t always come true. If you can find an old row of cedar trees for instance — this is one thing I’ve found — if cedar trees are growing in a line, maybe at one time there was a fence there because birds like cedar trees and eat the seeds. Then they land on and sit on a fence and do their business. That’s where a cedar tree will pop up. It’s kind of corny, but it’s a fact. That’s just one thing that you find out.
There are so many things in nature that help you locate these things. The closer you take a metal detector — the fence is all gone, so there’s no fence left. When the fence hits the ground, the wire gets buried and it dissolves and there’s no wire left and there are nothing but specks of rust, that rust is actually iron oxide. A metal detector will pick up that rust. You won’t see anything, but there are actually particles of rust there. You learn what these things are and they lead to really finding the nitty gritty of what your calculations don’t show. There is a lot of evidence, but you use your head a little bit. It’s just like being a detective, you might say. It’s kind of corny, but it’s a lot of fun to find something that somebody put there around the turn of the 18th century. It’s rewarding. It makes you feel like, “I’m going out and getting me a cold Budweiser.”
POB: Do you have any memorable stories from field work and/or a favorite project you worked on?
VOLLMER: There’s no end to stories. There’s one I remember vividly. A guy was encroaching and there was a stone. When the first surveyors came through for the public survey system, they set posts mostly. There were exceptions, but usually it was a post. Actually it was a big post. Heck, they’d cut part of a tree down. I dug one of the original ones up one time in the upper part of the state. It was buried about 2.5 feet and I knew something should be there. I was actually looking for a stone. The posts rot naturally and they would char them at the bottom so they wouldn’t rot so quickly. They had ways of preserving somewhat. We pulled it up and it was a beautiful thing. It must have been 4 feet long. They called that a stake, about 7 inches in diameter with a charred bottom. There was a number branded in it for the section and it was quite a thrill watching that.
Anyway, they would replace those with stones, a more durable material. A guy was encroaching, and I had to go through his yard to get to [the stone]. He had two dogs there, and the dogs weren’t going to let me into the property. In order to get there, it was rough ground. I almost had to go a certain route. He knew that. He had these dogs chained, so I couldn’t go between them because the chains would overlap. No matter where I went, one of those dogs was going to get me. He was watching; he wasn’t going to say anything. It was starting to rain and I had my rain suit on and it kind of loosely fit. I thought I’d pick the dog that looked the least ferocious. I thought the one that had the smallest mouth would be the least dangerous.
Well, I picked the wrong one. I started to go through there and the dog jumped up. He got my rain suit. He missed my skin, but he got all of that loose rain suit. It made him mad naturally, and he came back for another bite. But I was ready for him this time. I had a range rod in my hand and that was my weapon. I got through and hated to do what I did, but the dog went back in his dog house. That guy didn’t say a word.
There was one guy down at the southern part of the state where there was a monument set by the federal government, a USGS monument. I had to take a shot on it, and my calculations showed it was in his back yard some place. He had his porch built over on the government property. He didn’t say anything and we started in there to look for it and a great big dog came after us. We finally subdued the dog, but when we found the point, it was there alright, but it was under the dog house. He knew where it was. He just put the dog house on it so we couldn’t find it. You run into a lot of them. I could tell you one right after the other. These things are interesting though. They help keep you going.
POB: What has been your biggest challenge so far?
VOLLMER: I guess keeping up with the modern technology. Sometimes it’s annoying, but it’s also rewarding. We have equipment now that sometimes I wonder, boy, if we had that 60 or 70 years ago, what a difference it would have made. The new equipment of course is very expensive, but it’s very rewarding. We can do things now that were unthinkable a long time ago. You’ve got to keep up with the trends. You’ve got to keep up with the modern way.
At one time when we used to go out and calculate a distance angle and use trigonometric means that you use in school, you had a book about an inch and a half thick to look up a sine or cosine function. It might take you a half an hour, maybe an hour, to work out the problem. Today, you go out with a modern calculator and, pow; one smack with your finger and you’ve got it instantly. What a difference. It keeps you on your feet. So much is so different. But you’ve got to keep up. I imagine one of these days it will be even more technical than it is today. They come up with something new all of the time. The research is just out of this world.
POB: How do you stay on top of the latest trends and technologies?
VOLLMER: You just do it. Sometimes I’ll fall asleep studying this stuff. I don’t like it because the older you get, the more sleep is required for your body. To keep your license up — same way as to keep your doctor’s license up or any other profession — you have continued education programs. You don’t want to slack up on those. You always have good guest speakers and you better go to them. You learn something at every seminar you go to. Sometimes you review old stuff. There’s so much, you’d be surprised what you forget. There are so many new things that come along that you neglect the old system, and the old system still prevails. All of the new stuff is based on this. You have to know your basics in order to understand the new stuff. If you don’t, you’re going to sink.
POB: Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to get into the surveying business today?
VOLLMER: First, you have to be interested in it. I think the first thing you should do is know how this country was formed. Everybody went west and the first people out there were the surveyors. You can’t have anything, you can’t build anything without it being surveyed. Everything has to be surveyed before it’s sold. Everything starts with surveying. ... Then you read the stories about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was even a surveyor. … There are a lot of good surveying stories. … You better be interested in mathematics and astronomy a little bit. It’s coming back to astronomy like it used to be. The first surveyors were astronomers. … Surveying is the background of living, you might say. You’re not going to own anything without having your land surveyed. I don’t care what word is. … You better be willing to get out and work too. It isn’t all easy. You fight with the weather, you have the elements, and it seems like the mosquitoes and the bugs are getting pretty bad anymore. … There’s always two sides to everything. You can’t have everything perfect.
POB: How has the surveying profession changed since you started and where do you see it heading in the future?
VOLLMER: When surveying started, so many surveyors were self-taught. They didn’t have all of this technology and they didn’t have to have a license, naturally. Your hands were tied. You didn’t have all the math that you needed, pretty rough. Some of them prevailed because they studied more. Today, with all of your technology and books and colleges and universities, it’s so much more in detail. In a way it’s good and in a way it’s bad. You’re bypassing a lot of things that you missed if you did it the old way. When you ran the line — say you went for a mile — you knew what was in between those mile corners. Today, you’ve got your modern equipment; you hit a button here, you hit a button there and you don’t know what’s in between. The law says you follow the footsteps of the surveyor. If you follow the footsteps of the surveyor, you’re going to get what’s in between. If you don’t do that, you don’t know what’s in between and you’re liable to have a line that isn’t straight. People that have property in between those lines, some of them can get short changed. They miss a lot of the important stuff. By going the new route, you do miss a lot. There’s no question about it. But you get more done, you get it done faster. It’s just as intriguing, but it’s a different way. You do it electronically, whereas before you did it by the seat of your pants. Both systems are OK. I have no choice. I think if a new surveyor comes along and he wants to follow the technology nitty gritty, that’s wonderful. But he should know what transpired originally in case he has to go that route.
Solo Notes is a regular feature in POB magazine and highlights the experiences and strategies of solo surveyors and small business owners. To share your story in a future issue, please email Managing Editor Valerie King at firstname.lastname@example.org.